America's economic pain, side by side with Japan's huge successes, creates an uneasy backdrop for the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor next month. Trade and other tensions have been increasing, and although there are people of goodwill on both sides, the ongoing debate, tinged with anger and emotion, is likely to get worse.

Although Japan -- in the end -- contributed $13 billion (more than any other American ally) to the costs of the Persian Gulf War, its initial aloofness lowered American esteem and convinced many Americans that Japan preferred to benefit from global affairs without sharing the burdens.

"What has been called America's most important single foreign relationship, once central to regional peace and global prosperity, has lately turned unhealthy, and even nasty," writes Richard Holbrooke, former assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, in the current issue of Foreign Affairs.

Thus, it's unfortunate that President Bush -- in a knee-jerk reaction to the stunning GOP loss in the Pennsylvania senatorial election -- canceled his projected two-week trip to Japan and elsewhere in Asia. He has been ignoring this growing center of global economic power while concentrating on the Soviet crisis and on the Middle East.

Reaction in Tokyo was predictable: The new prime minister, Kiichi Miyazawa, was embarrassed, and other Japanese officials were saying publicly, according to the Daily Japan Digest, that "Washington takes Asia too lightly."

My view is that if Bush felt impelled to sacrifice some globe-trotting time, he would have done better to cancel his Rome NATO trip (who needed it?) and keep his dates in the Far East: The Pacific Basin could be as important to the United States' economic welfare in the next 50 years as was Europe in the last half century.

There is near unanimity that the end of the Cold War provides a basis -- and a need -- for a brand-new American approach to Japan. But there is no agreement on what should be done. At one end of the spectrum, hawks such as Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) persist in the notion that the Japanese can be made "more like us" by beating them over the head with oppressive sanctions designed to reduce their trade surpluses.

On the Japanese side, there are equally uncompromising politicians. The best-known is Shintaro Ishihara, author of "The Japan That Can Say No," who promotes narrow Japanese nationalism. Ishihara would have Japan ditch its alliance with the United States and assert military and economic independence.

Others search for more subtle ways of revamping and strengthening the U.S.-Japan relationship. In an article last year in Foreign Policy magazine, Selig S. Harrison of the Carnegie Endowment and Clyde V. Prestowitz Jr., president of the Economic Strategy Institute, argued that ever since the Truman administration, U.S. presidents "have subordinated U.S. economic interests to perceived geopolitical requirements."

Since the Soviets are no longer a military threat to the West, the United States can now challenge any disturbing Japanese trade actions on a case-by-case basis, focusing exclusively on the need to assure survival of strategic American industries, Harrison and Prestowitz suggest.

Harrison, a former Tokyo bureau chief of The Washington Post, said in a letter to me: "I think the line that we take is the best way to sort things out so that the destructive type of 'Japan-bashing' ... is redirected."

The Commission on U.S.-Japan Relations for the Twenty First Century,

headed by former Honeywell Inc. chief executive Edson W. Spencer, said in its final report published last week that Japan, long a junior partner, should be expected to play an enhanced role in both the Pacific Basin and global arenas.

The commission, composed of friendly business executives, academics and former American government officials, emphasizes American as well as Japanese mistakes that helped sour the relationship in recent years. Nonetheless, it called on Japan to drop more trade barriers and to erase a major source of anger and impatience here -- the near total rejection of foreign investment in Japan.

Holbrooke offers a very sophisticated perspective. He recognizes errors made on both sides. His criticisms of Japan are to the point, without the hostility displayed by Dutch journalist Karel van Wolferen, author of "The Enigma of Japanese Power." Nor is Holbrooke forgetful of America's postwar generosity to Japan that helped it get on its feet at the end of the war in 1945. "Japan will need to recognize the necessity of true equality of market access between the two nations, and avoid the temptation to seek complete domination of the East Asian region," Holbrooke writes.

He is frank to acknowledge that "there may still be an underlying racism, not always conscious, in the attitudes of some Americans toward Japanese." This is touchy ground. When I made the same observation recently about American racism at a Capitol Hill seminar, I was vigorously attacked by a member of Congress in the audience who said he was offended by the mere suggestion that Americans could be racist. Emotions ran high.

Citing research done by Prof. John Dower, a student of Japanese-American relations, I said: "Let me talk about an area that troubles me. There is a racist problem on both sides of the Pacific. The war exacerbated anti-Oriental prejudices that had long been part of American society. I talk to many people today who simply cannot put Pearl Harbor behind them. {Yet} if you ask about {the atomic devastation of} Hiroshima and Nagasaki, you get blank stares."

These deeply ingrained American feelings, coupled with Japanese resentment of what they consider to be unfair, do not bode well for the relationship. Holbrooke is not optimistic, because he believes it will be tough for many Americans to accept a more aggressive Japan. Japan has made enormous economic strides and will make more. Sometime shortly around the start of the 21st century, it will have a bigger economy than the United States' -- in absolute terms, not merely on a per capita basis.

That's devastating for the psyche of some Americans, taught in grade school to think we're always the biggest and the best. (Bush and Vice President Quayle still hammer away at that theme, and anyone who questions it is unpatriotic!) But the reality is different. Said Holbrooke: "Japan seems to be better at the very things on which Americans once prided themselves: quality products, hard work, sacrifice, strong family structure, a sense of national unity and patriotism."

The announced Democratic candidates for president recognize this dilemma, but most of them serve up variations on a protectionist theme, distanced only by nuance from Gephardt's. The Democratic proposals represent a yearning for the good old days, when Japan was content to be little brother to Big Brother.

That worked -- for both -- in the 1950s. It doesn't suit the '90s. Can we move toward a relationship of two equals, as Holbrooke suggests? Only if we lock the door on the Ishiharas, Gephardts and the rest of the hard-liners.