Japan Earning New Image As Aide in Middle East Peace

Within the Jewish community here, Japan has never been viewed as a positive force in Middle East affairs.

But now, especially in the wake of the historic Israeli-Palestinian accord, there is a sense among American Jewish and Israeli officials that Japan is beginning to play a useful role in the region.

"There really has been a flurry of activity" which "all points to a real front-and-center role for Japan," said Dan Mariaschin, director of international, governmental, and Israel affairs for B’nai B’rith, who recently returned from a trip to Japan sponsored by the Japanese government.

In the past, Japan was best known in pro-Israel circles for its adherence to the Arab economic boycott of Israel and for the public fascination with anti-Semitic literature.

However, in recent years, especially since the Gulf War, Japan has been seeking a prominent role in the Middle East.

"We tried to make, where possible, contributions in international conflicts," said Hideo Sato, first secretary in the political section of the Japanese Embassy here.

"The Middle East was one area where we thought we could play a positive role because of our good relations with Arab countries," Sato said.

And to play that role, the Japanese government had to upgrade its relations with Israel, Sato noted.

The Japanese are now talking about being more "evenhanded" in their dealings with the Middle East, Jewish leaders here say.

To most American Jews, the term "evenhanded" when used in connection with the Middle East has a negative connotation.

But Mariaschin said that in this case the term should be construed positively.

Japanese and Israeli officials have been exchanging visits, and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and his new Japanese counterpart, Morihiro Hosokawa, are expected to host each other during reciprocal visits this coming year.

$1.7 BILLION IN TRADE LAST YEAR

On the economic side, where Japan is a global powerhouse, the two countries have increased their trade relations fourfold since 1986, according to Mariaschin.

In 1992, Sato said, trade between Israel and Japan totaled $1.7 billion, and Japan is now Israel’s second-largest trading partner after the United States.

Japanese officials have started speaking out against the Arab boycott, and most big Japanese companies are now dealing with Israel.

This contrasts sharply with the many years when Japan adhered strongly to the boycott, which negatively affects both Israel and companies doing business with Israel.

An island nation, Japan has been heavily dependent on Arab oil over the years.

As befits an economic superpower, Japan pledged $200 million over two years at the recent donors conference held here to raise money for Palestinian development projects.

But Japan’s involvement in the peace process has gone beyond its traditional financial role. Japan has spearheaded talks on the environment between Israel, Arab participants and others, part of the multilateral phase of the peace process.

And Japan, which has an economic relationship with Iran, recently tried to encourage Teheran to support the Israeli-Palestinian declaration of principles.

"Usually our policy is not to isolate any country," said Sato. "We are trying to persuade the Iranians to take more moderate measures," including curbing its opposition to the peace process and exerting its influence on rejectionist groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon, he said.

Jewish leaders here have said such activity is useful and should continue.

Still, Jewish and Israeli officials also have said there are some areas in which they are hoping for further changes in Japanese behavior.

"There is more to be done," Mariaschin said. "I’m not saying the millennium is here."

They would like Japan to take stronger measures against the Arab boycott.

"To a great extent, the Arab boycott as has been practiced in Japan has been downsized," said Neil Sandberg, the director of the Los Angelesbased Pacific Rim Institute of the American Jewish Committee, which was founded in 1988 in response to the upsurge of anti-Semitic literature in Japan.

"But there are still some residues of caution and even fear on the part of some Japanese companies," Sandberg said.

In addition to progress on economic issues, both Israeli and American Jewish leaders think much more needs to be done to curb the spread of anti-Semitic literature in Japan.

Anti-Semitism in Japan is a strange phenomenon because most Japanese do not come in contact with Jews or know very much about Jewish traditions.

The Jewish population in Japan numbers 1,000 at most, Sandberg said.

‘WE’VE NEGLECTED ASIA’

But many Japanese are fascinated by anti-Semitic books, which sell at newsstands and kiosks, and people buy them in large quantities, including versions of "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," the Czarist-era anti-Semitic forgery.

Sato said he has discussed with American Jewish organizations the idea of establishing an information center in Japan that would promote understanding of Jewish issues.

"Cultural exchange will certainly promote understanding," said Sato, who noted that an "Israeli film week" was held in Tokyo early this year.

The burgeoning relationship between Israel and Japan has carried over to American Jewish leaders, some of whom are reassessing their oncenegative feelings about Japan and hoping for closer ties.

All these changes are welcome news to Sandberg, whose Pacific Rim Institute is seen as a pioneering effort within the Jewish community to focus on Asia.

Asia is viewed here in Washington as increasingly important, especially in the wake of President Clinton’s return from the Asia-Pacific economic conference in Seattle.

"Opening up relations between Jewish-groups" and Asia is crucial, considering that Asia is the home of almost half the world’s economy and more than half the world’s population, Sandberg said.

"Frankly," he said, "we’ve neglected Asia."

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