With political careers currently being damaged wholesale, the issue of increased United States-Japanese military cooperation has become a major embarrassment to the government of Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki.
The handling of American demands for a larger Japanese defense role has already led to the resignation of Foreign Minister Masayoshi Ito and one of his top ministry aides. Very shortly it could lead also to the departure of the government's chief trade negotiator, Saburo Okita.
But even more important, it has seriously damaged the reputation of the prime minister himself, posing questions about whether he will stay in office. The Japanese press is united in blaming him for the debacle over his summit conference less than two weeks ago in Washington.
There is widespread agreement here that Mr. Suzuki and his new foreign minister, the veteran politician Sunao Sonoda, have two urgent tasks on their hands:
* Avoiding lasting damage to US-Japan relations while restoring American trust in this country.
* Convincing the European leaders whom the prime minister is scheduled to meet next month that they are witnessing a purely family squabble not indicative of any Japanese unreliability in international affairs.
The Ito resignation stemmed from the wording and timing of the joint communique issued to cover the two meetings between Prime Minister Suzuki and President Reagan.
Noting the reference to an "alliance" between the two governments, political opponents and press critics accused Mr. Suzuki of committing Japan to fight side by side with the US in future conflicts, violating the no-war constitution.
The prime minister stoutly maintained use of the word added nothing to the existing relationship based on the 21-year-old US-Japan security pact, and was used simply to describe shared values and a commonality of interests.
This was challenged by the Foreign Ministry, whose officials were in charge of drafting the communique. Senior spokesmen said, "Of course, an alliance has military overtones." This was also Washington's interpretation, with the Reagan administration convinced it had a firm commitment from Mr. Suzuki to do more in the defense field.
Critics quickly accused the prime minister of "speaking with a forked tongue" -- telling the US what it wanted to hear, and then, playing the issue down in the face of strong domestic criticism that he had "gone too far." They said he had been "outmaneuvered" by the tricky Americans into making dangerous new military commitments.
Mr. Suzuki then compounded the problem by turning on the Foreign Ministry and accusing it of incompetence in failing to have his views fully reflected in the joint communique. Government sources said the prime minister agreed with the need for more defense spending, but for political reasons, did not want to have it too closely tied to the US -- suggesting Tokyo was "knuckling under" to Washington.
Mr. Sonoda, who held the Foreign Ministry portfolio between 1977 and 1979, has moved immediately to patch up the quarrel and convince the US it was purely domestic and temporary and would have no effect on the overall relationship. Hence, although unhappy with Mr. Suzuki's handling of his first major overseas visit, Foreign Ministry officials are asserting that the Ito resignation flowed largely from internal feuds between government departments and between leading members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
But Mr. Sonoda faces a number of tricky problems. The Ito affair is likely to heighten the "alliance" controversy, not make it go away. And US-Japan military cooperation is already in bad odor with the Japanese public: Last month's sinking of a Japanese freighter in collision with an American nuclear submarine has now been joined by a fresh furor over the severing of Japanese fishing lines off Hokkaido last week by US warships en route to a joint exercise.