Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka unofficially voiced concern over U.S. missile defense plans in a series of recent diplomatic talks with her counterparts from Italy, Germany and Australia, Japanese government sources said Friday.

Tanaka’s alleged comments could stir up controversy because they apparently contradict the government’s official position that the nation “understands” the new U.S. strategy without actively supporting it.

“I wonder if the missile defense is necessary,” Tanaka was quoted as telling Italian Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini, who sat next to her during a working luncheon for foreign ministers at the Asia-Europe Meeting in Beijing on May 25. “Japan and Europe should cooperate in urging the United States not to go too far.”

Tanaka aired similar concerns over the new U.S. policy in her meeting with German Vice Chancellor Joschka Fischer on the agenda for the ASEM talks as well as in her meeting with Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer earlier this week, the sources said.

In a Friday morning news conference, Tanaka refused to comment on whether she made the remarks, saying she would not divulge details of her unofficial conversations with her foreign counterparts.

But she later told the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee that a European foreign minister expressed concern about the missile defense plans at the ASEM luncheon, telling her there has been no clear indication of what it entails.

Chikahito Harada, deputy press secretary of the Foreign Ministry, told a news conference that he cannot reveal details of what took place in the talks with Dini, but said, “I don’t believe the foreign minister’s position would contradict the government’s position.”

Tokyo has said it understands Washington’s plan for a missile defense system, announced by President George W. Bush in early May, but major European countries are cautious.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said he has not confirmed whether Tanaka actually made remarks that contravene the government line.

But the top government spokesman cautioned ministers about their comments.

“Generally speaking, ministers’ (comments) carry a certain weight, and I hope ministers will be careful when making remarks,” Fukuda said at a news conference.

It was not the first time that Tanaka caused a stir over conversations with foreign leaders. Earlier this month, she came under fire for her alleged remark to Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan that Japan would not issue another entry visa for former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said he also has not confirmed Tanaka’s comments to her Italian, German and Australian counterparts but will have time to discuss the issue with Tanaka before he visits the U.S. for his first talks with Bush on June 30.

Asked about the frequent corrections Tanaka makes in the Diet over her comments, the prime minister said: “Ministers’ comments are difficult. When you try to explain in detail, it becomes too long. But when you make it short, people say it’s brusque.

“In that sense, ministers should make comments carefully. When you say something that is uncalled for, you can be criticized for something trivial.” The sources said Tanaka’s remarks to Dini represent her personal opinion, as they were said during informal talks.

Tanaka reportedly told the Italian foreign minister that she believes the U.S. plan targets the potential threat of Chinese missiles and that it is not appropriate to confront China with force.

In a speech at the U.S. National Defense University, Bush said deploying a missile defense system is necessary because Cold War deterrence, backed by the threat of mutual retaliation, is no longer adequate to defend the U.S. and its allies. When U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage visited Japan last month to explain the defense policy, Tanaka failed to meet him, drawing criticism from coalition colleagues and the opposition camp.

Before the tentatively scheduled meeting May 8, Tanaka told reporters she could not meet Armitage because of a private engagement. She later explained to the Diet that she went to the National Diet Library at the time to rest and sort out diplomatic issues.

Deputy Foreign Minister Ryozo Kato, who met Armitage, told him Japan “understands” the U.S. position in dealing with the proliferation of ballistic missiles but stopped short of making a clear evaluation of the proposal.

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