Japan's new ambassador in Washington, Shunji Yanai--fluent in English, French and German, charismatic and confident--seems to be part of a rare strain in his country's foreign policy apparatus. Comfortable in addressing his country's strengths as well as its weaknesses, the candid diplomat has an unabashed fondness for art, beauty and fine wines.

Yanai is likely to bring to the job an assertiveness and forcefulness not characteristic of his predecessors, even if it means departing from traditional norms and tastes.

When he was a consul general in San Francisco, he made several visits to the Napa Valley and was instrumental in bringing California wines to Japan. "I continue to promote California wines; cuisine, eating and drinking are a very important part of cultural exchange and trade," he said. Although Japan is a relatively new market for wines made from grapes--accustomed as it is to sake and other beverages distilled from rice--"now we are importing a lot of wine," he added, noting that in 1997, the value of Japan's wine imports from France exceeded the value of Japanese automobile exports to France.

Yanai does not seem to shy away from breaking conventions. His influence and flamboyant nature as a member of the upper crust of Japanese society, at ease with Japan's aristocracy and world politicians, enabled him to overcome an often crippling career move--getting a divorce--and climb to the post of deputy foreign minister and vice minister for foreign affairs. He flew even further in the face of convention when he remarried and his second wife is a former geisha.

The word geisha, he said earnestly last week is "misunderstood." Gei means art, and sha means person. Thus, geisha is the word for artist, he explained, lamenting the fact that the geisha culture has "unfortunately decreased." For him geishas are not just demure creatures gracefully holding up folded fans and catering to men's whims with studied subtlety.

"They have to master a musical instrument or several [instruments]. They have to sing and perform Japanese dances. So, they really carry traditional Japanese culture," he said.

Yanai welcomed efforts to include China in the World Trade Organization but asserted that the United States has gone too far in taking anti-dumping measures against Japanese steel exports, which has affected 80 percent of such exports. "We are very concerned about possible abuse of such measures, which could become a tool of protectionism," he added, noting that Japan is the largest importer of U.S. agricultural products.

Japanese economic growth has climbed from negative figures to 0.6 percent this past year, he said. Still, he added, "the world needs bigger Japanese growth." He also talked about tensions between South and North Korea and China and Taiwan, declaring: "In our region, the Cold War has not completely ended."

Diplomatic Burlesque

Without taking this metaphor too literally, imagine Syria and Israel to be the masochist and sadist who finally meet. The masochist, Syria in the case of this anecdote, pleads: "Please hurt me, please stay in Lebanon." The sadist, Israel, responds: "Nooo."

This is how Joel Singer, a former Israeli negotiator now with the law firm of Sidley and Austin, described the juncture that led Syria to negotiate with Israel--a process now in its second round at Shepherdstown, W. Va. Prime Minister Ehud Barak said last year Israeli troops would be out of Lebanon by July 2000 regardless of what happens with Syria. That prompted Syria, in the logic of the Middle East, to push for a resumption of peace talks lest it lose one of its bargaining chips before the bargaining ever began, Singer said. For years, he added during a policy forum luncheon at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, "the possible gives and required takes did not fit into the right equation." But after months of Syria brushing aside as too demanding Israel's insistence on security and normalization, and as the diplomatic shadow dance defied mutual agreement on ultimate goals, the sadist and the masochist finally came together.

" 'An arrangement with us will allow you to withdraw your forces from Lebanon and stop this daily bloodshed [in southern Lebanon]' is Syria's position now, since an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon without [Syrian involvement] will make it lose a chip it can pay Israel without paying anything," he said.

Singer served as legal adviser to Israel's Foreign Ministry from 1993 to '96, and he was one of the main architects of the 1996 Oslo peace accords. He also participated in the 1996 talks with Syria and in three-way negotiations between Israel, Lebanon and the United States in 1983. To make a deal complete will require more than simply Israel and Syria, he added. "You also need the Lebanese. . . . You have to convince Iran to get out of Lebanon and sort out the water issue, which means Turkey also has to be brought in," he said. Syria sits on water sources feeding Israel, and Syria's water source is in Turkey.