In the midst of a dark time in United States-Japan relations, the two governments have managed to produce one bright spot. Yesterday they were expected to sign a framework agreement that will open the door to Japanese companies joining the research on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). The pact is another step forward in the closer security links between the two allies, particularly welcome in the atmosphere of mistrust generated by the case of illegal transfer of high technology to the Soviet Union by a Japanese company. However, Japanese officials caution, the furor surrounding the Toshiba Machine Company problem is likely to dampen the desire of Japanese firms to join the high-security SDI program.
``I don't expect to see a rush of Japanese companies into SDI contracts,'' says an official of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry. However, he added, ``gradually ... Japanese companies will participate.''
The mostly secret pact follows nine months of negotiations. Japan now joins four other allied nations involved with SDI research - Britain, West Germany, Italy, and Israel. From the beginning, Japanese firms were skittish about how Pentagon security regulations might restrict their use of technology developed under SDI contracts. They sought protection from Pentagon classification for the technology they brought into the project.
Such concerns are greatest for electronics companies that produce what is called ``dual use'' technology, goods such as computer chips that can be used in both civilian and military products. After the Toshiba case, officials say, their concerns have been only augmented. ``Except for a small number of companies that have to depend on defense for a living,'' says a Foreign Ministry official, ``a lot of dual purpose companies feel like cold water has been poured [on an SDI role].''
Japanese electronics firms, agrees another government official, are ``very cautious and getting more cautious'' as a result of the Toshiba case.
``They are now coming to recognize that their concern about the use of developed technology will not be fully resolved,'' he says. ``For example, a company participates in SDI and develops a new technology. Naturally your other engineers in the company are working on this type of technology, say a kind of computer chip, for the civilian market. They are afraid that the Department of Defense might regard all the technology of the type similar to the contracted technology as part of the SDI contract and be kept confidential.''
The pact consists of four parts: a public document summarizing the agreement, a secret memorandum specifying the precise mechanism under which companies will participate and their rights and obligations, and two secret notes of understanding in which each government states their understanding of the agreement.
According to an interpretation of the public document given here by a Foreign Ministry official, the Pentagon retains patent rights to any technology developed in a SDI project but Japanese firms will have a nonexclusive, revocable, and free license to use the technology, provided it does not violate classification requirements. Technology or information developed before or outside the contract remains the property of the company and cannot be classified. Such terms, officials admit, are the same as given to other allied nations.
The most likely role for Japanese firms, officials say, will be as subcontractors to American firms. Several preliminary discussions have taken place regarding projects to develop theater missile defense systems. Such systems are being developed for defense of areas like Western Europe or Japan against shorter range missiles.