WHEN 600 Japanese troops came home from Cambodia in October after serving there as United Nations peacekeepers, they hardly received a hero's welcome.
The Japanese people as well as many Asians were wary of this first overseas deployment of the Japanese military since World War II. The cool response reflects Japan's basic dilemma in exerting leadership in Asia. It is admired and respected, but still arouses fears based on its wartime past.
Asians now feel comfortable with Japan largely because of a security treaty that keeps US troops on its soil and prevents Japan from building up a powerful military force. That treaty, however, appears increasingly shaky in the absence of a Soviet threat to justify the US commitment.
``Japan is not pushing very hard for a political role,'' says Lee Poh Ping, a University of Malaya expert on Japan's role in Asia. ``It fears a backlash.''
Among Japanese themselves, a desire lingers for political isolation, often termed ``pacifism in one country.'' When two Japanese peacekeepers were killed in Cambodia last year, public reaction back home was so strong that Japan came close to withdrawing its forces.
Japanese officials, however, say that they regard 1989 as a turning point in their search for a political role in Asia to match Japan's economic strength.
The Japanese economy peaked that year with an investment wave in the region that gave it an unquestioned commercial presence. Emperor Hirohito died in 1989 and with him a legacy of Japan's wartime occupation of Asia over a half century ago. In 1992, the new emperor, Akihito, made a historic visit to China.
In addition, Japan showed it could break with the West on human rights by reacting calmly, rather than with outrage, to the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing and quickly resumed investment in China.
And Japan worked behind the scenes in 1989 to start a new regional forum, called Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, that gives it an influential platform among its neighbors. At the same time, the collapse of the Soviet Union and a partial withdrawal of United States military forces from Asia left a political vacuum that Japan is trying to fill.
The limited success of Japan's leadership initiatives, however, stems partly from Japan's historic desire to be considered part of the West. When Asian nations gathered in Bangkok last May to declare a new definition of human rights different from the West, Japan criticized it.
``Japan has always been `in' Asia but is still not `of' Asia,'' says Bilahari Kausikan, director of Singapore's East Asia and Pacific bureau. ``It has had only ad hoc responses to issues that come up and lacks a consensus on a partnership with Asia.''
While Japan rarely takes a political initiative, Asian nations can hardly afford to offend it. ``We can't take Japan lightly,'' says Tommy Koh, a former Singaporean ambassador to Washington.
Much of Japan's political clout comes from an implied threat to withhold foreign aid if it does not get its way. Almost two-thirds of its $11.15 billion of foreign aid goes to Asia. For 17 Asian nations, Japan is the largest aid donor.
Japan prefers to wield its influence with the region's poorer nations, where aid can shape policies. In Vietnam, Mongolia, and the Philippines, for instance, Japan has launched economic initiatives. ``The overwhelming perception is that Japan is the region's moneybag,'' a US diplomat says.
Another reason for Japan's limited political clout is its own uniqueness. ``Because of culture and language, [the Japanese] don't have the empathy and ease of relations with other peoples, which Americans have,'' says Lee Kuan Yew, former Singaporean prime minister. Japan, he says, has to become more open to Asians, especially students. ``The best students ... are not going to Japan but to America. They bring back fond memories of days at college there and the friendships struck there, which will be carried into business and political life.... That may not be easy for Japan. It is the nature of the culture.''