For Noboru Takeshita, the road to Washington lies through Manila, just as for his predecessor, Yasuhiro Nakasone, it went through Seoul. Mr. Takeshita's first visit to the White House since becoming prime minister of Japan will take place in mid-January. Trade frictions will be his major preoccupation, as it was with Mr. Nakasone five years earlier.
But in fact, the Japanese-American relationship covers a great deal more than trade, and Takeshita wants to take to Washington the image of a statesman concerned about global and regional stability and the defense of freedom. Hence Manila.
Whereas Nakasone showed Japan's concern for regional security by visiting President Chun Doo Hwan in Seoul, Takeshita hoped for similar results by visiting Philippine President Corazon Aquino and encouraging her democratic-nation building efforts. His trip took place last week and coincided with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit. Takeshita was the only invited non-ASEAN leader. Six nations - Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand - belong to ASEAN, founded in 1967.
Japanese and ASEAN officials said Takeshita made a good impression. He brought one tangible gift - a $2 billion development fund - to promote small and medium-sized enterprises in the region. He told the ASEAN leaders that he planned to go to the United States not only as a US ally, but as a representative of Asia.
He also showed strong support for President Aquino. Washington has been leaning on Tokyo to step up economic aid to Manila, even though Japan is already the largest provider of such aid. Last year, Tokyo gave Manila $437.96 million - more than it gave any other country except China. Aware that this is a critical time for Mrs. Aquino, Tokyo is earmarking a large portion of its aid for land reform. Takeshita, who as a young man in early postwar Japan helped promote a very drastic land reform in his own region, shares Washington's concern about the importance of this program in the Philippines.
Although ASEAN members responded warmly to Takeshita's words, an ambivalence remains in Southeast Asian attitudes toward Japan. Tokyo is the colossus of the north, an economic superpower whose helping hand is essential to sustain the economic growth of the region. But Tokyo has not been nearly as generous as the United States, for instance, in opening its own markets to ASEAN goods, agricultural or manufactured. Furthermore, each ASEAN member remembers the Japanese invasion and occupation during World War II.
In each ASEAN country there remains a lingering fear of ``Dai Nippon'' - the Greater Japan of half a century ago. ``After all,'' said one journalist, ``no country has ever become an economic superpower without becoming a military superpower as well.'' This followed Takeshita's strenuous and repeated denial that Japan had any intention of becoming a big military power - ever again.