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Japan Socialists say 'no' to more arms, but do countrymen agree?

"Positive neutrality" is Socialist Party Chairman Ichiro Asukata's chief foreign-policy prescription for Japan's survival in a dangerous world. What about Afghanistan? Iran?cambodia? The Soviet military buildup on islands within sight of Japan?

The more news headlines shout about wars and threats of wars, the more realistic, according to Mr. Asukata, will the Socialists' policy prove to be.

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"Can you conceive of a war against Japan that will not very quickly turn into a nuclear war?" Mr. Asukata asked during a recent Monitor interview at Socialist Party headquarters here.

"Oh, maybe for a day or so you might have a non-nuclear war. But after that. . . ." Smiling, he spread his hands. "So all these people that want Japan to increase its armaments are talking nonsense unless they mean that we ourselves should have nuclear weapons."

The Socialist are Japan's major opposition party. The managed to hold on to their 107 seats in the lower house while other opposition parties from the communists to the Buddhist Komeito lost ground in the recent general election. "Unarmed neutrality" has been their major foreign-policy difference with the ruling Liberal Democrats for many years. For a while they seemed to be moving away from a stance many observers consider naively unrealistic. But now, with the cold war heating up and defense becoming a major subject of domestic debate, the Socialists are once again in the forefront of the argument for an essentially unarmed Japan.

"What is the use of ordinary weapons, except for limited purposes such as police and coastal patrols?" Mr. Asukata asked. "If you talk about more weapons for Japan, you are really talking about nuclear weapons.

"Now the whole point of having nuclear weapons, it seems to me, is not actually to use them, but to battle them at your prospective opponent and say, 'How frightening, how frightening! But we Japanese simply don't have the geography that enables us to do that."

"The United States, the Soviet Union, and China," he added, "are huge continental countries. They can afford to argue about whether they have 49 minutes warning time or 30.We cannot. There's no way we can build a credible antiballistic missile system.

"What is te point of spending huge sums of money to acquire weapons systems the success of which no one can guarantee?"

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Mr. Asukata is a politician many housewives would feel comfortable inviting into their kitchens. He marshals his arguments in a lawyerlike manner, but projects them without affection or pretense, as easily as one neighbor greeting another across his back fence.

"Well then," Mr. Asukata continued, "what are our choices? We can take sides and place ourselves inside the American nuclear umbrella, as we have done ever since the war. Or we can choose neutrality.

"If we continue with the first choice, can we be sure that the United States will in fact defend us when the chips are down?

"The second choice requires courage and imagination. I admit that. When I say 'positive neutrality" I do not mean crouching in our little hole and hoping the storm will pass. I mean we should use the money we would save from defense to help the developing nations, the starving nations, to get rid of the so-called North-South gap."

He added that If Japan takes the path of building up its defenses, it would be doing nothing different from the United States and Soviet Union. But if Japan rejects rearmament, he said, then it would be in a "unique" position and could assert itself in disarmament forums "in a way we never could if we were just another armed nation."

Idealistic? Of course. Impractical? Probably. Still, the Asukata viewpoint on defense is shared by an important minority within the Japanese body politic. With inflation and recession major preoccupations, US insistence that Japan step up its defense can be counterproductive.

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