TOKYO -- Perhaps the next time a global crisis erupts, Japan will respond in a manner befitting a country with its vast financial and industrial might. That is about as optimistic a conclusion as can be drawn from having observed the parliamentary and public debate here in the past few weeks over the Persian Gulf war.

The debate probably will end with approval of Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu's proposed $9-billion aid package for the allied effort against Iraq, an outcome sought by the United States and one that is unlikely to be affected by Baghdad's sudden offer on Friday setting up conditions for its eventual withdrawal from Kuwait.

It is hard to imagine how a nation parting with so large a sum could manage to appear so grudging, or unsure of its aims. Bowing to pacifist public opinion, the Kaifu government has imposed a condition that the $9 billion be spent only on items like food, medicine and transportation rather than weapons or bullets -- a sanctimonious provision of no practical effect since the Japanese money will simply free money from other nations to be spent on munitions.

Meanwhile, hopes are fading that the contribution will be accompanied by a symbolic show of Japanese solidarity with the troops in the front line; public opinion, ever sensitive to Japan's postwar pacifist constitution, is strongly against Kaifu's plan to dispatch a non-combatant team of about 200 military personnel and five planes to the war zone for refugee airlifts.

The debate has made clear that the money is being proffered in the spirit of shikata ga nai, a common expression meaning "there is no other choice." Kaifu's declaration that Japan must help resist international aggression is widely ridiculed as empty rhetoric; the argument that really resonates here is that unless the $9 billion is forthcoming, the United States and Europe will embark on a binge of Japan-bashing. In a late-January poll by the Asahi TV network, 37 percent of Japanese said they opposed offering additional gulf aid beyond the $4 billion committed last September; 30 percent said they favored it; 25 percent said shikata ga nai.

Japan's body politic has been largely unmoved by Kaifu's plea that the nation should stand in the forefront of the anti-Baghdad coalition, using all means short of sending combat troops. What has prevailed is a curious mixture of realpolitik -- bordering on what could be called realeconomik -- and moralism. The general elements are these:

Japan doesn't have much stake in who is running the Middle East despite the fact that two-thirds of Japan's oil is imported from the region. Japanese companies can always buy the oil they need on the world market. "Experiences tell us that whoever controls oil will be disposed to sell it," Masamichi Hanabusa, Japan's consul general in New York, said in a recent speech. "We are prepared to pay."

Although Japan's interests aren't seriously endangered, Tokyo will still contribute to the U.S.-led forces, because -- shikata ga nai! -- the Americans are applying heavy pressure, and if Japan doesn't go along, the resulting tempest will dwarf any previous public relations problem, such as the purchase of Rockefeller Center.

Japan is a pacifist country, however, but while it wants to be considered part of the allied coalition, its conscience must not be tainted by complicity with what the allied forces are doing -- i.e., making war.

The above is not a precise detailing of the Japanese consensus; public opinion varies widely, from absolute pacifism to neo-militarism to middle-of-the-road isms based on sober reflections about Saddam Hussein's threat to Japan's oil supplies.

But neither the consensus, nor the give and take involved in getting there, inspires confidence in Japan's capacity for seeing the big picture. Much of the recent debate in the Diet, the parliament, and even much of the solemn discussion by political commentators, has focused on the trivial issue of how the government can ensure that its money is not used directly for military purposes.

This inability to see the larger complex of issues that bear on Japan's place in the gulf crisis does not bode well for hopes that Japan will eventually assume a global leadership role commensurate with its No. 2 economic status. What is worse are the troubling implications for U.S.-Japan relations, upon which so much of the world's economic future rests. Resentments have been inflamed on both sides, and there are hints of the emergence of deep disparities in the two peoples' basic world views.

"The words, or concepts, most favored by Japanese are 'cooperation,' 'coordination,' 'harmony,' 'dialogue' -- all of which are pleasing to the ears but do not contain a value in themselves," says Yukio Okamoto, an international-affairs expert who recently left a top position in Japan's Foreign Ministry. "These are ethical standards of social behavior; they are not social or moral goals.

"So the United States attacks Iraq," Okamoto continues. "The Japanese people forget what the Iraqis have done to ignite this war. Of course, they know Saddam is the bad guy, but they think the two sides should keep on talking, because whenever two guys talk to each other, there must be a point where both parties can meet." Okamoto adds that when he addresses Japanese audiences, he finds little sympathy for his view that the gulf war is a rare instance in which good and evil are clearly delineated.

Okamoto's concern about his compatriots' way of thinking is especially noteworthy because until two weeks ago, his job as director of the foreign ministry's First North America Division made him a key architect -- and defender -- of Japan's gulf strategy.

Don't be too disappointed in Japan, he argues; look how far it has come. This is a fair point. A few years ago, it would have been unthinkable for Japan to provide any financial support for a war beyond its shores. Ever since the end of World War II, the nation has staunchly adhered to the policy that it would never become involved in any war other than defending the Japanese archipelago from an invader.

Japanese pacifism is deeply ingrained, rooted in a sense of guilt and, especially for the older generation, memories of the nation's wartime suffering. The day the allied forces attacked Iraq, a 56-year-old Tokyo housewife clearly spoke for millions when she told the Mainichi Shimbun of her strong recollections of the sorrow of a neighborhood woman who lost three sons in World War II.

So approval of the $9-billion contribution will indeed mark a big step for Tokyo. But the nation's irresolute stance underscores that Japan hasn't come to grips with its status as an economic superpower, nor grasped the dimensions of its stakes in the gulf.

What are those stakes? It may be true, as Japan's consul general argues, that energy-efficient Japan could cope quite easily with higher oil prices. But the Japanese would be vulnerable, as is the United States, to political blackmail if a major chunk of Mideast oil is controlled by Saddam.

The government officially acknowledges that the oil problem gives Japan a big stake in the gulf. But Tokyo's interests in the situation go well beyond oil, and even well beyond worries that the U.S. Congress might slap tariffs on Toyotas and Sonys in retaliation for lack of Japanese support. Even further afield, in the realms of diplomacy and the political stability of the vast Pacific Rim, Japan has a deep interest in seeing that the United States does not retreat from its global role.

With deepening economic troubles at home and a declining threat of expansion by the Soviet Union abroad, the United States could be strongly tempted to reduce its strategic commitments around the world. This has raised the stakes for Japan to support President Bush's attempts to establish what he calls a "new world order" in the aftermath of the Cold War.

The debate here can be seen partly as an effort to comprehend how there can be ties between larger Japanese interests and such seemingly remote episodes as the Persian Gulf war. Japanese in some quarters, chiefly the foreign policy elite, see the links quite clearly. Some are concluding that if the war with Iraq proves to be a sour experience for Americans -- especially if they feel abused by rich allies -- the domestic political momentum in the United States to bring the troops home from around the world and return to Fortress America could be overwhelming.

In an article in the influential foreign-policy magazine Gaiko Forum, Foreign Ministry official Shigeo Takenaka described this larger stake: "The policy which Japan ought to take must be a policy which will foster sound U.S. internationalism. It must be a policy which will give self-confidence to the American people that the United States can manage with internationalism, because there is the cooperation of Japan and other countries, even at a time like the present when the United States has fallen into financial difficulties."

Okamoto makes the point more powerfully. "We need a U.S. global role partly to secure our economic security," he says. "But an even more important reason concerns Japanese society itself.

"I am concerned with the rising nationalism in Japan; you cannot detect the extent of it just by the number of Rising Sun flags and rightist demonstrations. Japanese mass thinking swings abruptly from left to right, right to left. The abandoning of a U.S. military role in Asia would suddenly push us dangerously to the other extreme. If we are thrown into the situation where we are looking at a 3-million-man Chinese Army, a 1-million-man North Korean Army and even the ROK {South Korean} forces, with their hatred toward Japan, plus Soviet forces -- then there will be automatic pressure to beef up our defense capability, to levels very destabilizing to regional security and to social stability."

Americans who bridle at Japan's current attack of reluctance may find it instructive to recall our own reluctance 50 years ago to become involved in what was seen from American shores by many as a distant conflict irrelevant to our national interests. The recollection spurs the thought that Japan is not the only great economic power that ever suffered from political immaturity.

Similarly, Japanese adherents of the shikata ga nai school of foreign policy who reflect on U.S. behavior during that period might gain insight into America's capacity for isolationism -- and appreciate the need to encourage an active U.S. role in the world.

And Japan's militant pacifists, so painfully cognizant of their country's behavior during that period, might ponder the question of whether a more pragmatic approach to the issue of war and peace would better ensure that Japan never endures such an experience again.