Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Japan's Nuclear Hints Irk China

TOKYO -- China reacted angrily Monday after Japan's top government spokesman hinted that the only nation to suffer a nuclear attack could abandon its hallowed ban on nuclear weapons.

The fuss was the latest headache for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, struggling to enact key laws amid a precipitous slide in his public support due to doubts over his leadership and commitment to reform.

The furor threatened to broaden into a diplomatic dispute after China blasted the comments.

Ties between the two Asian neighbors were strained last month over North Korean asylum seekers seized by Chinese police from a Japanese consulate.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda told a news conference that he was responsible for remarks attributed to a senior official that Tokyo could review its ban on nuclear arms.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan said the comments violated Japan's promises to the international community, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

"At the present time, when peace and development have become the main themes of the times and continued progress is being made in international nuclear disarmament, it is shocking to hear remarks like this from a senior Japanese official," Kong said.

Fukuda downplayed his comments, saying: "I only said there is a chance the government could take another look at the three non-nuclear principles in the future.

"There is absolutely no chance that this Cabinet will discuss revising these principles."

Opposition parties, however, called for Fukuda's head and boycotted parliamentary debate on key legislation.

Conservative politicians have become more outspoken in challenging Japan's postwar pacifism, but fears over domestic and diplomatic fallout have meant they are usually forced to retract suggestions Japan should drop its ban on nuclear weapons.

Koizumi said there was no need for the political tempest.

"This whole thing has been blown out of proportion," he told reporters, adding that he had no intention of taking Fukuda to task over the comments. "It is not a question of responsibility."

On Saturday, local media quoted an unidentified senior government official as saying Tokyo could review its self-imposed "three principles," which ban the possession, production and import of nuclear arms.

"The principles are just like the Constitution. But in the face of calls to amend the Constitution, the amendment of the principles is also likely," Kyodo news agency quoted the senior government official as saying.

Fukuda told the news conference, however, that media interpretations of the remark were incorrect.

It was the latest remark from a series of hawkish officials and politicians seeking to challenge Japan's postwar pacifism.

Opposition Liberal Party leader Ichiro Ozawa drew a sharp response from Beijing in April when he said Japan could easily make nuclear weapons and surpass China's military might. Ozawa later said his remarks had been distorted and misreported.

Experts say Tokyo does have the wherewithal to put together a nuclear bomb in short order, but talking about the issue has been politically taboo.

Parliamentary Deputy Defense Minister Shingo Nishimura had to resign in 1999 after suggesting parliament should debate the nuclear ban -- a sentiment analysts say many lawmakers in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and other parties share.

A new dispute is the last thing Koizumi needs as he struggles to enact key pieces of legislation in the current session of parliament, scheduled to end June 19.

Koizumi has already seen his public support plummet since his January sacking of the popular Makiko Tanaka as foreign minister and a series of scandals in his long-ruling LDP.

A survey released Monday by the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper put Koizumi's support at 40 percent -- neck and neck with his disapproval rating and a far cry from the 90 percent he enjoyed when he took office last year.

nRussia's Foreign Ministry expressed concern about a Japanese official's reported suggestion that Japan should be able to have nuclear weapons, The Associated Press reported.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko said Sunday that Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda's statement "prompts understandable concern."

"Japan -- a huge world power, and the only victim of atomic bombs -- has always been in the forefront of support for nuclear disarmament," Yakovenko said in a statement.

"Now as the leading nuclear powers are making steps toward reducing their nuclear potential, such announcements by Japanese officials do not encourage the strengthening of the nonproliferation regime and appear an anachronism," he said.