FOR Japan, 1992 is shaping up as the year to close the curtain on the nation's postwar period.
The year started out with President Bush in Tokyo declaring a new era for United States-Japan relations 50 years after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Next month, Russian President Boris Yelstin comes to Tokyo in search of a postwar peace treaty that has been blocked by Japan's claim on islands occupied by Soviet troops at the end of World War II.
And Emperor Akihito is expected to visit China in late October in hopes of trying to dispel Chinese fears of a potential revival of Japanese militarism. The emperor's visit will offer at least symbolic remorse for the 1931-45 war waged against China by the Imperial Japanese Army.
Also in October, Japan will send between 500 and 700 Army engineers to work under a United Nations peacekeeping operation in Cambodia. Not only will this be the first overseas deployment of ground troops since 1945, but it will also be in a country once brutally occupied by Japan.
The grander purpose of all this diplomacy, say Japanese officials, is to try to bring Japan out from under the shadow of its wartime history finally and to have it treated without suspicion, especially in Asia, as a global power.
A recent newsletter of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, issued last spring after parliament passed a law allowing the overseas dispatch of troops to the UN, boldly declared: "Japan Now A Full-Fledged Member of the World Community."
The current Japanese prime minister who is presiding over these watershed events is Kiichi Miyazawa, an elder LDP statesman who attended the San Francisco peace conference in 1951 and who sees his role as putting an end to Japan's long transition after the war.
In a June survey of 3,000 Japanese, the Mainichi newspaper found that over 61 percent said the imperial visit to China would close the chapter on World War II. But, says Takashi Inoguchi, professor of Asia studies at the University of Tokyo, "Japan's potential isolation in the world is still very real." Several Asian leaders have publicly stated that Japan has not taken full responsibility for the war or put enough emphasis on it in textbooks.
After the emperor travels to China and Japanese troops go to Cambodia, officials in Tokyo hope that Japan will gain a new preeminence in Asia to counterbalance its heavy reliance on the US. Masahiko Ishizuka, a columnist for the Nikkei business newspaper, says the imperial visit to China will "discharge a psychological debt from the war years" and will provide an "excellent opportunity to balance the psychic ledger."
The China visit is planned for Oct. 22-28, with the emperor and empress expected to visit Beijing, Xian, and Shanghai as part of a commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the normalization of Sino-Japanese relations.
Final approval by the Cabinet for the trip is not expected until Aug. 25. Some LDP leaders have had to be won over after they objected to China's reasserting a legal claim to the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea last spring. Also, Chinese leaders did not openly support Japan's participation in UN military operations. Government spokesman Koichi Kato said Tuesday that China has "behaved well" in respecting human rights.
Most of all, many Japanese leaders are worried that the emperor would be called upon to give a strong apology for the war or that some faction in the Chinese leadership might try to spark an incident to embarrass their domestic political opponents. The visit comes just before a contentious Congress of the Chinese Communist Party.
Last April, the emperor did state to Chinese Premier Li Peng during a visit to Tokyo: "Toward an unfortunate history in the recent past, I should like to express my feeling of apology."
He offered similar language - too vague for many critics - to the South Korean president in 1990 and to Thailand's king in 1991.
Japanese officials hope the visit will lead to a strong alliance between the two Asian giants, or at least common goals for the region. In a speech during his Tokyo visit, Premier Li said that China supports Japan's "playing a positive role in the defense of peace in Asia and the world and in promoting the common prosperity of all countries."
China has invited the emperor repeatedly since 1978, partly to ensure continuing Japanese economic investment and aid. With the 20th anniversary of official ties being celebrated this year, Japan could hardly afford to say no.
If the imperial visit goes well, Japan hopes to also arrange a similar trip for the emperor to South Korea, where anti-Japanese emotions remain the strongest in Asia because of Japan's 35-year occupation of the peninsula.
Those emotions have worsened in the past year, however, after a group of elder Korean women came forward with their personal tales of how thousands of Korean girls, as well as Chinese and others, were forced by the Imperial Army to be used for sex by Japanese soldiers in Asia. Some of the so-called "comfort women" have gone to court in Japan to gain compensation.
The Japanese government at first denied that the Imperial Army had forcibly recruited the women, but later admitted it. It is fighting claims for compensation, saying all legal responsibility for the war was settled with China and South Korea when diplomatic ties were renewed.