The United States ``star wars'' program has created an increasingly agonizing dilemma for the Japanese government. It raises the highly sensitive issue of Japan's role in the East-West confrontation and it has become a rallying point for the political opposition to expand its defense posture. Because of this, Tokyo is signaling it will move ahead with great caution on the US request that it participate in the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) program.
There are a number of obstacles that led Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe to declare last week that ``the time is not yet ripe for Japan to proceed to the next stage'' of SDI participation. They run the gamut of international and domestic issues: the possibility of improving Japan-Soviet relations after a long chill; Japanese constitutional and legal bars to a role in SDI; and a less-than-enthusiastic attitude on the part of Japanese private high-tech companies.
On the international front, the SDI decision comes at a crucial moment. While Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone has declared his positive ``understanding'' of the need for SDI research, the next step of active collaboration would force Japan to go beyond the narrowly defined ``self-defense'' confines of its alliance with the US.
``Many people take it as the first instance when Japan has to manifest its military alliance with the Western world,'' says one Foreign Ministry official.
The thorny issue arises at a time when the Soviet Union is showing a serious interest in improving relations with Japan for the first time in years. Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze will visit Tokyo next month, the first such visit in 10 years. Prime Minister Nakasone has expressed a desire to visit Moscow. In the wake of the Geneva summit, the Japanese are cautiously hopeful about a thaw in their relations with Moscow.
The decision on SDI will necessarily factor in both the Japanese-Soviet relationship and broader US-Soviet relations. In the short term, the Japanese government is ``trying not to spoil the atmosphere for Shevardnadze's visit,'' suggests one US official here. In the longer term, the Japanese are carefully watching the evolution of the US-Soviet dialogue, including the prospects for an arms control deal on SDI.
But Japanese officials stress that Moscow's anti-SDI stance will not strongly influence their decision on joining SDI. Japan must show it ``will not rock Western solidarity,'' as a Foreign Ministry official put it, and that Moscow will not be able to drive a wedge between Japan and the US on the issue.
There is even a strong argument being offered that a positive stance on SDI will have a beneficial impact on relations with Moscow.
``I believe if Japan improves its role in the Western military alliance, Japan-Soviet relations will also improve,'' says Seizaburo Sato, a Tokyo University professor and adviser to the prime minister on security affairs.
``The Soviets will pay more attention to Japan,'' he says. ``They respect only those countries who can be some sort of threat.''
Within Japan, though, the Nakasone administration is being questioned daily in the Diet (parliament) about the strategic wisdom of SDI. Opposition parties, led by the Socialists, are raising constitutional objections to an SDI role. Simultaneously, there is resistance -- for different reasons -- from the business community.
The political opposition claims that SDI participation would violate the constitutional bar on Japanese participation in ``collective security'' arrangements. They also point to a 1969 Diet resolution committing Japan to only the ``peaceful use of outer space.''
The government faces a difficult Diet session next year. It will be seeking approval of a controversial election-law bill and the next fiscal year's budget. Approval of the budget, due for debate in early 1986, ``can be taken as a hostage'' by opponents of SDI, says one Foreign Ministry official.
The US insistence on stringent security arrangements to protect classified SDI information or technology could also be a serious bottleneck for Japanese participation. Japanese laws against espionage are very loose. Several attempts to strengthen the legislation, including a bill currently before the Diet, have foundered in the face of charges of a revival of prewar restrictions on freedom.
Japanese companies are particularly worried about the security arrangements if they participate. Many companies, a Foreign Ministry official says, ``would rather develop the technology with their own capital and avoid restrictions on the usage of such technology for security reasons.''
But the virtual silence of Japanese high-tech companies on SDI has another dimension. ``A lot of Japanese companies which have technology related with SDI have a deep interest in joining, but they fear that if they express this openly they will be criticized,'' says Professor Sato. Foreign Ministry officials cite the case of Kyocera Corporation, maker of ceramic integrated circuits, whose stock value plummeted after the participation of its US subsidiary in cruise-missile production was exposed.
Unlike Britain and West Germany, Japan has yet to even enter into discusssion with the US on the specific technologies and terms of participation.
If and when it comes, Japanese participation will likely be driven more by strategic and political factors than, as in the case of Europe, by fears of missing the technological boat. While US officials here say a Japanese role is ``not the litmus test of the entire relationship,'' US pressure will be a factor. ``Japan will be the last country to make a decision,'' Sato forecasts, ``but it will go with the program.''