PARIS -- Afflicted by the pangs of Nakasone withdrawal, the American press is not paying much attention to the doings and sayings of the new Japanese prime minister, Noburu Takeshita. That is just as well from the standpoint of Takeshita, who likes to move quietly and methodically toward goals he can achieve.
"Yasu" Nakasone entranced American officials and pundits by looking and talking like a U.S. president rather than a Japanese politician. But by the end of his term in office in October, Nakasone had delivered more bombast and unfulfilled promises than change, and adulation had begun to give way to resentment.
Takeshita (pronounced Ta-KESH-ta) is the opposite, physically and temperamentally. He is as subdued in demeanor and in conversation as Nakasone is flamboyant, frequently causing foreigners and even some of his compatriots to underestimate him.
The contrast was underscored this week by his decision to go to Manila on the prime minister's symbolically important first visit abroad, subtly highlighting the growing economic importance of Japan's ties to the countries of Southeast Asia. Nakasone's maiden voyage was a high-profile political trip to South Korea that stirred conservative opposition in Japan, which dogged Nakasone throughout his term in office.
Takeshita's conciliatory style and his attention to substance may just fit the moment. It is a moment in which Japan must exercise quietly the enormous financial power it has accumulated in the past two years. Under Takeshita, Tokyo is likely to do this without directly challenging Washington, but also without counting on American economic cooperation.
For it is now clear to the rest of the world that the final year of Ronald Reagan's presidency will be a period of uncertainty and temporizing on economic matters until next November's elections are out of the way.
Already the dollar floats on uncharted monetary seas like a wounded whale, with Treasury Secretary James A. Baker's harpoon dangling from its side. The interest rate increase needed to stabilize the dollar is ruled out by fear of a recession, while the specter of renewed inflation cancels out other economic options for the United States.
The economic cooperation agreement signed at the Louvre Museum in February has slowly vanished in the past two months, taking away the last props for the dollar and the last vestiges of a functioning international monetary system. Takeshita appeared to signal in Manila Wednesday that Japan's Central Bank would no longer intervene to stop the dollar from falling, an invitation to the free fall that Baker and Company have done little to avert.
Reagan appears to have abandoned his first-term belief that strong nations possess strong currencies and the corollary that power follows money. That belief persists in much of the rest of the world, however, and the dollar's apparently unending troubles are increasingly seen as the symbol not just of temporary financial distress in America but also of a serious leadership vacuum in Washington.
Japan and West Germany will now necessarily begin to make de facto trade and financial arrangements outside the dollar zone if present trends continue. This will gradually lead to an informal yen zone in Asia and a German mark zone in Europe. As economist Eliot Janeway pointed out last summer, Japan uses the yen to finance exports in exactly the same way as the United States once used the dollar to dominate world trade.
Japan has become the world's most successful banker as well as being the premier exporter of manufactured goods. Five of the world's six largest banks, measured in dollar terms, are Japanese today. Japanese banks already own about 10 percent of all banking assets in the United States. Each time the yen rises, Japan's banks increase their capital as it is measured against the rest of the world's currencies.
It is this set of circumstances that imparts significance to Takeshita's decision to go first to Manila and to give pride of place to Southeast Asia -- the heart of any future yen zone. He moved a pawn in that direction by unveiling the details of a $2 billion package of trade and aid for the region as he sought to dispel the lingering bitterness in Southeast Asia over Japan's brutal invasions of World War II.
It was a characteristic performance from a leader who moves almost imperceptibly, but steadily, toward well-defined goals. It was a good start for the new kid on the leadership block.