YASUHIRO NAKASONE, Japan's former prime minister, once described Japan as a porcupine with rabbit's ears. The long ears were for listening in all directions, the quills were for protection when attacked. An American diplomat thinks Japan is more like a tortoise. It makes slow, steady progress in a predetermined direction. But when a sudden circumstance scares the tortoise, it puts its head back in its shell, and won't move.
The most recent circumstance was the Gulf war, in which Japan's every move has been criticized as too little, too late. A Japanese intellectual lamented that President Bush sent half a million men into the Gulf, organized a 28-member coalition to back the United States, got the United Nations to pass 15 resolutions condemning Iraq, including the crucial one authorizing the use of force, conducted one of the great military campaigns in history and liberated Kuwait with minimum casualties - all before the Japanese Parliament managed to approve the $9 billion that was to be Japan's crowning contribution.
Germany pledged far less than Japan, but has spent it all, whereas the bulk of Japan's tithe is yet to be disbursed. Now that the war is over, German ships are participating in the operation to clear Kuwait harbor of mines. Japan promised Self Defense Force planes for refugee relief but never actually sent them.
This week Foreign Minister Taro Nakayama came to Washington to try to repair Japan's damaged image and assert that his country is ready to help shape Mr. Bush's new world order. But he was long on generalities and short on specifics.
Japan has in fact been more forthcoming in the Gulf crisis than before. It contributed a substantial sum - about $13 billion - in support of the coalition. It unequivocally condemned Iraq and upheld Kuwait. Japanese bureaucrats found it no easy matter to push appropriations through a Parliament in which the ruling Liberal Democrats controlled only the lower house. But they got no pat on the back from their American counterparts, who expected a great deal more. This ``expectation gap'' between what Ameri cans expected and what Japan did resulted in a ``disappointment gap,'' which continues.
WHAT is to be done now? On the US side, Japan could be perceived as a money machine that responds to strong-arm tactics by spewing out checks. That doesn't mean Tokyo doesn't resent the strong-arming. Eventually it may lash back or try to strike out on a foreign policy path independent of the US.
On the Japanese side, the Gulf crisis is perceived almost exclusively in bilateral US-Japanese terms. Japan was comfortable with the old bipolar world in which Washington was the acknowledged leader of the Western camp and Moscow was the enemy. Today, Japanese political and business leaders want Washington to keep leading, as they grumble and go along.
The reality is that the US is no longer strong enough to do it all alone. This war was co-financed by others - to such an extent that the Pentagon will feel little budgetary impact. Without its allies and friends - including the Soviet Union and Japan - the US could not have prosecuted the war as successfully as it did.
This means that Japan has a role to assert. Earlier, when Japan was assailed by Washington and others for its huge trade surplus and economic self-centeredness, the prime minister of the day appointed a blue-ribbon commission to suggest what changes Japan needed to make in its economic behavior. The commission's 17-page report heralded a historic change from export-driven economic growth to one that emphasized raising domestic living standards.
Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu is generally regarded as a weak leader. But he might redeem himself if he appoints a similar commission to articulate a world political vision and suggest steps to bring it about. What kind of world does Japan want, and what is it prepared to sacrifice to achieve it? The war is over; it is time for the tortoise to poke out his head, decide where he wants to go, and resume his march.