Japananese Seek Wider Economic and Diplomatic Openings in Europe Tokyo Officials Hope New Assertive Diplomatic Drive Will Counterbalance US Pressure on Trade and Avoid Post-1992 Trade Barriers in Europe

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AS he is whisked about Tokyo during a visit this week, French Prime Minister Michel Rocard may catch a glimpse of the many new Peugeots on the street. Buying a European automobile has recently taken on almost as much status among the Japanese as owning a Cezanne.

Back on the streets of Paris, however, the French leader would be hard pressed to find a luxury Japanese car.

Such a contrast points up Japan's difficulty as it eagerly seeks a wider diplomatic and economic niche for itself in a fast-changing Europe.

Both feared and admired by European leaders, Japan has stepped up a diplomatic drive over the past year to avoid being excluded by a Europe which is rapidly reshaping its security and economic boundaries.

Just this month, a Japanese foreign minister, Taro Nakayama, made an official visit to Switzerland for the first time ever, even though that European nation is the second-largest investor in Japan.

Tokyo officials fear that a growing anti-Japanese mood in the United States may influence Europe, and they hope to block it with an assertive diplomacy. In fact, Japanese officials hope to improve links with Europe to counterbalance US pressure on trade and other issues.

Also for the first time, a Japanese foreign minister participated last month in a meeting of NATO, seeking a new voice in the reunification of Germany and talks with the Soviet Union on security. Japan was also quick to aid East European nations, offering $1 billion to Poland and Hungary last January.

"Japan is indeed an economic superpower," says Stephen Bosworth, chairman of the US-Japan Foundation, "and there is an inexorable and unavoidable trend which will result in Japan becoming a global political power."

Last January, Japanese leaders bristled when the French minister for European affairs, Edith Cresson, accused Japan's corporate giants of being adversaries "that want to conquer the world."

Oddly enough, despite France's image among European nations as being the most resistant to Japan, Mr. Rocard's visit from July 19 to 22 may prove to be an opening for the Japanese.

"France sees the benefit of stronger ties with Japan now that it must deal with a stronger and unified Germany," says a Japanese foreign ministry official. Rocard's agenda, in fact, is to invite Japan's high-tech firms to invest in France to help make it more competitive after 1992, when the European Community (EC) largely drops protectionist walls among the 12 member nations to create a single market of 320 million consumers. Accompanying the French prime minister are the ministers for industry and for research and technology.

France's voice will be crucial for Japanese exporters and investors as many of the final rules for the EC's new market will be finalized by year's end, especially regarding imports of Japanese cars. …