PRIME Minister Kiichi Miyazawa of Japan had a phone call from President Clinton the other day, telling him about the Vancouver summit with Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Mr. Miyazawa, who is preparing to visit Washington at the end of next week, speaks fluent English and evidently enjoys good rapport with the new occupant of the White House, though he is old enough to be Mr. Clinton's father.
There is one key respect in which the two leaders are not on the same wave-length, however. It is a delicate subject, and I would hesitate to mention it were it not that an attempt to bridge a cultural gap is essential for true understanding between Japanese and Americans. I am speaking of religion, not politics.
Miyazawa, like most Japanese, is nominally a Buddhist. He is equally comfortable with Shinto, Japan's native religion.
One Miyazawa predecessor, Yasuhiro Nakasone, had a Christian mother and a Shintoist father. Mr. Nakasone has told friends he feels just as much at home singing Christian hymns as he does attending a Shinto festival.
The Japanese are multi-religious. They worship Shinto deities - the Sun Goddess and her attendants - but also follow the teachings of Buddhism, which came to the islands from India via China 1,400 years ago. For good measure, many young people choose to be married in church, in white veil and wedding dress.
Religion, many Japanese feel, is something to put respectfully on a shelf, to be dusted off as the occasion demands. It is not a daily concern, or a question of absolute values.
But in America the president's religion matters. Olin Robison, president emeritus of Middlebury College, said recently that it is impossible to understand Clinton unless one recognizes his religious background. Clinton, Dr. Robison says, is not only an intellectual, a quick study who speaks in complete sentences, but a southern populist whose values are anchored in home, school, and church. Clinton's Baptist faith does not depend on liturgy and ritual but emphasizes the individual's direct relationship w ith God. "If you listen to [Clinton] talk," Robison said, "you will see that that's where he comes from."
Clinton himself is said to regard his religion as a very private thing. But during last year's campaign he told an interfaith cable network that "life's struggle is for sinners, not saints, for the weak, not the strong. Religious faith has permitted me to believe in the continuing possibility of becoming a better person every day, to believe in the search for complete integrity in life."
This kind of comment is rarely encountered in Japan. A business or political leader may turn out to be devoutly religious. Toshio Doko, who headed Japan's powerful business group Keidanren during the early 1980s, was known for his almost monastic lifestyle - rising at 3:30 each morning to recite Buddhist sutras.
In Japanese politics, the late Masayoshi Ohira, prime minister from 1978-80, was the only recent leader who would have understood what Clinton was saying. Mr. Ohira, one of the wiliest politicians of his day, was privately a practicing Christian who early followed the evangelist Toyohiko Kagawa and who would have echoed Clinton that "all of us are sinners, each of us is gone in our own way and fallen short of the glory of God."
But most Japanese politicians, including Miyazawa, would feel acutely embarrassed by this kind of personal confession. When Jimmy Carter, who was much more public about his faith than Clinton, came to power, Miyazawa privately scathed the new president's reversal of Henry Kissinger's Realpolitik approach to international relations, and the heavy emphasis he placed on human rights.
Clinton, those who know him say, is more oriented toward Realpolitik than Carter was. But the two are alike in that ultimately, both acknowledge accountability to the Supreme Being for their thoughts and actions.
In Japan, accountability has a different resonance. One is accountable to one's parents, ancestors, and the Japanese nation. There is little sense of being held responsible to absolute Deific values.
Does it matter if, say, Miyazawa, does not acknowledge that Biblical "secret place" where desires and ambitions are laid bare before God? Usually not. But it sometimes may. Recognizing this could be a real step toward understanding.