TOKYO -- The following message appeared in a Christmas card from a Japanese friend to Robert M. "Skip" Orr, director of Stanford University's Center for Japanese Studies in Kyoto: "Dear Skip: Please pray for Japan at our time of intellectual crisis."

As the card suggests, Japan is in the midst of great soul-searching as it seeks to define its rightful place in the society of nations. Although the debate has been carried on in some circles for years, it has been brought to the fore recently by the Persian Gulf War and the issue of how Japan should contribute to the allied cause. Editorial pages are now full of weighty articles with titles like "Japan at the Crossroads," while TV talk shows focus frequently on the question of whether this insular country can and should assume greater global responsibilities commensurate with its industrial and financial success.

"For the first time in the seven years I've been here," said Orr, "I've sensed that a genuine debate is taking place on the role of Japan in the world."

It's about time. As the world's second-largest economy, Japan is increasingly finding itself in the uncomfortable position of being asked to accept the mantle of global leadership, especially in economic affairs.

The new challenge facing Tokyo goes beyond the sorts of demands that have been presented in the past -- for more open markets, for more altruistic Third World aid, for more responsible environmental behavior. Now Japan is expected to help set the new agendas in areas such as these rather than simply responding to gaiatsu -- foreign pressure from abroad. Yet only the most optimistic observer would bet that Japan can -- or will -- pick up this mantle soon.

Trade, a Useful Example

Japan's trade policies offer perhaps the most vivid example. Here is a country that has grown rich by exporting its goods around the world and, in more recent times, by using its trading profits to buy up technology and companies from anyone who would sell them. Such a country might be expected to become an active force for the cause of free trade. But Japan's approach to trade issues -- whether in bilateral negotiations with the United States or the multilateral trade talks that recently collapsed in Brussels -- has been to concede grudgingly only what it believes it must to satisfy demands from Washington and other world capitals.

"The question is whether Japan will take its own initiatives without being pushed by Americans, and my view is that we Japanese don't have effective agents for change within our own society," said Tadashi Yamamoto, president of the Japan Center for International Exchange. "That's kind of an unfortunate admission, but it's the way we are. So the only agent for change is external pressure."

In the decade ahead, the potential consequences of Tokyo's leadership failings could be grave. As Japan grows ever wealthier, the demands from abroad are becoming more shrill. Yet at the same time, its citizens are becoming ever more cocky and inclined to thumb their noses at countries -- notably the United States -- whose recent economic performances don't measure up to their own.

"External pressure can still work, but it can bring a tremendous political cost -- namely resentment and nationalistic reaction," said Yamamoto. Without some way for Japan to break out of this vicious circle, Yamamoto fretted, Tokyo's relations with the United States and other allies "are going to be awfully difficult."

There have been instances when Japan has demonstrated a capacity for undertaking initiatives without being prodded by Washington. Last October, for example, Tokyo established a plan to combat global warming by capping its emissions of "greenhouse gases," even though the U.S. government has contended such programs are unwarranted until the scientific community learns more about global warming.

And in 1988, the Japanese Finance Ministry advanced an innovative proposal for dealing with Third World debt -- a plan the United States first rejected, then later modified and put forward as its own.

But more typical of Japan's behavior is its conduct during the current crisis over the rules governing global commerce, known as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

When talks aimed at broadening GATT's free-trade rules were on the verge of collapse last autumn because of an impasse over opening world agricultural markets, Japan simply stood on the sidelines and watched. Specifically, Japan failed to make an offer to open up its long-protected rice market -- a dramatic gesture that might have forced the equally obdurate European Community to make a similar gesture and save the talks from their eventual collapse.

Japanese politicians acknowledge that foreign pressure will eventually force open the rice market. But they say that they dare not cross Japan's powerful rice farmers until they can explain to the farmers that gaiatsu left them with no choice.

The Persian Gulf crisis, too, has highlighted what might be called Japan's problem with "the vision thing."

Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu has publicly described his proposal to contribute $9 billion to the U.S.-led forces as compelled by Japan's obligation to help rid the world of aggression. But such arguments don't resonate with the public, and the Japanese press has widely reported that the chief motivating factor for the announcement was fear that U.S.-Japan relations would suffer if the money were not forthcoming. Gaiatsu was also clearly behind Japan's initial contribution of $4 billion last September, which was made only after weeks of dithering by Tokyo provoked an eruption of condemnation in Congress.

Pacifistic Psyche Japan's distaste for assuming the burdens of leadership is attributable in part to the searing impact of World War II on the national psyche. Today's generation of Japanese has had it drummed into their heads that the country's pacifist postwar constitution will forever limit the nation's power and, consequently, its global role.

"Most Japanese are happy not to get involved in things foreign," said Takashi Inoguchi, professor of political science at Tokyo University. " 'Why take the risks and dangers?' -- that's the prevalent psychology."

Also important is the nature of Japan's political system, which seems to thwart bold initiatives at every turn. Tremendous power resides with the bureaucrats, and the country's prime minister is almost certainly the weakest national executive in any major country save Switzerland. But ministries seem to spend more of their time and power in fierce turf battles to protect their constituent interest groups than in scouting out a new world role. As with politics in the United States, this interest-group lock on the political process has become a powerful agent against fundamental change.

At the same time, it is fair to point out that for all the criticism that Japan draws for failing to exercise leadership, the United States and other countries are in fact somewhat ambivalent about the idea of a more daring Tokyo. If Japan is to start acting like a leader, the United States is clearly going to have to accept the idea of sharing the benefits as well as the burdens of superpower stature. As a Japanese politician pointed out recently, when Washington calls on Tokyo to show greater leadership, what it usually means is that Japan should do America's bidding without being nagged.

Whether or not Washington is entirely comfortable with the idea, Japan has indeed become a superpower. Now it must figure out how to act like one.

Trite as it may be to say so, more internationalization would surely help; a society that is as cloistered from the rest of the world as Japan's is bound to be hobbled in its efforts to understand the world and play an important role in it.

Although the number of foreigners in Japan has exploded in recent years, Tokyo still lags far behind cities like New York or London as a major global hub. In technology, for example, despite all the prowess that Japanese firms have demonstrated, Japan doesn't come close to matching the United States as a place where people and ideas flow in and out of laboratories and universities from places around the globe.

"Just yesterday, I was reading an article about how the Japanese medical profession was clamping down on letting foreigners practice in Japan," said Edward Lincoln, a Brookings Institution scholar. "They do the same with foreign lawyers. Japan is still holding the rest of the world away from it. That's not how a great power behaves."

When the appeal of internationalization "becomes stronger and is shared by a wider cross section of Japan," journalist Bill Emmott wrote in a recent book, "then the country will assume its proper international role." Emmott may be right that this maturation process is only a matter of time. But if so, the wait appears likely to be long -- and quite possibly stormy.