A summit to sweeten the mood

Clinton and Japan's prime minister confront prickly relationship

Presidents and prime ministers don't just drop in on each other. Their minions quietly coordinate schedules and then announce a summit. It's all terribly diplomatic.

But six weeks ago, senior officials of Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs learned about the timing of President Clinton's current trip to Japan - a 30-hour stopover that begins today - from public comments made by a White House spokesman.

"There was no chance for us to say 'no,' " says an exasperated ministry official, who declined to be identified further.

Japan had wanted a presidential visit, but Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi's mid-November calendar was already booked with commitments to meet the leaders of Russia and China and attend the APEC forum of Pacific Rim leaders in Malaysia. "It's totally unwelcome timing," adds the official.

A US official in Washington, also speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledges that then-Press Secretary Mike McCurry discussed the visit before there was full agreement from the Japanese.

Japanese diplomats are mostly over their pique, but the anecdote says a lot about the giant mood ring that is the US-Japan relationship. The two governments are accomplishing things - in this case, a summit - but the Japanese are feeling distinctly unloved.

Several factors have soured the atmosphere, including sharp words from US officials earlier this year over Japan's seeming inability to grapple with its torpid economy and Mr. Clinton's decision to visit China this summer without stopping in Japan. "Put everything together and there is some mistrust of President Clinton's attitude toward Japan," says Seizaburo Sato, a political scientist at a Tokyo think tank called the Institute for International Policy Studies.

There's also a conspiracy theory making the rounds in magazines and conversations that amorphous entities in the US are deliberately attempting to weaken Japan's economic power. Yoshimi Watanabe, a member of parliament, says events such as Tuesday's downgrading of Japan's sovereign debt by Moody's Investors Service, a New York-based credit-rating agency, make some Japanese wonder if the US financial industry is somehow out to get them.

Mr. Watanabe isn't a believer, but he says US Ambassador Thomas Foley recently met with him to ask why so many Japanese are thinking ill of the US. He says he explained to the envoy that many Japanese are feeling "defeated" in matters financial, an area where US firms excel.

The sense of bilateral disgruntlement seems unmitigated by events that might otherwise be seen as the signs of a positive relationship:

* Japan just announced a $196 billion economic stimulus package, which should please US officials who have been demanding that Japan fix itself and help Asia recover.

* This week the two countries jointly announced a new financial-aid package for troubled Asian economies.

* The outcome of last weekend's gubernatorial election in the southern Japanese island of Okinawa, the home of nearly 30,000 US troops, suggests recent opposition to the American military presence may be flagging.

* Japan agreed last month to take additional steps toward cooperating with the United States in developing a costly missile-defense program, as Washington had sought.

But the reality is that something is amiss in the US-Japan relationship. Mr. Watanabe, echoing many Japanese leaders and commentators, sees a "fundamental imbalance" in Japan that derives from the country's pacifist Constitution, drafted by US occupation forces just after World War II. "Japan is unstable," he says. "It has economic power but no military power."

Japan is also reliant on Washington for its security, which is guaranteed by a mutual defense treaty that mainly obligates the US to protect Japan. Despite rhetoric about partnership, the two countries cannot function as equals.

Watanabe believes that Japan must alter the Constitution so it can participate in a self-defense arrangement with other countries and send its troops abroad on peacekeeping missions more regularly. Indeed, Clinton is expected to press Mr. Obuchi to pass a set of legal revisions that would allow Japan to do more to help the US in its self-proclaimed role as Asia's guarantor of peace and stability.

One former senior government official who remains active in US-Japan affairs says the only way to sweeten the sour mood is for Japan to fix its economy. "Until that is done whatever the [Japanese] government or prime minister says doesn't have much credibility," he adds.

But if it is true that Japan's economy must be in good shape for it have a decent relationship with its American protector, it's also true that the economy can't do too well.

Professor Sato notes that Japan's economy was overestimated in the 1980s, when some Americans worried that Japan Inc. might become the next "evil empire," a period that produced poor relations with Washington. Now this economy is being underestimated, he argues, and "that causes very serious frustration among Japanese."

* Staff writer James N. Thurman in Washington contributed to this report.

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