By Victor Fic

Smart Africans will suspend the adage "never look a gift horse in the mouth" in assessing the motives behind Japan's one billion dollar grant package for Africa to fight disease. Any political veterinarian probing into the jaws of Tokyo's gift steed will see the teeth of diplomatic, strategic, image related and economic self interest. While Japanese altruists deserve praise, clearly savvy Tokyo is making an investment.

To start, Japan covets a United Nations Security Council seat and expects African aid recipients to support its bid. However, no coherent foreign policy vision matches Tokyo's representation drive. When Japan started modernizing in the 19th century, some Japanese clamored to "exit Asia and join the West," while others advocated championing the Orient against the Occident. Many modern Japanese hanker to be Asia's Switzerland - rich and neutral.

The debate won't be resolved soon. Japan has a penchant for feckless prime ministers, and its conformist schools discourage bold theorizing. Distressingly, the nation's core values are insular and nativist. They stifle or adulterate the liberalism that shines on society's surface with the same deceptive brightness as the sunlight glinting off a Tokyo skyscraper's windows. If anything, Japan is renationalizing. What is its UN agenda?

Some realists posit that Tokyo does have a UN strategy. Japan's main war victim, China, is now rising fast and angry. Tokyo likely hopes to use its security council seat to check Beijing's power. If the African aid package is the price for clout at the world body, it is worth paying.

Japan's strategy also entails denying assistance to China. Many Japanese rue that China invested, all too wisely, the billions that Japan has already donated. Japan now asks, "Why keep funding China, an economic competitor also investing feverishly in high tech arms?" As the Chinese dragon gets cut off, the Dark Continent can get paid off.

Public relations is at work. Many Japanese think that their advanced race spawned a unique culture beyond foreigners' comprehension. Even though Koreans, Chinese, Ainu and foreigners live in Japan, totaling almost three quarters of a million people, Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone famously insisted in the 1980's that his country is homogenous. He then declared that America was declining because African-Americans had compromised the U.S.'s gene pool.

Other leading politicians have stated that when blacks move into a neighborhood, it is akin to prostitutes arriving. A Guinean named Ousmane Sankhon who became a Japanese television star recently rued that the skits include him standing in a dark area so that his Japanese costars can locate him because of his bright teeth and eyes.

It is to Japan's credit that it has fewer race-related crimes than America. But Japanese favor multiculturalism and openness. Their dominant perspective on blacks will likely mirror America's  decades ago.

Therefore, a hefty African aid package might burnish Japan's tarnished image. If Tokyo wants a gilded reputation, it might lobby the West to lift the discriminatory trade barriers that shut out African farmers. But that would require that Japan liberalize its own protected agriculture sector.

In addition, many suspect that Japan's powerful conservatives calculate that a UN seat means respectability. During World War 2, as Japan scrambled for Asian colonies, mimicking rapacious Western imperialists, it killed at least 20 million innocents.

Justified Indian complaints that the English have skirted responsibility for their high crimes are paralleled here in East Asia, where legions accurately accuse Tokyo of not convening a South Africa style truth commission or properly apologizing. A hallowed security council seat, many Japanese must hope, would signal that Tokyo - even as it drifts rightward - has moral merit and is trustworthy.

As with most donors, economics matters too. In 1965, Tokyo disbursed hundreds of millions of dollars in economic assistance to Korea. Many Koreans, however, recall how Tokyo benefited after the money built up the Korean port of Pusan and paid for the highway that connects Pusan to Seoul. Japanese exports are off loaded at Pusan and whiz to Seoul on that very road. What strings tie impecunious Africa to distant, aloof Japan's pharmaceutical industries?

Overall, Africans should both welcome Tokyo's generous aid initiative and realize their role in a wider scheme. It has an ambitious Japanese rider actually mounts his own gift horse, cajoling it to run at full diplomatic gallop.

[Victor Fic is a Canadian journalist now based in Seoul, Korea, where he hosts a weekly show for Johannesburg's Channel Islam called "Asian Horizons." The article appeared in the Asia Times Online first.]