Tokyo — Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone is hustling the Japanese people faster than they want to go on the defense issue. He talks of ''doing away with postwar taboos'' and insists that ''we are at a turning point. . . . Now is the time to settle (Japan's) postwar political problems.''
An editorial in the respected national daily Asahi Shimbun recently declared: ''These are abstract statements and they worry us . . . because the meaning of the words has become clear in the past three months.''
The Asahi comment accompanied the results of a public opinion poll that found between 60 and 70 percent of the Japanese public rejects Mr. Nakasone's statements concerning a ''common (military) destiny'' with the United States, his intention to convert Japan into ''an unsinkable aircraft carrier,'' and his plans to substantially boost defense spending and supply the US with arms technology.
Equally significant, only 30 percent agree with the prime minister that there is any need for national debate on revising the postwar Constitution, while 50 percent are strongly opposed. (Earlier polls showed up to 70 percent opposed, but it is not clear whether the Asahi's lower figure really indicates a significant swing.)
The constitutional issue has come to the fore recently, inexorably entwined in an impassioned debate over what constitutes a proper level of Japanese defense spending.
In a wider context, the constitution issue can be viewed as part of the troubled search by Japanese for a postwar national identity. Old-styled nationalism, along with the old constitution, was discredited by defeat in war and the Allied occupation.
No one is very clear about the shape of a truly ''Japanese'' constitution. And limitations imposed by the ''peace'' Constitution invariably are cited to explain Japan's difficulty in fully meeting American expectations.
In fact, argument rages as to whether any of Japan's postwar low-profile military activity has been strictly legal. There have been several court cases based on challenges to the constitutionality of the present Self-Defense Force. Although all have been lost, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) would like to remove all doubts by revising the Constitution.
Opponents - and they are legion - say this will open up a Pandora's box, removing tight civilian restraints on the military and sowing the seeds for a dangerous revival of militarism as in prewar days. Because it is such a political hot potato, past governments have shied away from a major public debate on constitutional revision. It is this taboo that Prime Minister Nakasone is challenging with his customary outspoken vigor.
Debate there may be, but action is not likely at this stage. Constitutional revisions require a two-thirds majority of both houses of the Diet (parliament), after which a public referendum is required. In both areas, the LDP is short of votes.
Mr. Nakasone told the Diet recently he would not seek constitutional revision in the absence of a national consensus, although he favors changes. At this stage, his hope would seem to be to keep the issue up front, removing the surrounding emotionalism about reviving militarism, while the Liberal Democratic Party tries to develop grass-roots support for at least open debate.
The Nakasone initiative is not the first by any means. In 1955, Prime Minister Ichiro Hatoyama lost a bid to change the electoral system from multiple-seat to single-seat constituencies in the hope of obtaining the two-thirds majority required for a constitutional amendment. Until now, the issue has always seemed somewhat abstract, of interest primarily to constitutional scholars.
But a new factor has been introduced by an avowedly hawkish prime minister who wants to strengthen Japan's ability to defend itself without outside - United States - help. Mr. Nakasone also talks in terms of a collective self-defense arrangement with America against any Soviet aggression, an arrangement that is now barred by the Constitution.
Elements within the ruling party are proposing elimination of the constitutional provision contained in Article IX barring ''land, sea, and air forces'' and renouncing the use of force by the state. Kiyoshi Mori, leader of the party's subcommittee studying the issue, asserts that Article IX in its present construction definitely makes the Self-Defense Force unconstitutional.
''By upholding Article IX, the government is compelled to take a distorted view that the SDF are not 'military forces' and claim them to constitute only a 'minimum level of defense capacity' without the right of belligerency. How can the government continue to maintain such a twisted view when the Self-Defense Forces are among the largest in the world,'' he asks.
In fact, says Mori, by allowing the SDF to exist in defiance of the Constitution, the government is contributing to destruction of constitutional order and democracy. This, of course, is what opponents say will happen if the Constitution is revised.
Not all members of the Liberal Democratic Party support constitutional changes. A spokesman for this group, Senpachi Oishi, says: ''Given the present political climate in Japan, the time is not ripe to rush into revision.''
Although acknowledging that Article IX does not fit in well with the present reality of the SDF, Oishi still argues: ''It is more desirable to live with the inadequate interpretation of the present Constitution than to lose Article IX as a brake against the ever-increasing defense buildup toward militarism.''
This he says, is especially true at a time when democracy in the true sense of the word is not yet well established in Japan. Kyoshi Mori, however, points out that a further guarantee against reviving militarism would be an extra clause in Article IX giving the Diet final say on defense.
Another issue is the position of the Emperor. The LDP study panel wants to expand his powers. At present the Emperor is defined merely as a ''symbol of the state.'' Some LDP members would like this clarified to stipulate he is ''head of state,'' making the current constitutional restraints more ambiguous to allow for future expansion if desired.
This appeals particularly to older Japanese. Their attitude could be summed up as: ''Emperor Hirohito went through World War II and the days of postwar confusion with us. The fact he is respected and loved by the people despite his current ambiguous constitutional status owes much to his performance during his long reign.''
But what, they ask, will happen when he dies and Crown Prince Akihito takes over? Younger Japanese in general have no strong feeling about the Emperor, so his position should be clarified now before it is too late.While tinkering with the Constitution, there is also some feeling that more stress should be given to the people's duty to the state as well as to civil rights and freedoms.
But these are merely sideshows to the main battle over the document's limitations on raising a national defense force. Interwoven with this debate is the issue of whether the Japanese should continue to accept a constitution which was imposed from outside.
Seisuke Okuno, justice minister in the last government, set the tone when he tearfully told the Diet: ''The present Japanese Constitution was adopted under instructions from the American occupation. . . . I think it desirable that the Japanese people voluntarily raise their voices in favor of drawing up a constitution of their own, free from foreign intervention.''
This theme has been taken up by Prime Minister Nakasone. While greatly appreciating the role played by the Constitution in developing postwar democracy in Japan, he argues it should not be forgotten that there was outside influence. This refers to the fact that in October 1945 Gen. Douglas MacArthur ordered then-Prime Minister Kijuro Shidehara to draft a new constitution.
The premier returned with a rehash of the old prewar constitution, containing only very minor changes, and he was forcefully told this was not satisfactory.
MacArthur's occupation general headquarters (GHQ) eventually presented a draft of its own, with a warning that it would be revealed to the Japanese public directly if the government prevaricated. The draft constitution was accepted as it stood and went into effect in May 1947.
Ironically, three years later, General MacArthur found the Constitution's idealism irksome when it came to containing the communist menace on the outbreak of the Korean war. A 75,000-man police reserve force was created, and this eventually became the Self-Defense Force of today.
But this bit of history does enable Japanese to counter US demands for a massive defense buildup by saying: ''Constitutionally, we can't do it. And you cannot complain because you wrote the Constitution.''
Nevertheless, the current international climate convinces many members of the Liberal Democratic Party that the time is ripe for clarifying Japan's position, especially its special relationship with the US. They would like this to go ahead without becoming embroiled in emotional rows over the constitutionality of every single move.
Former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, who was a war criminal having been a member of Gen. Hideki Tojo's wartime administration, heads a group of LDP right-wingers actively campaigning for an ''independent constitution.''
About two-thirds of the LDP Dietmen have joined his group. Outside the Diet, their activities are concentrated on promoting grass-roots support, especially by persuading local government bodies with LDP majorities to pass resolutions calling for a constitutional revision debate. Despite this flurry of talk and activity, real action would seem to be remote, unless major international events trigger a swing in public opinion.
Evidence of Prime Minister Nakasone's feelings on the American-imposed Constitution was recently unearthed by a Japanese newspaper in the form of a song he wrote in 1956: Ah, we were defeated in war; enemy forces took us over under the name of a ''peace'' constitution. They forced us to accept the occupation constitution and tried to destroy our mother country six months after the war. The occupation forces had given the order: if we didn't accept the constitution they would not guarantee the status of the Emperor. Forcing back their tears, the people were obliged to accept the MacArthur constitution, troubled over the future course of their nation.
In recent weeks, Prime Minister Nakasone has been less outspoken on the issue - and less melodramatic - than 1956. Apparently chastened by criticism from his own party due to his provocative statements on foreign affairs, the premier has promised to devote himself to domestic problems such as balancing the budget and combating school violence.