PARIS — Paris. -- There were many historical parallels drawn in the course of last weekend's Pearl Harbor memorials, but the most important was neglected. It is that once again Japan's perception of encirclement and international incomprehension is being fed.
The incomprehension is perhaps more important than the encirclement, but both produce a sense of vulnerability and isolation, which in turn may produce the conviction that Japan will eventually be forced into desperate action.
A belief central to Japan's national consciousness is that the Japanese nation is unlike any other. It is held to be alone in the north Pacific seas, without resources, lacking friends, misunderstood, relying totally upon its people's unity and corporate energy to survive: a unique society, which therefore cannot be bound in the way other societies are bound.
In the 1920s and 1930s Japan was indeed encircled by hostile powers. The United States had put pressures on Japan from the time of its initial mainland expansion, into Manchuria and China. When Japan occupied bases in French Indochina in July 1941, Washington declared a trade boycott, subsequently joined by Britain and the Netherlands, which cut off Japan's oil supplies. The War Plans Department of the U.S. Navy forecast at the time that this would provoke war.
The Japanese imperialism and expansionism that had invited this western reaction was considered in Japan a policy essential prevent Asia's total domination by the western powers and by the Soviet Union.
The public comment and debate of recent days has made much of Japan's supposed transformation of its wartime struggle for Pacific empire into a commercial and industrial offensive against the United States and Western Europe. This, it is said, is simply a continuation of the Second World War by another means -- appropriate to the new age -- and equally meant to produce total victory.
Karl von Wolferen, one of the most penetrating western analysts of contemporary Japan, makes the important observation that Japan today resembles pre-war Japan in that the elected government does not really control what the country does. Before and during the war the generals and admirals were in control. Now an anonymous corporate industrial-banking leadership acts according to its own imperatives of economic expansion and market conquest with nothing in Japan's political power structure capable of checking it. What Japan does is thus in a real sense irresponsible.
When General Hideki Tojo announced the attack on Pearl Harbor to the Japanese people, the gist of his declaration was that Japan's unique people could expect no understanding from others but had to take their fate in their hands. Unspoken was that while this policy of war might be doomed, such was the contradictory nature of reality itself, which allowed no choice. Japanese thought is greatly affected by Buddhist sense of inevitability -- of a wheel of causality beyond human power to halt.
There is a powerful sense in Japan of failure's redemption by the nobility of struggle against fate. The translator and scholar Ivan Morris has written of the conception of the ''nobility of failure,'' the Japanese respect for that ''single-minded sincerity'' which will not allow one ''to make the maneuvers and compromises that are so often needed for mundane success.'' A hero ''defies the dictates of convention and common sense, until eventually he is worsted by his enemy.'' The Japanese hero then typically takes his own life as an act of honor and a demonstration of sincerity.
Japan's is a volatile society and culture, not at all like our own, and western efforts to make Japanese behave the way Americans behave (and in crucial respects, that is what the Trade Impediments negotiations of recent years have been all about) are futile and may even be positively dangerous because of the misapprehensions they feed on both sides.
The western powers have every reason to defend their economic and industrial interests against Japan, through specific protectionist measures if it comes to that. There is no reason why Japan should be allowed to play by the rules of free trade in the West while evading those rules for Japan. However, the emotionalizing of this conflict which has taken place in recent months substitutes for a manageable and rational clash of interests the attribution of aggressive motive and the identification of trade interests with national survival.
Japan is alleged deliberately to practice a predatory capitalism meant to ruin the West. The Japanese are being led to believe that the western nations, and particularly the U.S., want to humiliate Japan as compensation for their own national inadequacies and failures. All this leads toward tragedy.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.