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Tuesday, March 31, 1998 Published at 14:08 GMT 15:08 UK

Japan - a positive force in Asia?

Could Japan do more to tackle the Asian financial crisis?

Japan's Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, has been under the spotlight. His government rejects criticism that it is failing to pull its weight in tackling Asia's financial crisis. William Horsley of the BBC's World Affairs Unit, a former Tokyo correspondent, gives his assessment.

At home, Mr Hashimoto has the reputation of a wily political survivor, but a do-nothing prime minister. Abroad, he has yet to carve out a real profile.

[ image: Japan refuses to increase rice imports from its neighbours]
Japan refuses to increase rice imports from its neighbours
As the world's largest creditor nation, many are looking to Japan as a possible saviour from Asia's financial crisis. And Mr Hashimoto's government has played an important part in the emergency loan packages for the states hardest hit, like South Korea.

But there are also complaints that Japan should have done more. Critics say it really could have helped rescue Asia by opening its home markets, especially to large-scale rice imports.

But Japan still has a surplus in trade with the region, and it has refused, for example, Thailand's wish to export more rice. Japan's internal reforms, including the so-called financial Big Bang this week, will give more room for foreign firms to expand business in Tokyo. But the impact looks like being blunted, because the Japanese authorities are still propping up the banks behind the scenes, to avoid more sensational bankruptcies among those that hold many bad loans.

[ image: Japan recently reformed its banking strategy]
Japan recently reformed its banking strategy
So, with more charismatic Asian leaders like China's new prime minister Zhu Rongji and South Korea's president Kim Dae Jung, also present at the Asem meeting, the Japanese prime minister risked being outclassed. His government insists that on balance Japan is a positive force in world economics, and few would dispute that.

But with radical ideas for economic and social reforms in Asia now being sought, Mr Hashimoto's Japan looks more preoccupied with its problems at home than with giving a lead to its less fortunate neighbours abroad.

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