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Little brother begins to talk back to big brother

TOKYO - Japan regularly pictures itself as the helpless victim of US-bashing, a small Asian nation that has had some economic success but otherwise dare not say boo to its big brother in Washington.

Earlier this week a different face of what some US politicians call 'the most important bilateral relationship in the world, bar none' was on show.

In the Oval Office in Washington President Bill Clinton was seen looking through a family photograph album together with a Japanese couple.

The album contained pictures of Yoshihiro Hattori, a 16-year-old exchange student who was shot dead by a nervous householder in Louisiana last year when the boy accidentally knocked on the wrong door while searching for a Hallowe'en party.

Mr and Mrs Hattori had brought the album, along with a petition containing a quarter of a million signatures urging stricter gun control in the US.

'In Japan, we live life with no guns. We hope that you too can live life without guns,' said Masaichi Hattori, the father of the dead boy.

The meeting had been set up by the Japanese embassy in the US.

Ostensibly the purpose of the encounter was to help to soothe the sense of loss felt by the Hattori family by giving them an opportunity to present their anti-gun petition to the most powerful man in the world. But the meeting had a deeper significance: slowly, cautiously, Japan is starting to talk back to the United States.

Ever since General Douglas MacArthur occupied Japan after the Second World War and established a new set of institutions to govern the country, the Japanese have always been somewhat in awe of Americans.

But today, although Tokyo is still dependent on the Japan-US security treaty in the military field, the country is becoming more self-confident and prepared to assert itself in other areas.

When the Japanese Prime Minister, Morihiro Hosokawa, meets President Clinton in Seattle, he will not be sitting down for a one-way lecture on the immorality of Japan's continued trade surpluses (which rose again in October for the 19th consecutive month).

Mr Hosokawa will have a message to deliver himself, on behalf of other Asian countries, urging the US not to push so hard for developing Asian economies to open their markets to imports, particularly US imports.

Japan's new-found desire to be a middle-man between the US and the rest of Asia is not without contradictions, since it means essentially supporting protectionism in developing countries.

And there is also the increasing trade surplus that Japan has with Asia, as Tokyo has not yet shown itself willing to absorb imports from its neighbours that are consequently directed to American and European markets.

But Mr Hosokawa will also be bringing some gifts for the American President.

He will tell Mr Clinton that his government is starting to change some of the long-established structures in Japan which the US claims unfairly limit foreign business access to Japanese markets.

Yesterday Mr Hosokawa finally won a crucial vote on a political reform package in the lower house of the Diet (parliament) which aims to make politics more open and less corrupt.

He will also bring with him to Seattle promises to open Japan's rice market, after a delay of six years, to help the successful conclusion of the Gatt trade talks being held in Geneva.

And he will promise Mr Clinton that the government will reduce income tax by some 5 trillion yen ( pounds 31bn) in an effort to boost consumer spending, which should in turn boost imports.

The US government has been calling on Japan to cut income taxes for some time, which it sees as one way of reducing the Japan-US trade surplus.