TOKYO -- The gaps between Japanese and U.S. policy-makers are bigger and more visible than at any time in at least two decades.
That visibility is the clearest single product of Secretary of State James A. Baker III's meetings Monday with members of Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa's new Cabinet.
The two sides readily agreed on a handful of issues on which interests plainly overlap -- stepping up the campaign against North Korea's nuclear bomb program, pressing China to stop aiding other countries' nuclear ambitions and broadening Japan's role in world affairs beyond "checkbook diplomacy."
Japan is the United States' most important partner, "bar none," Mr. Baker said -- a reassurance familiar for 25 years. The United States is "the cornerstone" of Japan's foreign policy, Mr. Miyazawa replied, an equally time-tested reassurance.
But Mr. Baker's presence contrasted starkly with President Bush's protracted absence and thereby underscored nagging Japanese questions about the relationship.
Mr. Bush frustrated Japanese officials last week by yielding to critics in the United States who complained that he was preoccupied with foreign policy and neglecting domestic problems. He "postponed" yet again his oft-delayed first state visit here.
FTC A similar attempt at a first state visit had similarly been "postponed" repeatedly last winter.
Even on Japan's proposed broader future role, the two sides agreed only to talk about what it might be.
The reality is that the Japanese themselves find that topic prickly and are far from agreeing what world role their country should play now that it is the No. 2 economic power.
And Mr. Baker met with unaccustomed outright disagreement on many central issues:
* Trade: "We will not be able to sustain our political partnership" if Japan's trade surplus continues the growth that has resumed in recent months after two years of receding, Mr. Baker bluntly warned in a speech. But when he proposed a wide-ranging expansion of trade talks under an agreement to remove "structural impediments" to trade such as import procedures, Tsutomu Hata, Mr. Miyazawa's new finance minister, said no. First implement the agreements already reached, he said.
* Rice: Mr. Baker asked Japan to "take a leadership role" in breaking an impasse over agriculture in the current round of world trade negotiations. Mr. Miyazawa restated Japan's unwillingness to budge on its rice-import ban unless Europe and the United States agree on agricultural issues first. Mr. Hata took a still harder line, saying that the ban cannot be broken.
* Vietnam: Mr. Baker pressed U.S. requests that Japan go slow in developing relations until Washington is ready to speed up its own normalization with Hanoi. Japanese officials didn't say yes or no, but they made their impatience clear in public statements as Mr. Baker was on his way here from Europe.
* Human rights: Mr. Baker pressed Japan to get further out front in opposing abuses in Asia. Leaders of Japan's policy establishment are deeply divided. Some want to join the United States. Others want to back Chinese and Southeast Asian assertions that the question is alien to traditional Asian values. "I will never accept the view that the hopes and aspirations of an individual in Asia should count less than a person elsewhere," Mr. Baker said.
On these and a range of lesser divisive issues, U.S. policy-makers tried to put the best face on their talks here.
They stressed the "first-name friendship" between Mr. Miyazawa and Mr. Baker, from the years when they were Cabinet counterparts dealing with finance issues.
The implication was that U.S. officials think that Mr. Miyazawa's Cabinet can deliver on agreements it reaches more effectively than former Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu could in the past two years.
That proposition remains to be tested.
What the Baker visit showed was that, under the Miyazawa Cabinet, delivering on tough agreements will be possible only after increasingly visible Japanese-U.S. differences are dealt with. Only then can there be agreements to deliver on.
Taken literally, Mr. Hata's position on trade talks, for example, would mean that before the trade impediment talks could be broadened, the United States would have to make tangible headway on its own promises.
Some of those promises were formidable.
In exchange for further opening of Japan's markets, Washington authorized its trade team to promise that the United States would get control of the federal deficit, bring schools back up to First World standards, drastically raise the personal savings rate and make U.S. industries competitive.