The Japanese government appears to be sharply divided over a new American request to put Japan's technological prowess to work for joint arms development.
Some officials have responded favorably, but others have objected, along with the major news media, warning that helping the United States develop sophisticated weapons would violate Japan's pacifist constitution and established policy prohibiting arms sales abroad.
The request for sharing of arms technology was made forcefully by U.S. officials early this summer and became the focal point of American efforts to get more military support from Japan.
It has become clear in recent months that Japan is not willing to increase its defense budget substantially despite American defense officials' insistence that it should contribute more muscle to counter a Soviet buildup in the Far East.
Those Japanese officials who favor acceding to the technology-sharing request are said to be arguing within the government that acquiesence could remove some of the American pressure for increases in defense spending.
No details of the American request have been disclosed, but it is understood that the United States wants Japan to assist in the development of futuristic weaponry involving computers, other electronic technology, lasers and fiber optics. In some of those fields, it is believed that Japan is slightly ahead of the United States.
At meetings in Hawaii and Washington, the general principle was outlined to Gen. Joji Omura, director general of the Japanese Defense Agency, in language reminding him that in the past, the United States has shared military technology with Japan. The American-supplied information has helped Japan produce several weapons systems, including the F15 fighter plane, Navy air patrol planes and Hawk missiles, although the most advanced technological secrets for them were not shared.
"The Americans said that so far technology exchange has been only one-way traffic and they now want to make it two-way," said one Japanese official.
The concept has been greeted favorably within the military agency, the Foreign Ministry and the prime minister's office, although no formal response has been made yet.
However, the highly influential Ministry of International Trade and Industry has expressed strong reservations and has warned the rest of the government to treat the idea with great caution. Its views may count the most, because any applications from Japanese companies to transfer technology to another country must pass through that ministry.
Those opposed contend that joint arms development would violate the Japanese constitution and a 1967 policy that prohibits most arms exports.
The proposal also is being resisted by opposition parties and much of the news media as a new and dangerous tactic that will lead inevitably to a "militarization" of the Japanese economy.
The 1967 policy banning most arms exports "is an open declaration to the world that this country shall never be a 'merchant of death,'" declared an editorial in the Mainichi newspapers, arguing that the policy should be upheld and the American request rejected. "We have pledged that we shall not militarize our economy through the production and export of weapons."
Inside the government, proponents of the American idea are arguing that it is time to "break the ice," as one of them put it, and open the door for a military technology exchange. They contend that the 1967 policy on arms sales should not apply to the United States, and that anyway, it is subordinate to the Japanese-American mutual defense assistance treaty signed in 1954.
The government of Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki has enough political strength to press for approval of the U.S. proposal, but a showdown would set off an angry debate with opponents arguing that Japan is bowing to American pressure. On other defense issues, Suzuki has shown that he does not want to risk an ugly confrontation despite his promises of greater cooperation in the military field.
Making a technology-sharing agreement effective would also be tricky for Japan. The defense agency does very little research and development of its own, and most of the desirable new technology is privately owned by large Japanese corporations. There is no way to compel companies to share their secrets, although the government might encourage them to do so, an official said.
The details of an agreement are to be explored during a meeting of U.S. and Japanese defense officials in September.