IN Washington and in Tokyo, the cherry blossoms have come and gone. Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa's visit to the White House last week, when the blossoms had long passed their prime, signaled the end of one whole era in United States-Japan relations and the start of a new one, potentially healthier, but with a rocky, rough beginning.
In the half century since World War II, the US and Japan have been through several such phases, in which commentators characterized the relationship as becoming more equal, more of a partnership. Throughout the cold war, however, the US was undisputably the senior partner, and Japan's security treaty with Washington provided the wall behind which the Japanese economy could grow and prosper.
As the cold war wound down during the Bush administration, the buzzword became "global partnership." On the one hand, Japan was to cooperate with the US on such issues as aid to the developing nations and relieving African famine, while on the other it continued to pile up a huge trade surplus, not only with the US but with most of the rest of the world.
Prime Minister Miyazawa's encounter with Bill Clinton showed that in the new president's mind the cold war is truly over and that there is no trade-off between Japan's trade surplus with the US, which reached $49 billion last year, and partnership on other issues - the current preoccupation being economic aid to Russia.
Before Miyazawa's visit, his behind-the-scenes officials orchestrated a major change in Japan's foreign policy. For years the major deterrent to significant enhancement of Japanese aid to Russia has been Tokyo's claim to the Northern Territories - three islands and a group of islets seized by Russia at the end of World War II. Knowing how strongly the US was pushing for tangible, coordinated Western support for Russia's President Boris Yeltsin, Tokyo arranged to host a meeting of foreign and finance mini sters from the world's seven leading industrial powers two days before Miyazawa was due at the White House. There they announced a bilateral aid package worth $1.8 billion for Moscow - $200 million more than the US had until then committed - and explicitly de-linking the aid and territorial issues.
Miyazawa also announced an $11.8 billion stimulus package for Japan's domestic economy - the largest in history and one he claimed would encourage a new flow of US exports to Japan.
Neither of these two measures satisfied President Clinton. While lauding the economic stimulus package as a "first step," he called for specific measures to bring down Japan's trade surplus, including giving certain US goods a fixed share of the Japanese market. Miyazawa apparently responded with equal frankness that he would not abandon the principles of free trade.
As the newspaper Asahi editorialized, Miyazawa would have strengthened his argument for free trade if he had made some dramatic move such as abandoning Japan's heavy subsidies on rice. In the new US-Japan era, Japan is hardly likely to come to world notice as the standard-bearer for free-trade principles the Clinton administration seems ready seriously to weaken.
But Clinton also must decide whether he can push Japan in all the directions he seems to want it to go: to open its markets, which means freer trade and fewer regulations; to give the US what amounts to import quotas, which means managed trade and more regulations; to strengthen the yen, which in the short term will increase Japan's trade surplus.
The Japanese applaud Clinton's emphasis on rebuilding the US economy, bringing down the trade deficit and the budget deficit. But he will have to recognize that, just as he cannot eliminate the federal deficit except by stages, so the trade deficit has deep roots, not only in Japan but in the US.
The effort to establish democracy and free-market principles in Russia requires Japanese participation. So does devising a security structure for Asia. So do a host of other issues. As prime minister, Miyazawa has to manage these tasks simultaneously with his major domestic commitment to reform the nation's creaky political structure, especially the election system - a task that affects the personal interests of every legislator, whether in the ruling party or the opposition. It is a task comparable to C linton's task of restoring the US economy to health and vigor.