* Does America understand Japan? * More specifically, is Washington pushing ahead with a defense policy toward Japan based on miscalculation or misunderstanding of popular sentiment here?
These questions have come to the fore in the controversy over the US-Japan security ties that rages on with no sign of abating.
In some ways the controversy embarrasses the Tokyo government. But another thesis holds that this is a perfect time for the government to advance controversial issues like defense and Japan's nuclear sensitivities. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) now commands a solid majority in the Diet (parliament), while the opposition is weak and in disarray.
The debate has two prongs:
First, there is the use of the word "alliance" in a joint communique issued after last month's US-Japan summit meeting in Washington. Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki's refusal to accept that this meant close military cooperation led to the protest resignation of Foreign Minister Masayoshi Ito, whose aides drafted the document.
Second came the revelations of former US Ambassador Edwin O. Reischauer that nuclear-armed warships have visited Japanese ports with Tokyo's tacit approval -- a claim firmly, and sometimes rudely, rejected by Japanese officials insisting the country's three "nonnuclear principles" against manufacture, possession, or introduction of atomic weapons remain intact.
The Japanese public seems prone to believe the two issues -- defense cooperation and nuclear sensitivities -- are closely linked. Certainly they are now quite openly discussing military problems and are increasingly aware of the growing Soviet threat.
The Reagan administration is also pressuring on Japan for greater defense spending. Dr. reischauer may have concluded the time was ripe to educate the Japanese on the nuclear facts of life.
Hawks in Japan, the ones most often heard in Washington, and the US State Department presumably reached the same conclusion -- hence the desire to insert the word "alliance" in the joint communique to tie Japan's hands on the defense issue (getting away with it at the time because of the prime minister's relative inexperience in international affairs).
Calculations that neither he nor the Japanese public would later take issue with the communique backfired.
The nuclear row is generating the most heat. Rather than leaving well enough alone, after setting the initial cat among the pigeons, Dr. Reischauer has struck again.
In an article published here this week he told the Japanese to stop throwing tantrums over defense, calling their sensitivity over nuclear issues "somewhat absud."
He also urged the Japanese public to face up to reality and acknowledge that it would be impossible for American ships protecting Japan "to change their armaments every time they enter Japanese waters."
This, however, is really only what Tokyo has been trying to assert in its various contortions to get off the hook on the most explosive issue in Japanese politics. Recent offical explanations have left the public confused whether to blame America, their own government, or both.
In a remarkable counterattack, Foreign Minister Sunao Sonoda told the Diet Monday that Dr. Reischauer was the rudest person he had ever known.
"The most unpleasant thing about [him] is he thinks the Japanese people's aversion to nuclear weapons is too strong and he proposes to cure it . . . as if it were a nettle rash. This is uncalled-for meddling in Japanese affairs."
The influential daily Asahi urged the US to improve its "shallow understanding" of Japanese sentiment on nuclear weapons, which was not emotional , naive, or unrealistic, as some US mews media had suggested.
"The Japanese hate nuclear weapons because we are aware of the danger of involvement in the nuclear strategy of a superstate," the newspaper said, adding a warning that if the US did manage to weaken this country's pacifist Constitution and the three nonnuclear principles, "We cannot rule out the possibility Japan can become a military power to threaten its Asian neighbors and the United States."
The current controvery again showed the inadequate communication between the two countries, it added.
One leading Tokyo television station screened man-in- the-street interviews in several American cities this week which demonstrated complete lack of knowledge of the nuclear row and its implications.This, too, has been bitterly condemned here as displaying lack of American interest in listening to Japan's views.
Yasushi Hara, a leading commentator, said the tragedy was that American policy toward this country was dominated by self-appointed Japanophiles who thought it was their mission to educate the Japanese, forgetting the Japanese had their own opinions.
The next "peak" in the ongoing dispute is likely to come this Friday when the aircraft carrier Midway returns to its home port of Yokosuka near Tokyo. town authorities seeking a postponement have warned that local opinion will become increasingly anti-American if the Midway docks while there is strong suspicion the US is introducing land-or ship-based nuclear weapons to Japan.
the government, however, is planning tight security against demonstrations and a warm welcome for the ship -- which, it points out, has spent the last three months guarding Japan's oil lifeline to the Middle East. It has also refused opposition demands that it ask th e US if the Midway is carrying nuclear weapons.