It has been exactly a year since Kiichi Miyazawa, Japan's veteran "insider politician," became prime minister. As in the case of incoming U.S. President Bill Clinton, much was said about his call for "change" and his promise of ''national renewal." That rhetoric, in his case, belied a new belligerency in the U.S.-Japan relationship.

"Tokyo will no longer cave in to every U.S. demand," Mr. Miyazawa told an enthusiastic crowd in Tohoku province. "Correcting the $41.1 billion trade imbalance is a two-way street. If the United States hopes to compete with the Japanese, it must improve the quality of its products, particularly automobiles, and raise standards of education."Last week, a vice minister of Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry took up the same theme, saying he worries that Mr. Clinton will not discourage legislation that would allow Washington to impose tariffs of up to 100 percent on countries that refuse to open their markets to U.S. exporters.

The vice minister, who had just returned from meetings with Democratic officials in Washington, said the United States must change its perception of Japan as a closed market.

For his part, Mr. Clinton has said little about "opening" Japan to the United States. When an "open" Japan was mentioned on the campaign trail, he endorsed the idea but was cautious not to say how that would be accomplished.

Indeed, he probably has no idea, and there is nothing wrong with that at this time. As Franklin Roosevelt discovered 60 years ago, when his "brain trust" transition team developed a plan to replace protectionism with ''reciprocal trade," it takes months of concentrated effort to arrive at such policies.

Mr. Miyazawa, on the other hand, is more forceful. He is particularly sensitive to the issue of "opening" Japan. He resents the U.S. history textbook insistence that it was the White House in the early 1850s that ''opened" Japan to the outside world. Japan, he stresses, "opened" itself to America.

His emphasis on Japan's economic autonomy has had an effect. The prime minister's comments in Tohoku province encouraged shouts of "Banzai" from his adoring audience.

Watching Mr. Miyazawa strut his country's new hard line against alleged ''U.S. demands," American television audiences mostly saw the "Banzai" approvals and were reminded of the "Banzai" charges of the Japanese Imperial Army against American Marines in World War II.

During his debate with Paul Tsongas, an avowed free trader, in the New Hampshire primary, Mr. Clinton said he was "taken aback" by the Miyazawa spectacle. He was especially wounded by Mr. Miyazawa's comment that Japan should "feel sorry" for America because it was a country in decline.

But careful not to appear too Tsongas-like and endorse free-trade principles too freely, Mr. Clinton sought a middle ground on Japan in the early Democratic primaries.

For example, Mr. Clinton concluded the American electronics industry and much of the American automobile industry already had lost their markets to Japanese business savvy. He said that rescuing dying industries is counterproductive.

Instead, retraining workers caught in the death spiral of a moribund industry makes more sense. At the same time, he argued, the federal government should encourage the growth of new, competitive industries such as computers. And he wisely stuck to those positions throughout the campaign.

Mr. Clinton will take the helm at a critical time in U.S.-Japan relations. During the Cold War, the United States supported Japan's Liberal Democratic Party against both a real and imagined leftist political assault.

As America became preoccupied with Vietnam, Watergate and other problems, the Cold War reasoning for U.S. generosity was forgotten. Today, that generosity is under as much scrutiny as the Cold War itself.

Without question, the American-Japanese economic relationship has reached a watershed. The rhetoric may become tougher than most Americans and Japanese have grown to expect.

Mr. Miyazawa, for example, has denounced the Democratic Party for over a year as the "party of protection," urging the American voter to be ''reasonable" (and, apparently, vote Republican).

Meanwhile, he has warned the new administration that Japan is "no longer a weak nation" and that it will never "tremble automatically" because Bill Clinton is unhappy with Japan's success in the American market.

Mr. Miyazawa now must adjust to the fact that the "party of protection" is in power. And Mr. Clinton must come up with a policy that responds effectively to the growing bilateral trade imbalance.

As a starting point for that policy, Mr. Clinton has proposed a middle ground between pure free trade and protectionism. The policy is yet to be spelled out, but in its basic form it encourages a continuing dialogue aimed at removing trade barriers. By contrast, Mr. Miyazawa has consistently championed a harder line against American demands.

With luck, Mr. Miyazawa may find that Mr. Clinton's softer approach benefits both nations. That would have the salutary effect of heading off a kind of economic Cold War between the United America and Japan.

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