WHEN Japanese Emperor Akihito visits China in October to commemorate the 20th anniversary of normalization of Sino-Japanese diplomatic ties, it will mark the first visit by a reigning Japanese monarch to that country.
Although the emperor's role in postwar Japan is limited to a symbolic one, the implications of the visit are great. The Japanese are finding that, with free-trade blocs emerging in Europe and North America, it is necessary to emphasize their historical and cultural ties to Asia. Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa has given legitimacy to this notion by establishing a commission to examine Japan's role in Asia and decide how best to represent the communal interests of Asians at international forums such as the
G-7 meetings of the advanced industrialized nations.
Yet "Re-Asianization," as it is becoming known in Japan, faces the constraints of Japan's wartime past, especially in Korea and China. The decision to accept repeated Chinese invitations to the emperor was made by Mr. Miyazawa, who, as head of government, must approve all imperial travel.
Miyazawa had to fend off strong opposition from within his own ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Opponents argue that a visit to China, where wartime memories remain strong, will politicize the imperial institution, running counter to the spirit of Japan's postwar constitution. They also fear he might be pressured into making an apology for Japan's wartime past. Akihito's visit comes during a year replete with 50th-anniversary remembrances of sensitive wartime occasions throughout Asia.
Asians see Japan's inability to come to terms with its wartime past as a constant source of suspicion. Based on such factors as growth rate of investment, overseas development assistance (ODA), and volume of trade, Japan's economic influence in the region is tremendous. The Japanese believe that economic assistance gives them quiet political leverage. The government recently adopted new guidelines for disbursement of ODA - 60 percent of which goes to Asia - designed to emphasize human rights, democracy, restricted military expenditures, and the environment. The Japanese have been criticized for providing ODA merely to tighten their grip on new markets.
THERE is increasing concern in the region that Japan will step up its military capabilities to fill the void left by the expected post-cold-war withdrawal of American forces. These fears were aggravated on June 15 when Japan enacted a law that allows members of the Self-Defense Forces to participate overseas in UN peacekeeping missions.
Many Asians are also concerned about what they see as endless squabbling with the United States. Stability in East Asia revolves around US-Japan relations. The US-Japan alliance provides security for Japan. It assures against unilateral action by Japan's armed forces by providing the only means for it to maintain an exclusively defensive stance.
Nevertheless, the reality of post-war Japan has been a deeply ingrained pacifism attributable to its defeat in World War II and its unprecedented economic success in the years since. Most Japanese simply do not see the military as an appropriate avenue for the future. The new peacekeeping organizations law came after nearly two years of painful debate and only after severe international criticism for Japan's low-profile contribution to the Gulf war. The law still requires parliamentary approval before an y troops are allowed overseas and allows for no more than 2,000 Japanese soldiers to serve in noncombat roles such as providing humanitarian assistance, communications, and medical services.
Japan is the only advanced industrialized nation - and the only non-Western nation - to achieve that status in this century. As the need for a "Re-Asianization" movement illustrates, the Japanese have come to identify themselves more clearly with the US and the nations of Europe than with their geographic neighbors. Akihito's trip to China is a symbolically powerful first step toward Japan's return to Asia.