Murayama's US trip hides core trouble at home

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Television viewers on both sides of the Pacific Ocean were riveted yesterday by the arrival in Japanese shops of 1,000 tons of waxed and polished Red and Golden Delicious apples from the state of Washington.

Alerted by insistent faxes from the American Embassy, detailing photo opportunities and press conferences, not least by Ambassador and former vice president Walter Mondale, from the moment the apples passed through quarantine to their unveiling in Tokyo stores, the American press corps duly recorded every stage in the momentous journey, to the point where the first elated (or fearful?) Japanese consumer bought the first imported American apple, a long-forbidden fruit.

Japanese apple growers in Aomori, part of the northern snow country yet to be connected to a shinkansen (bullet train) line, cast dire warnings. Washington apples would end their monopoly, were priced too competitively, and would drive them out of business, they wailed. Yet Japanese television revealed for the first time last night how Aomori apples, thought to be in short supply, were actually being deep frozen after autumn harvest to be unloaded after the New Year at higher prices.

Whether it is due to this delicious pummelling of Japan Inc, or to the fact that President Bill Clinton is still reeling from losing control of Congress to the Republicans, is not clear, but suddenly The US trade representative, Mickey Kantor, has stopped snarling at Japan over its huge surpluses and closed markets.

Normally this would be the perfect time for a Japanese prime minister to visit Washington, before the trade fangs return, yet Tomiichi Murayama is not at all looking forward to the trip, beginning today.

Not yet, like Mr Clinton, a lame duck, he will nevertheless be pierced by an arrow the moment he returns to Japan.

Sadao Yamahana, leader of right-wing rebels within Mr Murayama's Social Democratic Party of Japan (SDPJ) that teamed up last summer with its public enemies, the Liberal Democrats (LDP), to form an "old guard" coalition government, has promised not to commit treason only during the Washington summit. Immediately thereafter he may form a "parliamentary group" dominated by SDPJ defectors as prelude to a breakaway new party. In Japan, this continuous fracturing and regrouping, that started with LDP rule imploding from incessant corruption in 1993, is called "political realignment."

A largely non-contentious agenda has been decided for the White House meetings. According to a Japanese Foreign Ministry briefing, the two leaders will review post-war bilateral relations, to underscore the gigantic improvements made since 1945.

Japan is to host another summit gathering in November of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) member states, a useful peg for both to discuss the bright future in Asia through a forum that America hopes will anchor its strong economic and strategic interests in the region. The importance of maintaining the US-Japan Security Treaty as a cornerstone of the relationship, and of peace and stability in Asia will be ritually re-emphasised.

The agenda would appear to contain only one substantial issue, on North Korea. With the first consignment of heavy 'bunker' oil already on its way from the US to North Korea, to meet Pyongyang's energy needs while its old nuclear reactors are replaced byan international consortium, Washington seems anxious for firm Japanese commitment to help.

Yet among these largely anodyne themes, a number of cracks are already visible. The Japanese Foreign Ministry declined to comment yesterday on a report in the Asahi newspaper that its has asked not be invited to a ceremony in September in Honolulu marking the 50th anniversary of its formal surrender.

in Japan was cited as the main reason, although the government also does not wish to attend with Russia present, as the two nations have yet to sign a peace treaty.

For Mr Murayama's visit, Washington has already agreed to move two US military bases on the Japanese island of Okinawa away from population centres. The aim is to help prevent any convergence of anti-war and anti-American sentiment for the 50th anniversary. At the end of the Second World War, Okinawa became a bloody battleground of last ditch resistance to the American occupation.

There is considerable resistance in Tokyo to US pressure on Japan to pay the lion's share of the estimated $4 billion bill for replacing North Korea's reactors, since South Korea, Japan's economic rival, will derive the biggest benefit, if and when the two Koreas reunite.