A prominent member of Japan's ruling political coalition was forced to resign as defense vice minister today because of his suggestion that Japan should scrap its decades-old ban on nuclear weapons.

Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and his coalition allies expressed hope the swift ouster of the official, Shingo Nishimura, will quell a controversy that erupted here over statements Nishimura made in an interview with Japan's Weekly Playboy magazine that suggested Japan should openly debate whether the country would be more secure if it had nuclear arms.

The furor over Nishimura's comments underscored the acute sensitivity of the nuclear weapons issue in Japanese politics. As citizens of the only nation to have suffered an atomic bomb attack, most Japanese feel they have a unique appreciation of nuclear weapons' destructive powers and are proud of Japan's status as the only industrial power to renounce the military use of nuclear technology. At the same time, many are ambivalent about living under the U.S. nuclear umbrella--and increasingly wary of nuclear weapons proliferation elsewhere in Asia.

In the interview, which hit newsstands here Tuesday, Nishimura said the time has come for a national debate about whether Japan would be "better off" with a nuclear deterrent. He also implied that rejecting nuclear weapons would be tantamount to sanctioning rape.

"If men did not face any punishment for raping women, then all men--including myself--would be rapists," Nishimura said, according to the magazine, which is not linked to the U.S. publication. "But punishment, as a deterrent, prevents that from happening."

Nishimura, an outspoken hawk on defense matters, has not disputed the account of the interview.

Obuchi today deplored Nishimura's comments as "inappropriate" and acknowledged that he should be held accountable for misstatements by members of his government. But that did not satisfy leaders from Japan's major opposition parties, who demanded a full inquiry into the matter when the Diet, Japan's parliament, reconvenes for a special session Oct. 29.

"Nishimura's resignation does not erase the responsibility of Prime Minister Obuchi," said Yukio Hatoyama, the leader of the Democratic Party. Women also expressed outrage. The New Japan Women's Association called Nishimura's comments about rape "abusive."

Obuchi surprised many political observers last month when he chose Nishimura as one of two parliamentary vice ministers at Japan's Defense Agency. The post has not been regarded as high profile, but it was expected to play a pivotal role during the next Diet because of recent changes in parliamentary rules that will require ministers, rather than career bureaucrats, to answer policy questions on the floor of the legislature.

Nishimura is a member of the Liberal Party, the smallest of the three parties allied behind Obuchi to control Japan's lower house. Analysts said his appointment as the Defense Agency's legislative advocate was significant because he has been such a vocal hawk on military matters throughout his political career.

In May 1997, he strained relations between Tokyo and Beijing by traveling to the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea to plant a Japanese flag. In doing so, he became the first member of the national legislature to set foot on the islands, which are claimed by Japan, China and Taiwan.

The interview was not the first time Nishimura has argued Japan should join the nuclear club. As recently as Aug. 2, in an interview with The Washington Post, he stated: "Japan must be like NATO countries. We must have the military power and the legal authority to act on it. We ought to have aircraft carriers, long-range missiles, long-range bombers. We should even have the atomic bomb."

But the interview that appeared Tuesday sparked controversy because of Nishimura's repeated use of the rape analogy and because most colleagues had expected that, as vice minister, Nishimura would keep his views on the nuclear issue to himself.

Japan's 1947 constitution, drafted almost entirely by Americans during the occupation after World War II, renounces war as a means of resolving international conflict. And Japan has taken that pacifist stance even further by adopting three "nonnuclear principles." They state that, as a matter of official policy, Japan will not possess, produce or transport nuclear weapons.

Special correspondent Shigehiko Togo contributed to this report.