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Wealthy Japan opens its purse. Asia, Africa, Latin America receive Japanese aid

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Africa and Latin America need money. Japan has it.

After a great deal of arm-twisting by the United States, Europe, and international aid groups, Japan is planning to boost its assistance to the poor nations of the world.

``We very strongly feel we should take a responsible role consonant with our economic strength,'' Hiroshi Kitamura, Japan's deputy minister of foreign affairs, said in an interview in Boston this week. ``Part of that responsibility is foreign aid.''

Altruism is not the only reason. Nathaniel Thayer, an East Asia specialist at Johns Hopkins University, notes that the Japanese ``are embarrassed to be so wealthy.'' They also know, he says, that if they do not provide more foreign aid, they will be pressured to shoulder a bigger military burden. This is something the Japanese and their neighbors are very reluctant to see happen.

So official development aid from the Japanese government is growing, albeit slowly. It totaled $5.6 billion in 1986. For the fiscal year beginning April 1, Japanese aid is projected at $9.1 billion. This would make Japan the second largest donor in the world after the United States.

The third world desperately needs money. The debt crisis has constrained growth by channeling off earnings into debt service. Private banks are extremely reluctant to make new loans to the third world. Problems such as recurrent drought, AIDS, and low commodity prices also hurt the developing world, especially sub-Saharan Africa.

And the US - fighting its budget and trade deficits - is limited in its ability to aid poorer nations. Under the Reagan administration, development assistance has been deemphasized. At the same time, once-generous nations such Saudi Arabia have been hurt by lower oil prices and are trimming back their development assistance.

Japan, however, is a different story. Huge new wealth has washed over the nation in recent years - first with the profits from exports and now with the windfall that the stronger yen is bringing to Japan. Japan does not have the kind of military commitments the US has. Its wealth is relatively unencumbered.

Thus, notes Professor Thayer at Johns Hopkins, the world is ``banging on Japan's door.'' Only if Japan gets into economic difficulties, he says, will the pressure decrease.

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