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Japan rethinks ties to South Africa. Film prompts soul searching over relations with Pretoria

``Even if this movie shocks a lot of us, it can't really move us because we don't have this situation in Japan.'' The young man in his 20s had just emerged from a Tokyo theater that was showing ``Cry Freedom,'' Sir Richard Attenborough's film about a South African anti-apartheid activist named Steve Biko, who was tortured to death in a prison in 1977.

The remark was echoed by other on-the-spot commentators in the theater lobby.

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``I can't relate to those people,'' said another young moviegoer, ``because there is no racial discrimination in Japan. I can't really understand, but at least I know now what's been going on there.''

But another person, a 17-year-old high school student, pointed to a different kind of discrimination very close to home:

``I knew discrimination was terrible, but I really realized it by watching this movie, and Japan should be more conscious of this problem. Even in my school and in my group of friends we discriminate - with ijime.''

He said there were many cases of ijime in his school - a situation in which a circle of friends singles out and attacks a peer, with a campaign of pranks and ridicule, for being different.

``I don't want to do that ever again, and I want to help change this situation in my school,'' said the high school student, who had gone to see ``Cry Freedom'' by himself.

The movie, though not playing to packed houses, is clearly doing some consciousness raising in Japan, where there is little grass-roots concern or even knowledge about apartheid, South Africa's system of racial segregation.

That consciousness raising is exactly what the Japanese Foreign Ministry hopes is going on. Two-way trade of $4.27 billion made Japan South Africa's No. 1 trading partner last year for the first time, and - clearly worried about Japan's image - the Foreign Ministry has been working hard to bring the numbers down.

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Rarely does a foreign film play a leading role in politics, but preview screenings of ``Cry Freedom'' were held in Japan's National Diet (parliament) building and at the Foreign Ministry.

``It is the position of our government that as many people as possible should be fully aware of apartheid and the real problems in South Africa,'' said a Foreign Ministry official.

The ministry has also called on Japanese companies and business associations to reduce their dealings with South Africa, but so far, no concrete action has been taken.

The Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, after some foot-dragging on MITI's part, only recently agreed to work out some ``guidelines'' to reduce trade with South Africa.

The two key ministries will watch the 1988 month-by-month trade figures in what was described in press reports here as ``a bid to strengthen their monitoring of two-way trade until this summer.''

Ironically, the only concrete action going on appears to be that of Japan's auto companies, which are clearly selling more cars.

Toyota's exports to South Africa rose 36 percent in January and February compared with those months in 1987.

Both Toyota and Nissan, who shared about 40 percent of South Africa's car market last year, reportedly said that they would not try to reduce sales to South Africa. The government has been too vague on the subject, a Nissan spokesman said.

One grass-roots anti-apartheid group here is strongly critical of the government's approach.

``The reason why the Foreign Ministry and MITI have become aware of apartheid is because the Washington Post and Business Week wrote that Japan had become South Africa's biggest trading partner,'' said Kambayashi Youji of the Tokyo Anti-Apartheid Committee.

``What they're really afraid of is Japan-bashing. So when the government saw the trade figures, the first thing they pictured was the faces of the Americans - not the faces of the black Africans.''

The Anti-Apartheid Committee, which has some 30 active members in each of nine Japanese cities, recently began a nationwide campaign to boycott South African products here.

Another Japanese anti-apartheid group - the Japan, Asia, Africa, and Latin America Solidarity Committee - is raising funds to establish a Tokyo office for the African National Congress, South Africa's outlawed black liberation movement.

Meanwhile, ``Cry Freedom'' is doing its part here.

One lady who saw it said, ``I'm truly speechless, I'm so sad and shocked.''

But her companion had something to say:

``I'm a Christian, and what the South African government is doing goes against the Bible. It's incredible and miserable, and I'm going to pray for them.''

A college student said: ``The strongest impression the movie left me with is: Japan is a very peaceful country.''

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