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TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's defense minister triggered a new row over controversial security legislation on Wednesday when he said the bills under consideration by parliament would not rule out the military transporting the nuclear weapons of foreign forces.
Defence Minister Gen Nakatani, however, was quick to add that such a development was in reality impossible because of Japan's long-standing policy of not possessing or producing nuclear arms and not letting others bring them into the country.
Still, an opposition lawmaker immediately demanded that Nakatani apologize for the remarks, which came one day ahead of the 70th anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
The remarks will likely give Prime Minister Shinzo Abe - who has already seen his ratings slip due to public doubts over the security bills - a fresh headache after his special adviser drew fire by saying the legislation did not need to be "legally consistent" with the pacifist constitution.
The adviser later withdrew the comment and apologized.
"The letter of the legislation is not ruling out (the transportation of nuclear weapons). But we are not at all assuming something like that. It is impossible because of the three non-nuclear principles," Nakatani told a panel in the upper chamber of parliament.
Abe's cabinet adopted a resolution last year reinterpreting the pacifist constitution, drafted by Americans after World War Two, to let Japan exercise collective self-defense, or defend an ally under attack.
The unpopular bills have already passed the lower house and Abe's ruling bloc has a majority in the upper house as well. But surveys show a majority of voters are opposed to what would be a significant shift in Japan's defense policy.
Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, whose election district is in Hiroshima prefecture, joined Nakatani in denying the possibility of Japan's armed forces carrying nuclear arms for friendly nations even under the new legislation.
"Considering our country's policy and stance toward nuclear (weapons) including the three non-nuclear principles, it is plainly inconceivable (for the Japanese military) to transport nuclear (weapons)," he said.
Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Linda Sieg and Nick Macfie