ALMOST one year after President Clinton and Japanese Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa said ``no'' to each other over trade negotiations, the politically weakened American leader met for the first time with new Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama. Mr. Murayama is leader of perhaps the world's strangest coalition of fellow old-time Socialists and the traditional Tories who fought them for the last 40 years.
Considering both leaders' weak political situations, a dramatic breakthrough on intractable trade problems at their Jan. 11 meeting in Washington was unlikely, although Mr. Clinton noted ``progress'' in numerous specific negotiations. More important, the two leaders succeeded in giving new, broader direction to a bilateral relationship sorely in need of revitalization.
It is not too surprising that after a remarkably steady and mutually popular alliance of more than 40 years, there should be some cracks in a structure that has served both countries well. The end of the cold war and the constantly fractious - and usually Sisyphean - efforts to narrow a huge trade imbalance ($60 billion at last count) have not improved public attitudes in either country.
One poll shows that only 19 percent of Americans consider Japan ``a friend.'' And for the first time, less than a majority of Japanese consider the United States a reliable ally. A Japanese Embassy study found Americans, 50 years after the end of World War II, still affected by Pearl Harbor and subconsciously viewing Japan as different, cunning, and untrustworthy, an image undoubtedly reinforced by the trade feuds.
Beyond the trade issues
Tom Clancy's best-selling novel ``Debt of Honor'' depicts economic conflict finally leading to another surprise attack by Japan (and ally China this time), thus scattering acid in already darkened clouds between the US and Japan, further impeding efforts by either country to see the other clearly.
Americans should remind themselves why, as Clinton said last week, ``the US has no more important bilateral ties than those with Japan,'' and why, no matter how frustrating it is to try to sell more autos and auto parts, this relationship needs all their energy to restore it to full health.
Japan represents - despite remaining barriers - the US's largest overseas market, with more than half of US exports there in manufactured goods. It hosts (and this year will pay local costs of about $4.5 billion for) 47,000 US troops whose stabilizing presence in the Western Pacific is widely supported by almost all Asian countries. Japan is second only to the US in its financial contribution to the United Nations. The success of the US agreement with North Korea to dismantle its nuclear production facilities will depend largely on Japan's ``intention to play a significant financial role,'' to quote Murayama, with South Korea, in the installation of costly light-water reactors from which nuclear bombs cannot be easily developed. Despite constitutional constraints, Japan is gradually playing a larger role in UN peacekeeping - both in money and noncombat troops.
Most important, Japan is East Asia's largest and oldest democracy, made stronger by recent electoral reforms so sweeping they would have required a constitutional amendment in the US. No ally has been more cooperative on as many global issues of concern to the US (this common agenda was stressed at the White House by both leaders).
To revitalize ties with Japan, the US needs to go beyond the old trade issues, while calmly pressing for wider market openings. Japan should be able to share more responsibility for military decisionmaking as it now contributes more generously than any NATO country to the cost of the US troops it hosts. US bases in Japan should be more jointly managed. Military operations could be performed together more often, as was the case with a recent exercise involving 26,500 American and Japanese troops, 400 aircraft, and 27 ships.
Only by building a more equal security partnership in which Japan sees its own interests as well as US interests protected, can the US expect Japan to host indefinitely so many foreign soldiers and sailors, one of whose functions - as viewed elsewhere in Asia -
is to serve as a watchdog over any incipient Japanese remilitarization.
Despite the cold war's demise, the Western Pacific, with an unsteady, potentially nationalistic Russia; a still-totalitarian and increasingly powerful China; and a North Korean regime far from stable or peaceful, is a dangerous neighborhood where the value of Japan as a steady, like-minded ally cannot be overestimated.
The US is moving ahead to strengthen cooperation. Not only will Japan fulfill its commitment to support all expenses of US bases starting in April, it has also set aside funds to study with the US the best way to develop an antimissile defense system. The countries should reach an agreement later this year that will ensure the US of essential logistical support from Japan if US forces should need it - for example, in a future Korean crisis. Talks also are under way to fashion a ``technology for technology'' approach to the joint development of advanced weapons systems where commercial intellectual property rights must be recognized.
New efforts need to be focused in these areas. But not at the sacrifice of persistent (one would hope less-crisis-ridden) pursuit of a more open Japanese trading and investment environment. In that regard, more and more Japanese also favor faster government action to rid Japan of anachronistic barriers and restrictions. A November draft report from Keidanren, Japan's powerful Federation of Economic Organizations, spells out what the country must do to eliminate hundreds of regulations governing imports, prices, finance, securities, insurance, competition, and public procurement, ``to realize promptly the post-regulated society that is based on freedom of choice....''
Japanese consumers, too, are increasingly fed up with paying prices far higher than overseas prices for the same product. The most effective pressure could be indigenous, rather than from emotional Americans. Yet a minimalist Japanese approach to never-ending trade negotiations is seriously taking its toll on US goodwill, endangering the image of this all-important ally - even without the help of Tom Clancy.
Japan's reluctance to leave behind its almost tribalistic tendencies and fully open its doors is highlighted in another recent report to the Japanese government calling for a major overhaul of regulations that impede cultural exchanges. While 45,000 Japanese study in the US, only 1,500 Americans are on Japanese university campuses. The report points to the weak legal status for more than 50 nonprofit exchange organizations trying to operate in Japan and to burdensome visa restrictions and the lack of tax exemptions for these groups. Accurate images can replace stereotypes only if Americans can begin to understand Japan on a personal basis. Like deregulation, the changes being called for are surely in Japan's self-interest.
Not all this could have been covered in the two-hour White House visit. It was only a step toward seeing this relationship for all that it is, more broadly and evenly than in the recent past. It set the stage for a continuing dialogue during the rest of the Clinton years. It should be of a quality and intimacy that befits the most important bilateral relationship the US has. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.