Japan faces a watershed in its foreign policy over Iran and Afghanistan. "For the first time," says a government policymaker, "we have had to make a decision on a matter of principle -- respect for international law -- at the cost of immediate and substantial economic losses."
He was referring to the Japanese government's decision to impose economic sanctions on Iran over the American hostages issue. Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira is expected to announce the decision in a policy speech to the Diet (parliament) Jan. 25. The exact content of the sanctions has not yet been worked out, but there is no question that sanctions will be imposed -- despite the opposition of powerful business interests in this country.
Tokyo's attitude toward the Soviet Union is more cautious. Mr. Ohira told a National Press Club audience Jan. 22 that he was studying "what we can to do show our displeasure" over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
"The government is still undecided" as to whether to boycott the Moscow Olympics, he said.
Nevertheless, there is no question that, in this situation as well, Japan will take action paralleling that of the West European countries and the United States.
There is a clear recognition here that the Soviet move into Afghanistan threatens to destabilize the global balance of power between Washington and Moscow. Japan is as vitally concerned in the maintenance of this balance as any of the West European allies, and realizes that effective action must be taken in concert to prevent any new Afghanistans.
What is new about the Japanese attitude is not the analysis as such, but acceptance of the proposition that Japan cannot hide behind American skirts or cower in the background while others take the necessary action.
Thirty years after World War II, the finite nature of American power finally has hit the Japanese. So has the importance of concerted action to preserve an orderly, rule-abiding global community -- a community without which a Japan lacking resources or markets would have no room to breathe and no opportunity to prosper.
What is also new is the concomitant of this recognition, that action requires real sacrifice. This understanding already has permeated the highest levels of government. In a democratic and consensual society such as Japan, however, an enormous effort of persuasion in required to convince those who must bear the brunt of the sacrifices.
Japan's economic ties with Iran have been much larger than American ties with that country. "Why me?" asks the businessman with a joint venture in Iran. "Did the United States consult me when it allowed the Shah into New York?"
More generally, the public at large is inclined to ask why Japan must do without Iranian oil (11 percent of Japan's oil comes from Iran) for the sake of what many still see as an abstract principle.
Yet Mr. Ohira is determined to proceed, both on Iranian sanctions and on his "expression of displeasure" with the Soviet Union. Government officials are arguing that this is not a question of choosing between the United States and Iran, or even the United States and Soviet Union. It is Japan looking at its own national interests in a much broader and all- encompassing light than it has in 30 years.
It is Japan weighing its own interest in world peace and order and deciding what action within its own proper is appropriate and effective under the circumstances.
That is the watershed Japan faces, and if there is still hesitation over the exact details, the decision to do it is not in doubt.