"Why did he choose now to make a statement like that? It's incredible, beyond belief." The anguish in the voice of the senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official was obvious.
He was referring to claims by Edwin Reischauer, a highly respected former US ambassador to Tokyo and now a Harvard professor, that American warships carrying nuclear weapons had frequently entered Japanese ports or passed through territorial waters.
Repeatedly over the years, however, the Japanese people have been assured by their government that visiting US vessels have been "clean" in compliance with this country's three nonnuclear principles -- not to manufacture, possess, or allow introduction of nuclear weapons.
Suspicions to the contrary have often triggered left-wing riots, and the government has been struggling with little success to dispel an overhanging cloud of doubt ever since 1974 congressional testimony by Rear Adm. John Laroque (ret.) along the same lines as Professor Reischauer.
The left now appears to have been vindicated, and successive governments exposed as either American dupes or consistent liars by the former ambassador's statement --made first to the Tokyo Mainichi Daily News and repeated later to the Kyodo News Agency.
The timing could not have been worse, coming on the same weekend as the Japanese government was split over the issue of greater military cooperation with the United States, leading to the resignation of Foreign Minister Masayoshi Ito.
And at the same time when public feeling against the US military is running high over the recent sinking of a Japanese freighter by an American nuclear submarine -- one of the unresolved questions being whether the latter was carrying nuclear missiles.
The incident, in which two Japanese seamen died, has been compounded by complaints that warships engaged in a US-Japan joint naval drill cut the lines of over 70 Japanese fishing boats operating off the island of Hokkaido (the US now says it might have been done by a shadowing Soviet vessel).
A fragile public consensus in favor of greater Japanese defense spending -- an issue being strongly pressed by the US -- did not need any further shocks at this time. But Professor Reischauer, for reasons that remain unclear, has tossed the opposition a perfect weapon, which is already being used to bombard a shaky government.
The former ambassador asserted that the US interpreted "introduction" of nuclear weapons to Japan to mean their storage or deployment at American bases in the country.
But a "verbal agreement" with the Tokyo government in 1960 certainly permitted US ships to enter Japanese ports or pass through territorial waters while carrying nuclear weapons, he claimed.
"Either the government was lying to the Japanese people or had forgotten about the verbal agreement," Professor Reischauer was quoted as saying by the two Japanese news organizations.
Many Japanese have long assumed their government was "turning a blind eye" to the presence of nuclear weapons on visiting American warships.After all, they point, where could the weapons be left during any temporary port stay --in a rowboat floating outside Japan's territorial limits?
An embarrassed and perplexed Japanese government quickly refuted Reischauer's claims. In the diet (parliament) and at press conferences, top officials repeated the line that the US-Japan security pact required "prior consultation" between the two countries before visits by nuclear-armed US warships to Japanese ports. No such consultations had ever taken place -- ergo, no nuclear weapons had ever been introduced.
But in a credibility battle between Reischauer and the government here, most Japanese would prefer to believe the American.
News media stressed his reputation as a man with deep understanding of Japan and as a close friend of this country. Said the Mainichi: "His statements seemingly are very convincing. They are bound to have a ripple effect on Japan-US relations at a time when the two countries are in a shaky situation [ over defense-related issues]."
Reached by the Monitor at Harvard University, Reischauer explained that his comments were prompted only by a long-standing request for an interview with the Mainichi Daily News. Reischauer insisted that what he said was nothing new. The controversy, he explained, arose because of the differing interpretations over the "introduction" of nuclear weapons:
The American understanding was that it should not install or stockpile nuclear weapons in Japan. The Japanese public assumed that this prohibition extended to nuclear weapons passing through Japanese waters.
[This would be "very impractical," said Reischauer. Instead, he asserted, Japanese governments have resorted to the habit of evading the question by saying "we always trust the American government." This, he argued, put the American government in a very awkward position because it made "us appear dishonest."]
Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki hesitated perceptibly before telling reporters he did not think the three nonnuclear principles would be destroyed if the Reischauer charges were proved (and he immediately ordered the Foreign Ministry to investigate them thoroughly).
Pressed further, he said the matter would be related to policy, but the US must keep its promises for prior consultation (in fact, government sources admitted that the US as a matter of principle never revealed any details of the movements of nuclear weapons).
It was a vague statement that left unclear whether the government is now changing the Japanese stance of the past 21 years that "introduction" of nuclear weapons also means port visits by warships and transit of territorial waters.
Analyzing the former US ambassador's motives for making the statement, some government sources thought he wished to point out the contradiction between Japan's nonnuclear principles and its reliance on the US nuclear umbrella.
It seemed there were sectors in the US who found Japan's policy rather strange compared to Western Europe's acceptance of US missiles as part of the price for American protection, they said.
Whatever Reischauer's motives, he has made life more difficult for the already beleaguered Prime Minister Suzuki.
He is being assailed from all sides for the semantic dispute over the wording of the joint communique issued after his Washington talks with President Reagan earlier this month, which led to the resignatio n of his foreign minister over the weekend.