"If the Soviets landed on Hokkaido tomorrow, we would quickly be reduced to the same kind of octopus-hole suicide tactics we used in World War II," the Japanese general said.
(An octopus hole is a hole dug by an infantryman lying in wait for an oncoming tank. He crouches within it, octopus-like, and explodes his charge at the moment the tank's vulnerable underbelly passes over him. The tank may be blown up, but so will the attacker.)
"It's such a pity," the general continued. "Toward the end of World War II, we had no choice. We were poor, our technology was outdated, we were running out of supplies.
"But today we are rich, and our technology is superb. We don't need to make a vast outlay in order to have a pretty good defense force. Some of our equipment today compares favorably with that of other advanced states. But we don't have enough of it. And some of our guns, like the 105-mm cannon we trundle around by truck, go back to the Korean war."
Japanese generals do not like to talk on the record. Defense is a sensitive political subject in Japan, where Article 9 of the postwar Constitution bans "war potential" and the right of belligerency.
Japan's armed forces are therefore called self-defense forces and their annual budget, as a proportion of gross national product, is the lowest among the world's advanced industrialized democracies -- .91 percent in 1981, compared with 6 percent for the United States.
In any all-out war Japan would have to rely on the American nuclear umbrella provided under its security treaty with the U.S. But Washington has long felt (and many Japanese agree) that even in terms of conventional weaponry Japan's defense forces are far from adequate.
On a recent visit to Japan's Maine-sized northern island of Hokkaido, adjoining Soviet Sakhalin and the Kuriles, this correspondent was able to interview self-defense force personnel only on the understanding that no names would be used.
Four of the ground self-defense forces' 13 divisions are stationed on Hokkaido, and they have the best equipment available. Of the 400 tanks on Hokkaido, 300 are the new variable-profile type 74 developed by Mitsubishi and particularly suited for the country's hilly terrain. Self-propelled 105-mm and 155-mm cannons are being introduced, and the truck-trundled relics the general complained of will be retired by next spring.
Nevertheless, if war were to break out tomorrow, Japanese defense sources are quick to admit that both in ammunition and in equipment they would be ill-prepared to last more than a short while. Whether this would be a matter of hours, or of days, or of weeks, the officers in Hokkaido did not want to say.
This point has also been repeatedly stressed to the Japanese by Washington, both by former Defense Secretary Harold Brown and by the present Secretary Caspar Weinberger. Mr. Weinberger is sending his deputy, Frank Carlucci, to Tokyo this fall to continue the steady pressure the Reagan administration has been applying to get the Japanese government to increase its defence spending.
"There really isn't any disagreement between us and the Americans over what the Soviet threat is or over how it has increased in recent years," said one defense official in Tokyo. "Nor is there any disagreement over what our government needs to do to improve our own defenses.
"The whole controversy boils down to a question of amounts of money, of how much we can afford to spend, given all the other competing claims on our overall budget and the priority our prime minister has given to bringing deficit financing under control." (The government depends on borrowing to cover a third of its annual spending.)
"Our government does not feel it can increase defense spending by more than 7 .5 percent in the coming year, given the fact that every other item of expenditure except economic aid is being held down to zero or close to zero increases. The Americans say that what we do with our budget is our business, but that the kind of defense spending we are projecting is not going to be adequate to meet the things we need to do in our own defense, given the increased Soviet threat. We agree with them.
"But our government has to think of other things, such as the degree of popular support a particular level of defense spending will have, given the fact that we are holding down or cutting health, welfare and other vote-winning spending."
Within this framework, however, the defense agency has put forward its budget request for the coming fiscal year (April 1982 to March 1983) in a way designed not only to obtain the full 7.5 percent increase authorized by the government as a ceiling, but to incur rising spending obligations in future years. The defense budget itself will rise to 2,580 billion yen ($11.2 billion) next year ( 7.5 percent more than this year's budget). But more important, future year spending obligations will increase by 67 percent over last year to a total of 2, 260 billion yen ($9.8 billion).
Future year spending obligations arise because, for instance, while the agency wants to order 80 tanks, 40 self-propelled 155-mm cannons, 22 antitank helicopters, 43 F-15 Eagle fighters, 17 antisubmarine P3C patrol planes next year, most of the actual spending will take place in future years as the orders are completed.
The most expensive and important items on the order list are the F-15s, the P 3Cs, the antitank helicopters, and an assortment of frigates and other naval craft. If these orders are approved, Japan's defense budget is certain to top 1 percent of gross national product in another year or so. Thus, although the increase in defense spending this year is being held to 7.5 percent, the kind of procurement being asked for within this framework makes it certain that future year increases will be in double digit percentages.
A major political battle will be fought over this issue during this fall's Diet (parliament) session. If Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki upholds the defense agency's proposals, the day when front-line generals do not have to think in terms of desperate octopus-hole tactics is likely to be hastened.