If electoral politics attract marginally more interest in Japan this week than the dispute over who owns what the Japanese call the Senkaku Islands, it is not because sober-suited politicians make better television. The least nationalistic Japanese is now aware of Chinese feelings after watching the pictures of the death of protester David Chan Yuk-cheung. By comparison, local politics are unexciting - and most voters are duly unexcited. But even for a nation as uninspired by its politicians as Japan, the snap election called for October 20 by Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto will have more than usual significance. It will be the first election fought under new rules brought in to promote political debate and foster greater competition between parties. Still, the range of competition may be disappointing since several new parties are virtually indistinguishable from each other, and are equally indistinguishable from the old Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) from which most sprung. The LDP is smaller and probably more united than before it lost power in 1993 for the first time in nearly 40 years. The only real change has been in the former Socialist Party, now the Social Democratic Party, which shed its pacifist platform at the end of the Cold War and went into coalition with the LDP. As a result, only the tiny Communist Party stands out as really different, and Japanese voters are far too conservative to plump for anything as radical as that. What does pose a threat to the status quo is the introduction of a 'first past the post' system in 300 new constituencies instead of multi-member seats filled by proportional representation. The changing electoral mathematics bring at least a chance to oust some old party stalwarts who used to be returned to the Diet with 10 per cent of the vote. Mr Hashimoto would not have called an early election unless he was fairly sure of being returned to power. He is the most self-assured public performer in Japanese politics for some time. But some pundits suggest his survival is uncertain, although the LDP is expected to be returned as the largest party. However the polls turn out, though, the new Government will have to learn to live in a new international environment. Japan still has the world's second largest economy. But the rest of Asia, never particularly happy with its economic domination of the region, is catching up. Faced with a resurgent China, and self-confident rulers to the south and west, Japan must rethink its attitude to its neighbours. In economic terms, Tokyo tends to treat some Asian countries almost like colonial possessions, exploiting their raw materials, cheap labour and need for loans and investment. In return, it offers them little political recognition or co-operation. In the most important case, nothing will be solved until Tokyo learns to treat Beijing as an equal. Japan has similar, and equally sensitive, disputes with Korea and Russia - though in the Russian case it is Japan, not Moscow which feels aggrieved. Examining with China the possibilities for a joint solution to the Diaoyu dispute might actually stand Tokyo in good stead with Korea and Russia, rather than being interpreted there as a sign of weakness which is what Japanese officials seem to fear. Tokyo can no longer afford to live in glorious isolation and superiority in Asia while focusing its political and strategic attentions on its relationship with the United States. That relationship remains vital both for Japan's own security and the security of other nations in the region (the American presence is, after all, as effective in the containment of Japan as in the containment of China). But it must not be pursued to the exclusion of expanded political, economic and security ties with the rest of Asia. Throughout the region, a new generation is coming to power which is too young to have experienced at first hand the horrors of Japan's last great military and colonialist adventure. That so many of Asia's younger leaders and opinion-formers still feel a deep distrust and dislike of Japan is a clear indication of how little the country's own leaders have done to change the region's perception of their country and its intentions. Mr Hashimoto, with his personal links to militarist traditions, may not be the best man to put matters right. Yet he is one of very few Japanese politicians with the charisma to set a new image and agenda. Whoever forms Japan's next Government must make a greater effort to woo Asia and show, once and for all, that the new Japan is ready to treat all its neighbours as friends and equals. Only then is the rest of Asia likely to respond in kind.