ALTHOUGH Japan chose not to fight in the Gulf war, it feels wounded nonetheless by United States disillusionment overthe Japanese contribution - a reaction officials here call a "bum rap." Foreign Minister Taro Nakayama is in Washington today for hastily arranged meetings with US officials, trying to reverse a sudden rise in negative opinion among Americans toward Japan.
A growing US frustration with Japan - and a resulting Japanese resentment - could influence a number of trade disputes this year, officials warn, such as talks to open Japan's markets in construction, rice, and semiconductors.
"Left as it is, [the frustration] might undermine the bilateral relationship," says a Foreign Ministry official.
Even before the war, Japan was bracing for worsening ties expected from this fall's remembrance of the 50th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
After the Gulf war, postponement of a trip to Tokyo by President Bush has been taken by Japanese as a snub. Many worry that the US regards its $12.6 billion Gulf package of loans and grants as "too little, too late."
In addition, officials were jolted by a Washington Post-ABC News Poll that found 30 percent of American respondents had lost respect for Japan after the war ended. They worry that a newly confident US might more easily bully Japan on trade issues.
To make up for Mr. Bush not visiting Japan, the foreign minister will try to arrange a visit for Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu to the US soon.
Such a trip would bolster Mr. Kaifu at home, where his political future is shaky, and help coordinate US-Japanese policy before Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's historic visit to Tokyo in mid-April and before a big-power summit this July. Japan seeks US help in pressuring the Soviets to return four islands claimed by Japan and occupied by the Soviet Union since the end of World War II.
Mr. Nakayama will also meet members of Congress and the news media in hopes of explaining "what we could do and what we could not do during the war, and what we plan to do now," according to the Foreign Ministry official.
THE US, says the official, thinks that Japan did not know what is right and what is wrong during the Gulf crisis.
"Some of this criticism is worthwhile for our reflection," he added. "But it is not smart [for the US] to always push."
In addition to the $12.6 billion, Nakayama will point to Japan's provision for refugee evacuation, transport, medical supplies, and other "visible" support for the Gulf effort.
"We are not very good at advertising ourselves," said the official. "In US society, we have to learn how to advertise more." The bilateral ties are fundamentally sound, "but there are some rough waters here and there."
Despite its low profile, Japan will try not to be left behind as a minor player among its Western partners in proposing new security and political arrangements for the Middle East.
"I'm worried a country like Japan, which made no personnel contribution, could become the odd man out," Finance Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto told the parliament.
Japan wants to ensure that it has a voice in postwar Middle East policy equal to its financial contribution. As a first step, it is seeking to improve its lukewarm ties with Israel. In addition, Japan announced Wednesday it was giving emergency food aid to Palestinians in Israeli-occupied territory. Meanwhile, members of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party are pushing for military participation in any United Nations peace-keeping force in Iraq.