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Japan Looks to Cambodia as First Step Toward Leadership

September 9, 1992

TOKYO (AP) _ Strolling Phnom Penh’s streets, a Japanese writer was struck by the vibrancy of war-weary Cambodia: a child hawking coconuts, a girl selling gasoline in soda bottles, men with fistfuls of money gambling on the sidewalk.

Fuyuko Kamisaka, 62, glowingly compared Cambodia today, overflowing with ″anarchistic energies,″ to Japan after World War II.

While not everyone may see the parallel, there’s no doubt interest is booming among Japanese about the troubled southeast Asian nation where Tokyo has decided to stake its claim to a more activist international role.

In addition to using the old standard of foreign aid, Japan also is trying to help maintain the fragile peace by being honest broker between feuding factions - and by sending peacekeeping troops.

The Japanese troops headed to Cambodia are the first to go abroad since World War II. On Tuesday, the Cabinet gave formal approval to their deployment.

Cambodia is the subject of frequent news reports on Japanese television, which has even broadcast a ″Cambodia Special″ quiz show.

A rather wishful article in Aera magazine compared Yasushi Akashi, the Japanese diplomat who heads the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia, with General Douglas MacArthur, the pipe-smoking commander of Allied occupation forces in postwar Japan.

Gen Nakatani, a legislator who recently toured Cambodia, says the dispatch of 600 Japanese troops next month to join about 20,000 U.N. peacekeepers already in the country will help strengthen Japan’s voice in international affairs, including trade negotiations.

Some analysts say conservative politicians such as Nakatani have been waiting for years to send troops overseas despite the postwar constitution’s ban on using force to settle international disputes.

The opportunity emerged when Japan became the target of stinging international criticism for contributing cash but no personnel to the allied effort during the Persian Gulf War.

Leaders of the conservative governing party subsequently argued that Japanese troops would now be welcomed abroad on peacekeeping missions.

Once the decision was made to dispatch peacekeepers, Cambodia seemed a natural destination.

″The decision to get involved in Cambodia came out of Japan’s own domestic need to change its diplomacy,″ says Naoko Amakawa, a researcher at the Institute of Developing Economies. ″Cambodia came just at the right time.″

Shoichi Nakagawa, a lawmaker from the governing Liberal Democratic Party, believes Cambodia will give Japan a chance to shed its obsolete image as a World War II aggressor.

″By venturing to a dangerous place to contribute to world peace, Japan will be able to reverse its negative reputation as a nation concerned only with its own affluence,″ he said. Japan occupied Cambodia during World War II, but did not leave behind feelings as bitter as in South Korea or China.

Japan is also trumpeting its unofficial role as mediator with the Khmer Rouge, a Maoist guerrilla faction that during their three-year rule of terror left hundreds of thousands of Cambodians dead.

The Khmer Rouge has refused to disarm its guerrilla army, claiming the peace treaty signed in 1991 to end 13 years of civil war between a Vietnamese- installed government and three guerrilla factions is not being properly implemented.

″Japan has taken the initiative and has been extremely instrumental in furthering the peace negotiations,″ said Foreign Ministry official Tadamichi Yamamoto.

In contrast, the rest of the industrialized world has generally been unwilling to be seen as dealing with the bloody Khmer Rouge.

Tsuneo Maruyama, a journalist who has written books on Cambodia, has been highly critical of what he describes as Japan’s ″ambiguous diplomacy″ with a group that he believes thrives on violence.

″It’s just not going to work. Peace should be achieved through sticking to principles,″ he said.

The one area in which Japanese help has been particularly welcome has been foreign aid. Tokyo is the single largest donor to Cambodia, pledging $150 million to $200 million to rebuild the nation.

Chikashi Oda, who headed a quasi-government mission of engineering consultants to Cambodia, believes that Tokyo’s efforts to help Cambodia will eventually bring it into a Japan-led economic network in southeast Asia.

″So far politically Japan has been shy, but there comes a time when political power will catch up with its growing economic strength,″ Oda said.

But others question Japan’s potential for immediate political leadership.

Some Asian neighbors who suffered under Japan’s aggression do not want to see Japan wield such clout, and Tokyo is exceedingly careful not to antagonize its neighbors.

″Japan is like an oversized muscular juvenile delinquent with a criminal record,″ said Foreign Ministry official Nobuaki Tanaka, referring to the atrocities Japan committed during World War II.

″Economically, America is practically a bankrupt nation, but it has great political and military power,″ Maruyama said. ″Japan is like a child to an adult America.″

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