PARIS -- A new prime minister with a new agenda has arrived in Japan at a moment when the country's postwar international position and policy are under serious reconsideration, and with that, Japan's dependent relationship to the United States.
A shift in policy could occur under the government of Ryutaro Hashimoto, the Himalayan climber and martial-arts expert who has just assumed the prime ministership, or under one led by his principal opponent, Ichiro Ozawa, an advocate of economic liberalization and deregulation. Both are strong men, who break the postwar pattern of pliable prime ministers manipulated by the civil service and power brokers.
Japan, Mr. Hashimoto has said, has again to become ''a normal country.'' Its passivity on the international scene should end. Those who object to this, particularly among those who were Japan's wartime victims, have said that Japan must first come to terms with its wartime history. But Japan clearly has by now assumed its history -- by affirming it.
The Japanese majority, like the leadership, clearly believes that the country's wartime crimes, which they have ambiguously acknowledged as ''regrettable events'' or ''errors,'' have by now been sufficiently apologized for, and are in any case offset by the American nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That was the implied message of the observance of the Hiroshima anniversary last year.
Japan's neighbors in Asia, in these circumstances, find reassurance in the constraints implied by Japan's alliance with the United States and by the presence in Japan of nearly 50,000 American servicemen and women. However the reassurance those troops provide will eventually terminate, and it is proper, for both Japan and the U.S., that this happens.
American naval and air force presence, with a 20,000-man Marine Expeditionary Force on Okinawa, inevitably produces episodes of troop misbehavior, such as the recent Okinawa rape case, feeding popular hostility toward an American deployment whose strategic justification is fading -- for the United States more than for Japan.
New defense program
In November, the Japanese Cabinet approved a new defense program presented by Mr. Hashimoto's predecessor. It cut Japan's own considerable military forces (by 20 percent in ground troops). The government at the same time requested the United States to maintain U.S. military strength in Japan at present levels.
The American navy patrols the southwestern Pacific shipping lanes along which Japan imports its energy. It patrols the Sea of Japan, which separates Japan from North Korea. The United States continues to concern itself with the erratic and threatening conduct of Pyongyang, and maintains a 40,000-member army and air deployment in South Korea.
To do this while Japan reduces its own security forces is illogical for the U.S., and in the longer run is politically unsustainable.
However, the United States is reluctant to unsettle the military balance in East Asia at a time when the region possesses more unsettled problems and more possibilities for serious conflict than anywhere else. North Korea's bankrupt and reality-detached dictatorship is only one among those problems.
China confronts a successor crisis and an ideological collapse in which nationalism is likely to become the new motivating popular force. It makes serious and dangerous claims on Taiwan, and in the Spratly Islands group in the South China Sea, where its policy is contested by the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and other governments of the area.
The Taiwanese are unlikely to yield, were China to attempt to enforce its claim to sovereignty over Taiwan. Unlike Hong Kong, in a similar situation, they have no Britain to sell them out. It is possible that some future American administration might wish to do so, but in foreseeable circumstances this would be politically impossible for Washington. Japan has its own irredentist claim, backed by Washington, in the Russian-held Kuril islands.
Mr. Hashimoto has in the past said of the U.S. that while Japan's association with Washington is extremely important, ''it is not something that we have to protect to the point of throwing away our national sovereignty.'' As trade minister he rebuffed Washington's trade demands with unprecedented severity.
Change in modern Japan has ordinarily come only in involuntary reaction to outside events, and then is often drastic or even dangerous. The famous process of obtaining national ''consensus'' before action actually tends to stifle change.
Mr. Hashimoto implies that change -- and ''normality'' -- should and can come on Japanese government initiative. It is possible that it could also come as a result of the political alienation of the Japanese public, reacting to the discreditable domestic political record and corruption of the principal parties during the past half-century. It is possible that it will be produced by an altered American political and security policy.
Certainly ''normality'' must eventually come, and in principle should be a positive development as well as a necessary one. Whether it would actually prove to be so is another matter. In any case the present situation, in which Japan rests its security on the American alliance, and still renounces an individual international role and policy, is unsustainable.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.