THERE'S an ironic twist to this weekend's Group of Seven (G-7) summit in Naples, Italy. For the first time, Russian President Boris Yeltsin will be a full participant, at least in the discussions on the second day. And for the first time, questions focus on Japan, not merely because of its huge current account surplus, but because of its Socialist prime minister, Tomiichi Murayama.
By this time, the new prime minister's beetling eyebrows, his unaffected country accent, and his modest upbringing as the son of a fisherman in the southern island of Kyushu have been widely reported. The Japanese public has been charmed by his utter lack of pomposity.
Mr. Murayama is the first Socialist to become prime minister of Japan since 1948. And Japan's Socialists, at least in terms of long-held policies, are not like European social democrats.
Historically, the Japanese Socialists have opposed the US-Japan security treaty. They have advocated unarmed neutrality, and were close to Moscow, Beijing, and Pyongyang.
Murayama says that his party is changing and so are his former opponents, the Liberal Democrats, with whom the Socialists have just formed a coalition. He will be able to make this point directly to President Clinton when they have their first tete-a-tete today.
The irony of this summit is that Mr. Yeltsin, representing the former archenemy of the West, is an honored participant, while Japan is facing questions about how loyal a Western ally it can be with a prime minister whose own party has been so anti-Western. It's the reverse of the questions being asked in Italy, where the prime minister's coalition includes neofascists.
Murayama has soothed the Japanese public by saying that the Socialists are changing, just as his coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, are changing. It remains to be seen whether the same reassurances will work with Japan's Western partners in Naples.