US, Japan Face Deep Strains in Relations the 50th Anniversary of the Bombing of Pearl Harbor Comes at a Time of Growing Suspicion over Economic Ties between Japan and the US. Today, the Monitor Assesses the Significance of the Anniversary for Both Nations

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FIFTY years after Pearl Harbor, relations between the United States and Japan have reached another critical turning point.

Since the end of World War II, the Pacific giants have been close allies bound by a common enemy and a vast network of trade ties. But with the end of the cold war, strains have developed that have put the relationship to a test.

Adapting to new times need not be disruptive. As one State Department official notes, the US and Japan "share fundamental interests and values on most issues," and have far more to lose than gain if relations are allowed to deteriorate.

But adapting the relationship will require major adjustments, both psychological and structural. If the transition is not managed skillfully and if growing antagonism over trade issues is not contained, relations could take a huge retrograde step.

In the worst case, trade tensions could lead to a "yen-dominated free-trade bloc in Asia which would have a wall up around it toward the outside," says Edson Spencer, chairman of the Commission on US-Japanese Relations for the Twenty-First Century. "That would be a different kind of Pearl Harbor leading to a series of events that could lead to a breakdown of US-Japan relations."

"It remains to be seen whether the US-Japan 'problem' is a prologue to estrangement or marks a shaking out period for a transformed alliance which enjoys the confidence of our respective publics," concludes a commission report issued last month.

At both ends of the alliance, the collapse of the Soviet threat has prompted a rethinking of foreign policy priorities that could impinge on US-Japanese ties.

In Washington, policymakers advocate more selective engagement abroad and closer attention to problems at home. One manifestation is the gradual drawdown of forward-based military positions in the Pacific, including the Philippines and South Korea.

In Tokyo, meanwhile, policymakers debate how to play a more assertive role abroad without engendering political divisions in a country already distracted by financial scandals and discontent with soaring prices.

"The question for Japan is, how can Japan play a more responsible role in the world ... and still continue to be Japan," says Stephen Bosworth, president of the US-Japan Foundation.

"Decisions are now being made in the US and Japan that will shape the relationship for the next decade, if not the next 50 years," comments Philip Brenner, a professor of international relations at American University.

President Bush has rescheduled a trip to Japan and three other Asian nations which was canceled earlier last month because of pressure to devote more attention to domestic affairs.

Though official reaction to the cancellation was muted in Japan, Japanese leaders were clearly disappointed that the symbolic reaffirmation of close US-Japan ties will not take place before the Dec. 7 anniversary of Pearl Harbor. Mr. Bush will arrive in Japan for a three-day visit on Jan. 7. On Dec. 7 he will participate in ceremonies at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

On the eve of the anniversary, 84 percent of Americans hold a friendly view of Japan, according to a Roper poll conducted for the American Enterprise Institute. Seventy-five percent believe that Pearl Harbor is "all in the past" and should not have bearing on US-Japan relations.

But beneath the veneer of general support is widespread anger in the US, especially among American workers, over Japanese trade practices that have contributed to the US's $40 billion annual trade deficit with Japan. If the deficit is not reduced, the temptation for politicians to look for scapegoats could prove irresistible.

"Now that the Soviet Union is no longer out there as a threat, politicians are likely to look for new people to blame for things that aren't going right," says Mr. Edson, speaking at a Johns Hopkins University forum on US-Japanese relations. …