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There are new frictions looming just over the horizon in U.S.-Japan relations, based mainly on the perceived growth of nationalist sentiment.

The main signal of this new mood was the appointment last month of a parliamentary panel to study the feasibility of amending Japan’s U.S.-authored postwar “Peace Constitution.”

There is no urgency to the controversial development, but it is significant in that such a proposal has never been officially sanctioned before. The timetable for a report is “three to five years,” but there is no mandatory action called for after its completion.

Subtle pressure by opposition political parties, more clamor for the return of U.S. bases on Okinawa and Yokota Air Base near Tokyo, and public awareness that Japan should do more internationally (enhance its peacekeeping efforts, for example) are all part of the syndrome.

Some of the issues will come to a head by the time Japan hosts the G8 summit of leading industrialized nations in July on Okinawa. The choice of location was made ostensibly to promote development of Japan’s poorest province, but it may turn out to be the center of debates and even demonstrations over the continued presence of U.S. bases.

In the short term, the symbolism of U.S.-Japan relations might be characterized as “tea and sympathy” — “tea” because a series of high-level dialogues will be held here this month, marking a departure from the traffic of working-level trade and bureaucratic officials.

The U.S. government plans to send Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering and Under Secretary of Defense Walter Slocombe to Japan in sequence.

Japanese hosts will serve plenty of tea and ambiguities and maybe even some substance.

One substantive issue is counted as “sympathy” by Japanese public opinion and officialdom. This concerns the so-called “omoiyari yosan,” or compassionate budget, paid to subsidize the U.S. forces stationed in Japan.

Some $2.42 billion was spent by Japan in fiscal 1998 to support U.S. military personnel, their families and Japanese employees at the bases and the costs of building and maintaining the facilities and utility charges.

This is included in Japan’s defense budget of $47.8 billion in a category called base countermeasures (“kichi taisaku keihi”). Japan’s defense budget is among the five largest in the world.

Recently Japan has suggested that this support should be reduced because of the deterioration in Japan’s financial and economic condition in recent years.

U.S. Ambassador to Japan Thomas Foley bristles at the suggestion that host-nation support is a “sympathy” budget for U.S. troops based in the country. “I want to get away from this notion of sympathy,” Foley told an audience at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan last month.

“It is not one where we should think of (host-nation) support in terms of being a budgetary item. This is a strategic contribution of great importance,” he said.

Foley described the Japan-U.S. security alliance as an equal relationship, but not a symmetrical one.

“The United States agrees to defend the integrity of Japanese territory and defend against an armed attack on Japan. Japan does not make any undertaking to defend U.S. territories anywhere in the world, Foley said.”

One of the constitutional revisions talked about is that of Article 9 — the so-called “no war” clause — which states that Japan will forgo the use of force and not maintain an army. Japan uses semantics to evade the issue and has maintained a well-heeled and well-equipped Self-Defense Force since 1954. Current manpower level is 242,000.

There are over 40,000 American troops in Japan, mainly a 19,264 marine contingent on Okinawa and 13,766 air-force personnel.

The forces for change have also been stirred by the recent North Korean missile threat and the realization that U.S. defense support cannot go on indefinitely. The U.S.’ dilemma is that it wants a bigger Japanese military contribution in Asia, but does not want to be seen by Asian nations, many with painful World War II memories, as encouraging the “rearming of Japan.”

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