Nonmilitary Japan is thinking the unthinkable: joining the booming world arms trade. The economic giant is prevented from moving into this lucrative field because of a ban on exporting arms. The restrictions were imposed to show the world that Japan was a peace-loving state that would never again resort to force unless attacked.
But American demands, for more Japanese military spending in the wake of the US Embassy hostage seizure in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan have brought a reappraisal of Japan's global role.
This is helping the business community overcome its reticence to raise the weapons-export question for fear of being branded war-mongers. For the first time in years, a few Japanese businessmen are asking publicly: Why shouldn't Japan, like the United States and Europe, be exporting arms?
Shigeo Nagano, the president of the Chamber of Commerce, for instance, is calling for the partial or total removal of the arms exports restrictions. Hosai Hyuga, president of the Osaka Federation of Employers Association, is urging that Japanese defense spending be increased from 0.9 percent of the gross national product to at least 1.9 percent.
A number of other leading businessmen are suggesting Japan swap arms for oil with its major Middle East suppliers.
"Production of weapons is the prime mover of technological progress," says Mr. Nagano. "Japan should step up efforts in this field and export products that meet international demand."
The armaments industry is a bit embarrassed by this sudden wave of support, which it fears could provoke a public backlash.
But several companies quietly agree with what Mr. Nagano and others are stressing: that entering the arms market could strengthen Japan's bargaining position with oil-producing states; that it could spur mass production of military hardware, which has been lagging because of limited domestic demand; that an expanded arms trade would boost weapons research and development.
At present, most sophisticated weapons equipment is developed in the US and made here under license.
Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, however, says its Type 74 tank is highly regarded overseas, especially in some Middle East countries. But the hardware cannot be shipped with the ban in effect. The company also says it could build aircraft carriers -- a proposition that some US officials woulld like to see come about.
At a recent London meeting of the Trilateral Commission (a group of US, Japanese, and West European business and political leaders), former US Undersecretary of State George Ball suggested that Japan build two carriers and lease them to the US.
This sent shock waves throughout the Japanese government. But former Foreign Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, who attended the London meeting, doesn't think the idea is so farfetched.
He says ways should be found to allow the export of Japanese military hardware -- if not weapons, then at least defense-related equipment -- to the US and other "allies sharing common values."
There is also a growing feeling in the business community that Japan should join in the development of new weapons technology.
Such a move, even Trade Ministry officials admit, would produce technological spinoffs in the entire "knowledge-oriented" electronics industry, which is one of the country's goals for the 1980s.
Nevertheless, the business community remains sharply divided over the weapons ban issue.
Toshiwo Doko, for one, president of the Japan Federation of Economic Organizations (Keidanren) and virtual "prime minister" of the business world, argues there are better ways for Japan to assert a more global role.
"Even in the Middle East," he says, "Japan has many products the oil producers want, which we can trade . . . without resorting to the arms trade. Involvement in weapons deals won't enhance Japan's reputation one bit."
The Defense Agency has remained silent on the controversy. But it is reported to be quietly enthusiastic about lifting the ban -- if it would mean better arms for its own troops.