On some days, what the Japanese see in the Carter administration is a big bad bully boy, arrogant and presumptuous, swinging a big stick and demanding that Japan do everything from buying more American oranges to stiffening its military power.
On other days, it sees an ally and protector, but one which is declining in global influence and less and less the world leader able to command unswerving loyalty.
Such perceptions were at least temporarily brushed aside last week when Carter made the long transpacific journey to pay tribute to the late prime minister, Masayoshi Ohira. The trip put Japan on American newspaper front pages for 24 hours and helped momentarily to dilute the impression that the United States ignores this country until some crisis pops up. "Sentimental gestures mean a lot to these people," one source commented.
The trip could not wipe out, however, the 3-1/2 years of rocky times over trade and defense issues, disputes over imposing economic sanctions, and broad economic conflict. U.S. Ambassador Mike Mansfield once asserted that his tenure has encompassed the roughest relations since World War II.
In the Japanese perception, the reason is that American demands during the Carter years have grown more insistent, more varied, and more specific than in any previous period. In this view, President Johnson roundly ignored Japan while Nixon stung it with too many surprises, such as the sudden embrace of China.
It is the precision of the American requests to Japan that sets the Carter administration apart, creating the impression that benchmarks have been set by which to measure Japan's loyalty. Trade representatives have told Japan exactly how much more beef and oranges it should import. A specific target for economic growth was urged on former prime minister Takeo Fukuda.
Americans before the Carter administration had been urging a greater Japanese defense effort, despite its pacifist constitution. But Defense Secretary Harold Brown was the first U.S. official to suggest publicly that Japan should speed up its military preparations by a fixed percentage of its annual gross national product.
Many Japanese officials were genuinely sympathetic to those requests in principle but objected to the exacting way they were presented. "Many people here thought it was bullying," says one foreign policy professional who accepts those requests as reasonable. "The United States should avoid bullying us."
Another official early this year recounted U.S. trade demands in many areas -- beef, oranges, automobiles, government telecommunications procurement -- and said this "constant flow" was building resentment. "We are beginning to feel we are accused of something immoral," he said.
Most of those demands came out of Carter's special trade representative's office, once headed by Robert Strauss, whose persistent badgering angered many Japanese. Carter himself is viewed in a friendlier fashion and some government officials credit him with bravely resisting domestic efforts to institute import quotas to save American jobs. They understand the political temptation, in an election year, to restrict Japanese car imports to satisfy unemployed auto workers and are delighted that Carter has resisted so far.
On occasion, Carter has been viewed privately as inconsistent and even erratic, although that attitude is not as strong in Tokyo as it is in European capitals. Carter alarmed Japan when he seemed determined to carry through on a campaign pledge to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea, a prospect that frightens Japan almost as much as it does South Korea. They were relieved when he did not pull them out, but are still unsettled that a policy deemed crucial here could be proposed and then abandoned casually without serious consultation.
Sudden ups and downs like that, said an independent observer, reinforce the impression of many Japanese that the U.S. cares little for Japanese advice and seeks only blind allegiance.
The Japanese also see a general decline in American global influence during the last few years, although Carter himself is not blamed directly. Foreign Minister Saburo Okita said last week that Japan had grown accustomed to thinking of the United States as the "big leader" responsible for solving all problems.
But the great economic power of the United States, relative to that of Japan and Europe, is declining, Okita said. "Given these economic changes, leaving things to the United States is very difficult," he said.
During the nine months Okita has been in office, Japan has subtly shifted to a policy of consulting with European leaders as opposed to looking always to Washington for signals on what it should do in foreign policy matters.
Carter's reactions last winter to the seizure of American hostages in Iran caused one of the darkest moments. Some feel there was more public pressure then on the Japanese government to disengage itself from the United States than at any other time. Carter's insistence that allies impose economic sanctions against Iran was widely opposed by the general public and by key members of this country's powerful business establishment because of the fear of the consequences of losing Iran's oil.
Even the foreign policy establishment was at first deeply angered by the sanctions request and tended to blame Carter personally for a serious error. Senior officials claimed then that the hostage-taking should be treated solely as a bilateral problem between Iran and the United States and bitterly complained that Carter was casually willing to risk Japan's economic lifeline by insisting on sanctions.
Japan reluctantly went along with sanctions, however, sacrificing Iranian oil supplies by refusing to pay higher prices, and the controversy has subsided.
The United States had promised to assist Japan in obtaining oil in the event of an Iranian cutoff, a pledge reiterated two months ago when Iran suspended deliveries to Japan over the pricing issue.
Despite the loss of Iranian oil, Japan now has a supply sufficient to last 102 days. But there are lingering bad memories, particularly in the business community. "It was a long headache," said one normally pro-American source. "We felt we were sandwiched between Iran and America."