MUCH to its dismay, Japan's economic behavior has become an issue in the American presidential campaign, pushing the nation into assisting the reelection efforts of President Bush, whose policies shield Japan against trade protectionism.With Mr. Bush slated to visit Japan in two weeks, leaders in Tokyo are scrambling to turn the the president's visit into a political success for him back home, mainly with programs to create new jobs in the United States. The visit, scheduled for Jan. 7-10 as part of Bush's Asia tour, will be the first official visit of a US president to Japan in eight years and comes at a critical time in US-Japan relations. The US economy officially dipped back into a recession last week, just as General Motors (GM), once the leading car seller in the US, announced that it was laying off 19 percent of its workers. And as more and more presidential candidates, both Republicans and Democrats, cite Japan as an economic threat, a bill was introduced in Congress last week by Democrats from car-producing states that would force Japan to reduce its rising trade surplus with the US or face penalties against its car sales. Almost in concert last week, a number of large Japanese corporations followed a government-inspired strategy and launched plans to import more US goods, set up "global partnerships" with US companies, and increase US parts used in Japanese products. Toyota Motors, for instance, which this year for the first time has sold more cars in the US than GM, announced last week that it will nearly double its imports of foreign autos and auto parts by 1995. Japan's largest computer company, NEC, announced broad goals to assist US firms. And the Japan Iron and Steel Federation is promoting technology transfer with US firms. "The potential rise of [US] protectionism is not only the concern of the [Japanese] government but of Japanese companies," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Taizo Watanabe. US officials visiting Tokyo in recent weeks have stepped up pressure on Japan to make concessions in key trade disputes, such as easing rules that restrict foreign-car imports, in order to help Bush fend off domestic criticism. US Undersecretary of State Robert Zoellick told Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa on Sunday that isolationism is growing stronger in Washington. To help justify his overseas diplomacy, Bush plans to take with him 21 US corporate executives, including the chairmen of the three US automakers. Bush's trip to Japan will also come as Japan faces a final choice on whether to allow rice imports as a concession in the Uruguay Round trade talks, which now have a Jan. 13 deadline. Mr. Miyazawa, who took office last month and is seen by most observers as a weak leader, said his government is prepared to take action on some trade disputes. "Japan hopes to cooperate as much as possible in helping the US raise its competitive ability," he told a parliamentary committee. "It is my idea to yield [to those US trade demands] where we should be giving in." He also reacted to the GM layoffs by telling his fellow parliamentarians: "Americans have a special feeling about automobiles, an industry they have developed but that is now in a slump." Some critics warn that Japan should steer clear of assisting Bush against his campaign opponents. "It would be wrong of Japan to simply help Bush get reelected," says Nagayo Homma, professor of American studies at Tokyo Woman's Christian University. He adds that he was recently asked by one government office for ideas on how to create jobs in the US. Many Japanese leaders worry about how they can respond to rising US sentiment against Japan after its limited role in the Gulf war and after the adverse publicity of the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. "Japan has come to where it is today due to the US. When America is in need of something, we should give it," says one leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, Ichiro Ozawa. "I wouldn't call Japan a very fair country." "The Japanese people have become big grown-ups, but we're still spoiled brats in a way," Mr. Ozawa says. "When we were young brats, the US tolerated us. Now that we stand as tall as the Americans, they don't think it's cute anymore." Americans seem to be preoccupied with their domestic agenda, particularly pocketbook issues, says researcher Hiroyuki Kishino of the International Institute for Global Peace. "Japan could inadvertently encourage this inward-looking trend in the US if Japan, in its foreign policy, continues to hesitate in accepting larger responsibility for peace and security. This is dangerous." Japanese officials expect that Bush will need to appear tough on bilateral issues during his visit, while still warning against protectionism. Last week, US Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher said Japan stands out "like a sore thumb" in world trading and that Bush plans to let "Japan know that they're out of step as a trading partner with the rest of the world."