Prof. Edwin O. Reischauer appears to have ripped the veil off 20 years of lying by successive Japanese governments and of complaisance by American governments.
The issue is whether or not American naval vessels armed with nuclear weapons have been calling at Japanese ports without first offloading the nuclear element. The Japanese government insists that American vessels always disarm themselves of the nuclear element before calling at Japanese ports. The US government says nothing. When asked, the standard reply is that it is longstanding American policy never to say whether a particular ship is or is not carrying nuclear arms.
Privately, both American and Japanese officials will admit that they are playing an elaborate game of appearances designed to deflect the Japanese public's well-known aversion to nuclear arms since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
It appears Mr. Reischauer, the United States's foremost scholar on Japan and American ambassador in Tokyo from 1961 to 1966, has decided that the time has come to call a spade a spade. The repercussions have shaken Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki's cabinet and have even caused the high-flying Tokyo stock market to take a tumble. Market analysts sagely talk of the "Reischauer shock" and whether prices can recover before the end of the month.
The immediate effect of the Harvard scholar's remarks in press interviews May 18 has been on domestic politics in Japan. But a kind of shaking-out process has been going on in Japan's relations with the US as well -- a process bound to be complicated by Mr. Reischauer's comments.
Are Japan and the US really allies, or are they just friends? What is Japan's proper defense role? How can frictions over trade be prevented from spilling into the defense and security area, and vice versa?
The questions have been asked frequently during the postwar years as the US first helped a defeated enemy to recover, then watched with a mixture of admiration and alarm as that former enemy turned into a formidable economic competitor while remaining heavily dependent on Washington for its defense.
Alone among the nations of the world Japan has forsaken war as an instrument of national policy, and its Constitution of 1946 actually bans armed forces and other "war potential." That Constitution remains sacrosanct in the eyes of most Japanese, and successive governments have had to make tortuous and at times ludicrous explanations to show that Japan's self-defense force does not possess "war potential."
Successive governments also have pledged the "three principles of nuclear no's" --no to possession of nuclear arms, no to introduction of nuclear arms." The third point concerns the US. A lightly armed, nonnuclear Japan depends on a security treaty with the US for its defense.The treaty obligates the US to defend Japan in case of attack. It does not obligate Japan to defend the US unless the attack comes in Japanese land, sea, or air space.
It is not a mutual defense treaty, in the way that the North Atlantic alliance is a mutual defense treaty. Hence the question, "Is Japan really an ally?" The answer seems to be "yes, in a political and economic sense, no in a strictly military sense." But this has never been clearly defined.
The late Prime Minister Masahiro Ohira was the first openly to talk of an "alliance" between Japan and the US, and he evidently meant the term in a very broad sense.
Is it not inconsistent for a Japan that ultimately depends on the American nuclear umbrella for security against the Soviet threat --as do all the US's other friends and allies -- to refuse port facilities and passage through its waters of nuclear-armed American ships including submarines?
This is the question raised by Mr. Reischauer's remarks. He suggested that, while the US had agreed not to store nuclear weapons on Japanese soil, there was a longstanding oral agreement that its nuclear-armed ships could visit Japanese ports and transit Japanese waters without divesting themselves of their weapons.
This oral agreement was never made public. Thus since 1960, when the security treaty was renegotiated with the US, successive Japanese governments appear to have been lying when the claimed that American warships denuclearized their arms before entering Japanese ports, and successive American governments have acquiesced by saying nothing to contradict these statements.
The furore Mr. Reischauer's remarks have roused shows how sensitive the subject of nuclear weapons remains in Japan.But it seems unlikely the Suzuki cabinet will fall over the issue. It is even conceivable that the final result could be a clearing of the atmosphere and a more mature awareness by the Japanese public of the kind of world they live in.
But before such a result can be achieved, Mr. Suzuki and his new foreign minister, Sunao Sonoda, must buckle their seat belts for an extremely bumpy ride.