Japan: facing up to nukes

It will take the highest order of diplomacy and political skill to weather the storm that seems to be building in Japan over that country's relations with the United States. The problems mount. First came the accidental sinking of a Japanese freighter by an American nuclear submarine, an incident that touched off a round of Japanese criticism. Then came the public furor over the use of the word "alliance" in the recent US-Japanese communique, which led to the resignation of the Japanese foreign minister. And now comes another "bombshell" -- the disclosure by former US ambassador Edwin Reischauer in a Japanese newspaper interview that US warships carrying nuclear weapons have frequently entered Japanese ports or passed through territorial waters. Publication could not have been more ill-timed for the already beleaguered government in Tokyo.

However, now that the nuclear issue has been so sharply -- and, many diplomats feel, unfortunately -- brought to the fore again, the time has perhaps come for the Japanese to face up to it with greater candor and realism than they have in the past. The whole subject of defense is now under scrutiny and the nuclear dimension needs clarification.

That the issue is such an emotional one for the Japanese people is understandable. Theirs is the only nation in the world to have experienced firsthand the terrible destructiveness of the atomic bomb. In line with Japan's "antiwar" Constitution, government policy has long been (1) not to produce nuclear arms, (2) not to deploy nuclear arms, and (3) not to allow their "introduction" into Japanese territory. Whether or not US nuclear-armed ships call at Japanese ports we do not know. It is not something which the US or the Japanese government can honestly confirm or deny without tipping their hand to Soviet military planners.

But the question arises: if such calls are made (and Mr. Reischauer said he understood there was an "oral agreement" to this effect), why should this not be possible under the mutual security arrangements which govern US protection of Japan? There is an obvious gap between rhetoric and reality. The Japanese rely on the US "nuclear umbrella" --comes and, in the interests of nuclear stability, wishes to continue. But how can the US provide a credible nuclear deterrent if it is unable to service ships carrying nuclear missiles? And why should Japan, whose security is being protected, be exempted from all responsibilities, to the point of denying its territorial waters to passage of the ships? The anomaly of the situation is clear.

This is not to fail to understand the political and emotional forces at work in Japanese society. Japan's leader operate against the backdrop of strong popular anxiety and of intense political rivalry, not only within the ruling Liberal-Democratic Party but within the many factions in it. Prime ministers can rise and fall on one miscalculation of the public mood or one political misstep.

Yet it is to the credit of the Suzuki government that it has sought to nudge Japan toward a greater acceptance of its responsibilities in the defense area. The term "alliance" used in the recent US-Japanese communique was not inadvertent. IT was a calculated use of the word to underscore the close relationship between the two countries. True, the "alliance" is a one-way street and not the two-way partnership that obtains in NATO. But Japan and the US have long considered themselves allies and indeed, maintain extremely intimate ties across the board.

The Japanese people need to be reassured that their American friends are not pressing them to dishonor their Constitution by rearming for offensive purposes and perhaps encouraging right-wing militarism. It is well understood that Japan wants to maintain only defensive forces. But are these forces sufficient for today's tasks? There is not an American or Japanese military planner who thinks so. Japan's air defense is weak; it has no logistical support; there is no joint command of its armed forces. By comparison with the NATO members, Japan spends an extremely small portion of its GNP on defense. At a time of growing Soviet military power, when the military resources of the United States are being stretched -- and often streched thin -- to accommodate expanded global responsibilities, is it unreasonable for the US to ask Japan (and the NATO countries) to bear a large share of the defense burden? To help protect, for instance, the sea lanes in the Far East on which Japan vitally depends for its very economic existence?

There is, we feel, a need for candor and self-examination in Japan on these crucial matters. The Japanese people have come a long way toward greater understanding and acceptance of the US security role and the need for Japanese armaments. But perhaps they can no longer afford the luxury of insulating themselves from the nuclear question. It is to be hoped the ruling Japanese estab lishment contributes to a rational, forthright debate.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.