JAKARTA, INDONESIA -- During a meeting of Southeast Asian officials here last week, Malaysia's foreign minister broached a subject that many regional leaders appear concerned about but are hesitant to discuss openly: the potential for Japan to emerge as the principal military threat to Southeast Asia now that the Soviet Union is being viewed as benign.

The raising of the issue by Abu Hassan Omar shocked the closed-door gathering and was, according to Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, "like dragging a dead cat across the stage and plunking it down square in the middle of the conference table." Japan's foreign minister angrily protested and Secretary of State James A. Baker III quickly jumped to Tokyo's defense.

But as much as leaders in the region are reluctant to talk about it publicly, the subject of Japan as a perceived security threat is a worrying one for Southeast Asians, many of whom suffered under Japanese occupation during World War II. "Malaysia was only expressing publicly what most Southeast Asian countries have always said privately," one Western diplomat said.

To be sure, Southeast Asians feel some pride over Japan's economic success. Japan is now the largest investor and most important trading partner for the region, and many Southeast Asian leaders have held out the Japanese as a model of economic success for their own citizens.

Politically, too, Southeast Asian leaders have cited Japan as a model of an Asian country that has managed to adopt Western-style political institutions without losing its traditional values, language and culture. And some Southeast Asian officials and academics said Japan has come to be the region's voice in international economic affairs.

Yet Asian pride in Japan's economic success and growing international influence remains tempered by memories of it's wartime record and by lingering doubts over whether Japan has relinquished its imperialist ambitions.

This remains a matter of concern as regional leaders, for the first time, are debating the need to expand cooperative efforts in the economic and political spheres to include security and defense.

Faced with the possibility that the United States may be forced to withdraw or scale back its military forces in the region -- either because of domestic U.S. budget pressures or the loss of American military bases in the Philippines -- the Southeast Asian nations have begun to ask whether the region should affect its own security arrangement in a world in which the threat from the Soviet Union is diminishing.

Proposals for an Asian security grouping, modeled after Europe's structures such as NATO or the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, have been advanced by the Philippines, Australia and Canada.

In addition, the six Southeast Asian non-Communist countries agreed for the first time here last week to hold a special meeting on regional security.

Japan, as Asia's economic powerhouse, could be central to any such alliance, but that would require a Japanese rearming -- a thought unsettling not only to many Japanese but to a generation of Southeast Asian leaders who lived through Japan's wartime occupation.

The question now being posed is whether any regional security grouping can succeed without Japan, or whether it would be better to counter potential Japanese aggression by locking Japan into a cooperative organization.

One commonly voiced fear among Southeast Asian leaders is that if the United States withdraws, Japan would have to develop a nuclear weapons arsenal -- something now inconsistent with its postwar constitution.

Faced with such a prospect, Southeast Asians -- and the Japanese themselves -- would like to forestall a U.S. military retreat from the region.

"That is the central problem facing the region right now -- to keep the Americans in," said Jusuf Wanandi, director of Jakarta's Center for Strategic and International Studies, an academic think tank. "Militarily, it's a much better game for everybody -- including the Japanese -- if the Americans stay in."

In an effort to help ensure this, Singapore and Brunei have offered the use of their territory for U.S. planes and warships, and other Southeast Asian leaders, after years of reluctance to say so publicly, are voicing support for a continuation of the American bases in the Philippines.

The remark by Omar last week drew comparisons here to the recent comments of Britain's former trade minister Nicholas Ridley, who warned about the potential danger of a reunited Germany seeking to dominate Europe. But while Ridley's comments unleashed a storm of criticism and cost Ridley his Cabinet post, Omar's remark here caused barely a ripple, in part because the visceral suspicion of Japan in this region runs in many ways deeper than the concerns that Europeans have about a unified Germany.

Many Asians say that while Germans have been largely penitent for their role in World War II and the massacre of Jews, Japan has never sufficiently atoned -- or even expressed enough remorse -- for its wartime role and the atrocities it committed against Asians.

Five of the six members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations -- Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines -- were occupied by Japan, while Thailand avoided such subjection by forging a de facto alliance with Tokyo.

"The Germans have been over and over again reminded, and openly expressed not just regret and contrition, but open acknowledgement that what was done and what has happened was wrong," Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said in May, adding that the West Germans have shown remorse by conducting war trials "by German courts in German territory."

Lee attributed the difference to the Western Jewish community, which has made a conscious effort to keep alive the memory of the Holocaust. "We don't have Jews in Asia. There are no Asian Jews to write up dossiers and chase people all around the world and capture them and produce them for trial."

Paul Manglapus, the Philippine foreign secretary, has also expressed the view that Filipinos would not want Japan to take a larger role in regional security because the Philippines suffered more than the other occupied countries during the war.

Thailand recently demonstrated a lack of sensitivity to the fears of its neighbors by proposing in May that Japanese forces conduct joint naval exercises with the Thai Navy. The proposal raised fears in the region and prompted protests from other Southeast Asian nations who complained that they were not consulted.

The response of Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Nakayama to the Malaysian remark was, for many Southeast Asian officials, typical of what they consider Japan's lack of understanding of the sensitivities involved.

When Omar had finished speaking, Nakayama replied that Japan was no longer a threat to its neighbors and that he "spoke on behalf of the Japanese people who deplore what Japan did before and during the last world war," according to Japanese spokesman Makoto Yamanaka.

At a press briefing, Yamanaka was asked if the Japanese minister specifically apologized for what Japan did. "He did not exactly apologize," Yamanaka said. But he said that in the Japanese language, "deplore" is a very strong term.