The long-standing controversy over whether U.S. warships calling at Japanese ports carry nuclear weapons is taking a new twist. The Kochi prefectural government is seeking to obtain “certificates” from the central government showing that U.S. naval vessels visiting ports in the prefecture are not nuclear-armed.

The Kochi government has already introduced a bill to the prefectural assembly calling for strict compliance with the nation’s three nonnuclear principles in port management. The prefectural government intends to refuse port calls unless the Foreign Ministry issues a “nuclear-free certificate” for each ship entering a Kochi port.

The issue pits the Kochi government squarely against the central government. Reacting sharply to the bill, Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi has said a decision on whether or not to approve a visit by a foreign warship rests with the national government.

Complicating the matter is the fact that the new guidelines for Japan-U.S. defense cooperation call for local governments to give U.S. forces access to local facilities, including ports. A number of other prefectural authorities are following the example of Kochi, although the bill in question may not pass the local assembly because of objections from the Liberal Democratic Party.

Even if the measure is voted down, however, Kochi’s moves to close its ports to nuclear-armed ships will affect the ways in which it and other like-minded prefectures throughout the country cooperate with the central government during a security crisis.

At stake are Japan’s three nonnuclear principles that prohibit the nation from producing, possessing and introducing nuclear weapons. These principles, of course, underline the security policy of Japan. But the policy of not letting in any foreign nuclear weapons has created more doubt than assurance.

The official explanation is: Introduction of nuclear weapons is subject to “prior consultation” under the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty (the implication is that Japan will say no to any U.S. move to bring in nuclear weapons); but because so far no such consultation has been requested by the United States, no nuclear weapons have been brought into Japan.

The U.S. government, meanwhile, stands pat on its position that it does not officially confirm whether particular ships carry nuclear weapons. However, a number of former U.S. officials, including the late U.S. ambassador to Japan Edwin O. Reischauer, said they believed that nuclear weapons had been brought into Japan. Along with Tokyo’s ambiguous explanation, those statements have raised suspicions about the principle of “nuclear nonintroduction.”

Kochi Gov. Daijiro Hashimoto questioned that part of the three-point nonnuclear policy when he said the central government should make every effort to assure the people that it is strictly adhering to the three principles. Instead of blaming him, Tokyo needs to clarify its nonnuclear policy while ensuring smooth implementation of the Japan-U.S. security arrangements.

The current criticism of the Kochi government has much to do with implementing the bills for the defense cooperation guidelines, now before the Diet. The central government apparently fears that if Kochi and other prefectures actually deny port access for U.S. warships on suspicions that they carry nuclear arms, the guidelines calling for local governments’ cooperation will become largely ineffective.

Local governments are also concerned about the guidelines bills, which are vague about the nature and scope of cooperation. To clear up this vagueness, Tokyo has given these examples of cooperation: from local governments, use of port facilities, use of airport facilities, regulatory action to secure the safety of buildings and facilities, transportation of personnel and supplies, water supply and receiving patients at public hospitals; from private organizations, transportation of personnel and supplies, waste disposal, receiving of patients at public hospitals and leasing of goods and facilities. Other forms of cooperation, not yet specified, are likely.

Many local governments, particularly those in areas with U.S. bases, have apprehensions about their possible roles in security emergencies. Of approximately 3,300 local entities throughout the country, 43 oppose the guidelines bills and 32 hold reservations about them, according to a Defense Agency poll. The government need only look at Okinawa’s base problem to realize that the support of local residents is essential to the effective conduct of foreign and defense policy.

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