Japanese premier's talk causes trouble

TSUTOMU HATA, Japan's prime minister is a man given to copious verbal expression. His style of speech, according to a Japanese phrase increasingly applied to him, produces ``a flood of words without meaning.''

Mr. Hata acknowledges he likes to talk. In his first policy speech to the Japanese parliament on May 10, the politician declared: ``I intend to give importance to frankly discussing matters in plain language [and] enhancing understanding.''

Lately he has not lived up to the bit about ``enhancing understanding,'' and government officials have had to work hard to clear waters that Hata has muddied.

On June 17 he told parliamentarians and reporters that Japan ``has the ability to produce nuclear weapons.'' He stressed that Japan will forever adhere to its long-standing commitments against the possession, manufacture, or introduction of nuclear weapons on its soil, but the statement broke a long-standing taboo against the unsurprising acknowledgment that Japan could put a bomb together if it wanted to.

In the context of an international effort to keep North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons, many observers found Hata's comment indelicate. Asians have long viewed Japan's professed abstinence from nuclear weaponry with great skepticism.

A day later, Hata told a Tokyo audience that he didn't think North Korea had the ability to produce an atomic bomb or the will to do so. But officials in Japan's Foreign Ministry, when they are asked privately for their analysis of North Korea, say they believe the North Koreans are indeed embarked on the production of nuclear weapons. Foreign Minister Koji Kakizawa explained Hata's comment on North Korea, saying the prime minister was expressing what he wants to believe.

Hata's verbal missteps may be a sign of the political strain he faces as opponents discuss a measure of no confidence, but they have kept his spokesmen busy for days. The issues are sensitive enough that normally restrained bureaucrats have been brought to the point of directly contradicting the head of government. ``Japan does not have the capability to produce [nuclear weapons],'' the Foreign Ministry announced on June 21.

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