BY almost any measure, tensions between the United States and Japan remain high. Yet US Vice President Dan Quayle insists that the relationship between the world's two largest economies is strong and improving.
In an address to the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations here this week, the vice president termed the two nations "the closest of allies" and chastised America-bashers in Japan and Japan-bashers in this country for hurling "degrading insults" at one another.
He said that intensive trade negotiations with Tokyo have paid off in reduced trade barriers and a rise in US exports.
Quayle will put the same case directly to Japanese officials on a four-day trip to Tokyo beginning May 12. The occasion is the 20th anniversary of the return of US-occupied Okinawa to the Japanese government. Quayle will be the first high-level administration visitor since President Bush flew to Tokyo with top US auto leaders last January.
The May trip may not offset past damage or result in any basic policy redirection, but it is very important in the context of the poor state of US-Japanese relations, says Daniel Unger, an assistant professor of government and East Asian expert at Georgetown University.
"Quayle is someone who can clearly say, 'Yes, we have problems but we also have interests in common,' " Professor Unger says. "That's something I think Bush really is not allowed [politically] to say at this stage."
"I think the trip is tremendously important because it appeals to the sense of partnership [in Japan] that's compatible with some degree of a greater national consciousness," says Kent Calder, director of the US-Japan program at Princeton University.
"I think the Japanese have felt that we have not been reciprocating for the huge contributions they made in the Gulf war. We should definitely send a major figure in the light of what happened during the visit last January."
In a meeting with a dozen reporters after his council speech, Quayle stressed Japan's global contributions, including its payment of 72 percent of the non-salary cost of supporting US troops stationed in Japan. Yet he said he would not "hold Japan harmless" on such remaining US economic problems as lack of access to Japanese markets. Japan needs to be more open, he said.
On the sensitive question of jobs, Quayle noted that many overseas firms are attracted by America's skilled labor force. In his speech he said the line between foreign and domestic economies is increasingly blurred as Hondas are made in Ohio and John Deere tractors are made in Japan.
Since Japan's stock market has declined and a number of Japanese investments in this country have faced losses, many Americans see Tokyo as somewhat less threatening than they once did. That perception may make the administration's message that Japan is a vital economic partner more palatable. "Japan's economy is not 10 feet tall," noted Quayle.
Mr. Calder of Princeton says that Bush and Democratic presidential contender Bill Clinton are generally on the same side of the Japan issue and that the issue is unlikely to play a major role in the election campaign.
Yet he says he thinks the US-Japanese trade balance, now $43 billion, is likely to widen significantly by fall. That possibility is a "sleeper" issue that Mr. Clinton might be tempted to pick up on, says Calder. "I don't think either side will make an issue of it unless the trade balance increases very sharply," he adds.
Unger agrees that the US-Japan trade gap is likely to grow but doubts Democrats would exploit the issue.
"I think it's important to get the message across to the Japanese and the US public that this is a relationship that's big and important, and that we have a lot to gain from cooperation," he says.
"We're going to be at each other's throats frequently in competition, but that does not make it impossible to cooperate on other issues."