In Japan, loose lips on nukes lose politician his job

Japan fired its vice defense minister last week and is now pressuring him to keep quiet

If discretion is the better part of valor, it seems no one ever told Shingo Nishimura.

The vice minister of defense lost his job last week after saying in a magazine interview that Japan should consider arming itself with nuclear weapons. Yesterday, the government belatedly muzzled Mr. Nishimura, pressuring him to cancel a press conference on the issue.

Speaking his mind is something of a Nishimura trademark, but with the nuclear comments he had crossed a very sensitive line. Japan's three nonnuclear principles, which ban owning, making, or harboring nuclear weapons, are cornerstones of its postwar defense policy.

But attitudes about security are changing here, as younger policymakers chafe at Japan's reliance on the United States for defense, and the country deals with a potentially belligerent North Korea.

Nishimura's comments and his appointment to the Defense Ministry are signs of that new, more self-assertive Japan. They also herald a change in the way government works, as Japan's powerful bureaucrats lose some of their power and politicians assume more responsibility in parliament.

Yet the last-minute cancellation of his press conference indicates just how sensitive these issues remain. In a statement read to reporters by Nishimura's secretaries, the former vice minister said the government had asked him not to appear so that furor over his comments wouldn't overshadow the new session of the Diet - Japanese parliament - which starts Friday.

But it may be too late. Some analysts think silencing Nishimura will only backfire and say the incident has already hurt Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi.

Nuclear weaponry is still a taboo subject here, and the timing of Nishimura's comments was especially embarrassing, coming just after Mr. Obuchi had sent an envoy to Washington to chide the US for not signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

"Obuchi's approval rating will start to fall," predicts Takashi Mikuriya, a political history professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.

Nishimura, a stocky, spectacled man, got his colorful style from his father, a politician who made his mark as a rabidly anti-communist crusader.

He outdid his father in 1997, when he and three others planted a Japanese flag on a disputed island in the East China Sea, infuriating China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.

Afterward, Nishimura lashed out at the Japanese government for criticizing him and failing to make a strong claim to the islands. His "lifework," he also told reporters, was to create a real military to replace the current Self-Defense Forces that, under the US-written Constitution, can only defend Japan from attack.

Analysts who warn of a revival of World War II militarism see Nishimura's appointment to the Defense Ministry as another sign of Japan's shift to the right - why else would a man notorious for his hawkish security views be given a post in the defense ministry?

But Nishimura's posting has less to do with a shift in the political zeitgeist than with political maneuvering.

In order to gain a majority in parliament, Obuchi this month launched a coalition with Nishimura's rightist Liberal Party and a party backed by a religious group.

In return for allying with Obuchi, the Liberal Party leader Ichiro Ozawa asked for Cabinet positions and the abolition of powerful bureaucrats from Diet sessions.

Until now, bureaucrats would take part in parliamentary sessions, answering for the politicians who represented their ministries. This gave bureaucrats a great deal of power over policy, something Mr. Ozawa and others wanted to change.

But keeping bureaucrats out of parliament, unless they are specially summoned, means the vice ministers, and the Cabinet ministers they support, now actually have to know their subjects.

As a security maven, loud-mouthed or not, Nishimura fit the bill for the Defense Ministry's vice minister post. And his party leader, Ozawa, lobbied for Nishimura and another Liberal Party member to get spots in the Defense and Foreign Ministries.

Ozawa is an outspoken advocate of the need for constitutional change that would allow Japan greater freedom to defend itself and take part in international peacekeeping missions.

"Ozawa knew Nishimura's blunt style would draw public attention to defense issues. He wanted that," says Professor Mikuriya. "Most people expected Nishimura to resign at some point because of his inappropriate remarks, but no one thought it would happen so soon."

But prevailing winds still seem to be blowing his way. Debate on constitutional change - once a taboo topic - will begin in January. In other recent developments, Japan has decided to put its own spy satellite into orbit; it recently legalized the rising sun flag and national anthem, symbols for some of wartime militarism; and it will research a joint missile defense system with the US, despite Chinese protests.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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