OSAKA, Japan — President Clinton's decision to cancel a trip here so he can deal with the budget crisis at home was widely viewed in Japan on Thursday as nearly an insult.
While government officials expressed understanding of the cancellation and tried to put the best face on it, mass media were not so forgiving. Many reports described Clinton's decision as a fresh indication that the United States takes Japan too lightly.
Japan's leading financial daily, Nikkei Shimbun, said Clinton's failure to show up in Osaka for a multilateral Pacific Rim summit set for Sunday will bring an "inevitable diminishing of America's leadership role" in the 18-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum.
"Turning Point to Asian Leadership, Liberalization Drive Loses Force," Nikkei Shimbun headlines declared.
Criticism of Clinton's decision was also widespread among ordinary Japanese.
"Clinton thinks America can survive without the Pacific," said Satoshi Kawaguchi, an office worker in Osaka. "He's taking APEC lightly."
Akira Tanaka, a restaurant owner, said he wished Clinton were coming, but added that "APEC could be held with only Asian countries, without America, because APEC exists for Asia."
Similarly, the cancellation of a Tokyo summit between Clinton and Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, planned for Monday, marks the loss of an opportunity both sides had counted on to drum up more public support for the two nations' security alliance.
It had already been a rough year for U.S.-Japan relations: First came a bitter fight over automobile trade. More recently, the rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan schoolgirl in which three U.S. servicemen were charged has sparked an uproar against the presence of U.S. military bases.
With the Cold War fading into history and common enemies largely gone, doubts have grown in both countries about the future of the U.S.-Japan security alliance. Now, instead of making a trip meant to ease those doubts, Clinton's preoccupation with domestic matters only adds to them.
"Clinton's cancellation cast a dark shadow on the U.S.-Japan relationship," reported Sankei Shimbun, a major newspaper. "The Clinton Administration ended up putting off an opportunity to straighten out the confusion in the security relationship that was triggered by the Okinawa [rape] incident . . . cancellation will inevitably give the impression that America takes Japan lightly."
Minister of International Trade and Industry Ryutaro Hashimoto, who also heads the conservative and important Liberal Democratic Party, said that cancellation of Clinton's trip "is not good news at all for Japan-U.S. relations" but added that leaders on both sides would seek "to limit the adverse effects to a minimum."
Vice President Al Gore will meet with Murayama in Osaka during the APEC gathering, in place of a Clinton-Murayama summit in Tokyo. They will "tell to the public the importance of the alliance," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hiroshi Hashimoto said. But a formal document reaffirming the security alliance, which has been under preparation for months, will not be released, he said.
At meetings that Japan has looked forward to with great anticipation, Gore cannot be a sufficient stand-in for the President. This is so well understood here that the Osaka Shimbun expressed its view with a simple unfinished sentence: "It is said that Vice President Gore will attend in his place but. . . ."
There is also irony in the fact that a fight over spending caused Clinton to stand up his hosts. There is a widespread perception in Japan and throughout Asia that the United States is undisciplined and becoming preoccupied with its internal problems. Some American critics have said a shift in economic power toward Japan and away from the United States is making the security alliance, as now structured, untenable.
"Given the current yen-dollar exchange rate, the 45,000 U.S. troops based in Japan cannot afford a bowl of noodles if they leave their bases," Chalmers Johnson, a prominent American scholar of Japan, wrote in the summer issue of Foreign Affairs. "It does not take a Thucydides to see that a relationship is unstable."
The Clinton-Murayama summit was meant to fight such perceptions.
"The national interests' of the two countries are very, very close together," a U.S. government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said earlier this week. "I think [the summit] is going to be a good opportunity to highlight that despite the problems, fundamentally the U.S.-Japan relationship remains very strong."
At its core, the alliance is a simple trade: The U.S. protects Japan in return for use of bases here. Even if many Japanese are unsure they need protection anymore, the government views the relationship as essential.
"The full armament of Japan is not practical, and unarmed neutrality is not practical either," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hashimoto said earlier this week. "This alliance remains valid."