The Japanese government yesterday delivered a major statement of political support for the Reagan administration: Japan will join the ``star wars'' program. Tokyo's announcement, however, does not automatically mean that Japanese high technology will flow into the United States research program -- the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).
``We think that strategically, politically, technologically, SDI is a sound program,'' a Foreign Ministry official commented. ``But whether there will be actual participation will be decided by individual corporations.''
Ultimately Tokyo's move is, as one official put it, ``a political gesture with some reality.'' The decision, concurs a US official here, demonstrates ``Japan's identification with the West.''
``The political side of the declaration,'' the US official said, ``has value of its own -- whether or not a single Japanese firm participates.''
The carefully phrased endorsement of SDI comes after 18 months of cautious deliberation here. Despite serious resistance to SDI, particularly from Japan's opposition parties, there was little doubt which way Tokyo would go. Saying no, it is widely believed, would have put too much of a strain on already troubled US-Japanese relations.
The Japanese government, in close collaboration with interested companies, will now be negotiating with the US for a framework accord on SDI participation. The US has reached similar agreements with Britain and West Germany. The key obstacle is expected to be US insistence, as occurred in its talks with West Germany, on the right to classify and restrict the use of the SDI research.
The Japanese corporate view, says a Foreign Ministry official, is divided. The official said that, naturally, engineers and technicians see SDI as a welcome challenge. But managers, he said, ``are not yet sure if it would make sense commercially for them to divert 50 or 100 researchers from the research projects they would be doing for other purposes -- if they are not sure what is the extent of application of the [SDI] research.''
Japanese officials are strongly hinting that they will seek to alter the classification terms reached in the US-West German accord. ``Of course,'' one official said, ``it is not satisfactory -- the conditions are very severe. It is up to the US side whether the US really wants to have cooperation. If so, it will make conditions more acceptable to Japanese companies.''
Japanese insistence on this stance could signal prolonged negotiations. US officials here say they hope a deal can be reached ``by the end of the year.'' But they caution that there is ``not too much flexibility on our side'' -- on the Pentagon's right to classify research results.
Given the potential hurdles, both US and Japanese officials here are low key in their projections of just how much Japanese involvement will ultimately amount to. A Japanese official of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry predicts that some Japanese companies will be willing to participate simply because it will ``improve their corporate image in the US.'' Japanese firms, he said, are most likely to take the role of subcontractors to US companies who have SDI contracts with the Pentagon.
A US official perceives a Japanese interest in at least getting access to US research on the frontiers of high technology. ``They are masters at assembling information,'' he says.
The Japanese have made it clear that they are only endorsing SDI as a research program -- not as a deployable weapons system. A Japanese official stressed that Japan has not agreed to any ``action beyond the research stage.'' Any decision actually to deploy SDI systems, the US has assured them, will be preceded by ``consultation with allies and negotiations with the Soviet Union.''
SDI, the Cabinet statement insists, is aimed at aiding arms control and disarmament talks. Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, it is stated, ``confirmed with the [US] President'' in a meeting in Bonn in May 1985 that ``the aim of the initiative was to bring about substantial reduction of offensive nuclear weapons'' and ``should be carried out in conformity with the [1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile] Treaty.''
The Japanese statement repeatedly emphasizes that SDI is a ``nonnuclear'' program. Japan has a long-standing policy pledging no development, production, or storage on its soil of nuclear weapons. The use of nuclear explosions for certain SDI experimental systems, like the X-ray laser, is a touchy issue in Japan.
Japanese officials provided somewhat contradictory explanations of their views on this point. Washington, a Foreign Ministry official said, has told them that the whole system is nonnuclear ``and that they are doing the X-ray [laser] in order to deal with the case where the Soviets might develop such nuclear technology to counter the SDI project.'' Moreover, the Japanese officials say, their nonnuclear policy only applies within Japanese territory. ``Somebody else's nuclear program is quite separate.''
Such reasoning has also been applied to the issue of whether Japanese SDI research violates a 1969 Diet (parliament) resolution calling for Japan to limit itself to the ``peaceful use of outer space.'' The resolution, officials explain, ``refers to Japan's own activity . . . and does not cover a project initiated by somebody [else].''
These issues are sure to be major points of debate when the Diet opens its fall session tomorrow. The opposition has called on the government to reverse its stance. But the ruling party's overwhelming majority following the summer election ensures that it can easily overcome the objections of a politically weak opposition.