The United States may have to revise its expectations of greater military cooperation from Japan. For one thing, it may not be able to rely on Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki to deliver the goods -- in view of mutterings within the corridors of power that his government may not survive the current furor over defense.
Fears of a government collapse saw prices on the Tokyo Stock Exchange record the sharpest one-day fall in years May 19.
Segments in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party have joined with opposition parties, the press, some local governments, and citizen organizations to castigate Mr. Suzuki for alleged incompetence and lack of leadership.
He is being pilloried mainly for statements that the communique issued after his meetings with President Reagan in Washington earlier this month -- stressing agreement on a Japanese rearmament program and a sharing of military responsibilities in "alliance" with the US -- did not reflect his views.
Newspapers editorials and statements by public figures day after day are hammering at the point that this is unprecedented in international diplomacy, casting grave doubts on the value of any prmise from Suzuki -- or anyone else in the Japanese government.
There are two theories current about Mr. Suzuki's behavior in repudiating the communique -- leading last weekend to the resignation of Foreign Minister Masayoshi Ito.
* Either he doesn't understand the language of international diplomcy -- by continuing to insist that a US-Japan alliance does not extend to stepped-up military cooperation.
* Or he misjudged the climate of public opinion on the entire defense issue. Having made the commitments desired by the Reagan administration, he subsequently panicked in the face of extremely vocal opposition at home, using the Foreign Minister as scapegoat.
An Asahi Shimbun editorial commented: "We should like to express the strong hope that Washington will learn one lesson from this incident: that the 'hawkish' opinions the US hears from Japanese who visit Washington are not representative of public opinion in Japan, and that the nation is still very divided on the defense issue.
"From the American point of view, there may be no major problems involved in the use of the word 'alliance.' But for Japan, over and above the interpretation of the word itself, there is the very serious problem of the government's recent decision to embark on a rapid defense buildup. There are great differences of opinion on the matter, not only among the public, but also within the governnment and LDP."
It is Mr. Suzuki's misfortune that his public test of his credibility has coincided with the emergence of another highly emotional defense-related issue casting grave doubts on government veracity for the past 21 years.
Harvard Prof. Edwin O. Reischauer, US ambassador to Tokyo between 1960 and 1966, administered the body blow in a Japanese newspaper interview in which he repeatedly asserted that, as a matter of routine, nuclear-armed US warships have been passing through Japanese territorial waters and visiting ports here for the past 20 years under a 1960 verbal agreement with the Tokyo government. This, he insisted, was "common knowledge."
But throughout that period the Japanese public has been assured by its political leaders than country's policy not to manufacture, possess, or allow the "introduction" of nuclear weapons has applied to such American naval activities without exception.
The Cabinet said May 19 that the US must obtain "prior" Tokyo permission for any port call or transit through territorial waters by a vessel carrying nuclear weapons -- despite a flood of statements from past and present American naval officers and diplomats that such consultation has never been necessary under the 1960 US-Japan security treaty.
Japan has denied any agreement with the United States which would permit American ships to carry nuclear arms into Japanese ports and has insisted that any such action would require prior consultation by the American authorities.
Mr Suzuki reiterated this stand May 19 and said that since there have been no prior consultations, Japan does not know of any nuclear weapons arriving aboard American Seventh Fleet vessels. Japan has denied any agreement with the United States which would permit American ships to carry nuclear arms into Japanese ports and has insisted that any such action would require prior consultation by the American authorities.
[However, United Press International reports that the Asahi Shimbun May 19 quoted Nobusuke Kishi, prime minister at the time of the 1960 revision of the US-Japan security treaty, as saying he assumed US warships had transited and put into ports while carrying nuclear weapons. The Japanese paper said he did not discuss if there was a verbal understanding.]
Public reaction has been predictable. Newspapers are full of statements from leading public figures and average citizens, all angrily condemning either the Tokyo or Washington governments, or both, for persistent lying over the past two decades.
Demonstrations are being planned at ports where the US either has a permanent naval base or where warships ordinarily call. Local governments in these ports have also ordered their own urgent inquiries into the Reischauer allegations, along with demands for "the truth" from the Suzuki government (which has firmly denied the former ambassador's claims).
Among newspaper editorials, the Yomiuri Daily said the Japan-Us alliance could easily collapse unless the two governments had the courage to expose the facts on the volatile nuclear issue.
The Asahi said if the Reischauer statement was correct, the Japanese government had been betraying the nuclear sensitivities of the people's for a long period.
The Mainichi said the peace constitution and the nonnuclear principles -- both of which Tokyo and Washington now seemed intent on betraying -- were fully supported by the Japanese people, who were the first victims of atomic war.
All the papers urged the government to take a hard line, saying that otherwise the US would start stockpiling nuclear weapons at its Japanese bases (something opposition parties have long insisted is already occuring).
Commentators, assessing the timing of the Reischauer statement, have assumed it was a "trial balloon" to prepare the public for a weakening or revocation of tne nonnuclear principles. Reischauer himself attaches no significance to the timing asserting that it was the result of a long-standing request for an interview. And in yet another setbackfor the two governments, newspaper here have just revealed that an accident on an American missile cruiser at a Japanese port in 1979 resulted in several nuclear warheads having to be replaced. A Navy spokesman confirmed some details of the reports, but declined, as usual, to talk about the nuclear weapons aspect.
The strong reaction to all these incidents inevitably raises questions as to the government's ability to push ahead with the work of military buildup desired by the US.
Feeling is now running high against the US military presence in Japan, for instance. One straw in the wind is the decision by a southern city to cancel a good-will visit by three US guided missile destroyers, which was planned for later this month.
One of the ships was the Waddell, which is linked to an incident last week in which Japanese fishermen's longlines were destroyed in the northern Japan Sea during joint US-Japan naval exercises.