Japanese nukes: Voicing the unthinkableTOKYO - Despite Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's repeated commitments to Japan's non-nuclear-weapons policy, some key figures in his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and government keep talking about the need to debate the possibility of joining the ranks of nuclear powers, raising concerns both at home and abroad.
In the wake of North Korea's testing of a nuclear bomb on October 9, Foreign Minister Taro Aso and Shoichi Nakagawa, chairman of the LDP's powerful Policy Research Council, have said discussion is needed on whether Japan should possess nuclear weapons. Japan's nuclear-power industry is so sophisticated that it is widely believed to be capable of producing nuclear bombs easily if a decision were made to do so.
Nakagawa said in effect: What if North Korea launches a nuclear-tipped missile aimed at Japan? Do we say, "America, please help us"? Before we can say that, the missile would reach us. Now is the time to debate the nuclear option. Nakagawa made such remarks after making a similar call for such a nuclear debate in Washington. Aso has offered his support for Nakagawa's proposal, saying, "If such a discussion is blocked, it would be criticized as the suppression of the freedom of speech."
Opposition parties have called for Aso to resign for his remarks. Ichiro Ozawa, leader of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), the main opposition party, blasted the controversial remarks by Aso and some others in the LDP-led coalition, saying they "can cause misunderstanding and damage trust in and outside of Japan".
But Abe has defended the foreign minister. While reiterating that his government will maintain the three non-nuclear principles, Abe rejected opposition calls to fire Aso. Abe has indicated that discussions on nuclear arms should not be stifled. Abe said he does not "see any problem" with remarks uttered by individuals speaking in a private capacity. "I think it would be going too far to say that there can be no debate at all," he said.
It is not as if there is no criticism within the LDP-led coalition of the controversial remarks by Aso, Nakagawa and some others. Even some key executives of the ruling coalition, including LDP diet affairs committee chairman Toshihiro Nikai and Defense Agency Director General Fumio Kyuma, chided Aso and Nakagawa. Nikai said their comments would invite misunderstanding. Kyuma also said such a debate would send the wrong message.
The comments by Nikai and Kyuma apparently reflected their concerns over the possible adverse effects on deliberations of important bills pending in the diet (parliament) and this Sunday's gubernatorial election in Okinawa - where a majority of local residents are opposed to the huge presence of US bases and forces. Topping the LDP's agenda in the current extraordinary diet session, which is to last until mid-December, are revisions of the Fundamental Law of Education and upgrading the status of the Defense Agency to a ministry.
Ozawa and his party's secretary general, Yukio Hatoyama, are just playing politics with the issue. In fact, they have made statements themselves suggesting Japan might arm itself with nuclear weapons. In 2002, Ozawa, then president of the now defunct Liberal Party, claimed that Japan could make a large number of nuclear weapons "overnight" to curb China's "excessive expansion".
In 1999, Hatoyama, then DPJ leader, defended Shingo Nishimura, parliamentary vice minister of the Defense Agency, over his remarks about a possible nuclear armament. "If one is fired immediately after talking about whether Japan could be armed with nuclear weapons or not, we can't hold discussions at the diet," Hatoyama said at the time, adding, "It's questionable to argue that such an issue shouldn't be discussed."
Senior civil servants in Japan usually distance themselves from those remarks by politicians, however. They say the possibility of Japan developing nuclear weapons is unthinkable. To be sure, it is unlikely that Japan will choose to acquire nuclear weapons, at least in the foreseeable future. But no matter how remote, the specter of a nuclear-armed Japan leaves many countries, including its most important ally, the United States, as well as Asian neighbors, jittery.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Tokyo shortly after North Korea tested a nuclear bomb to assuage fears - and thereby indirectly urge Japan not to react to the North Korean test by pursuing development of its own nuclear weapons - as well as to coordinate strict enforcement of sanctions against Pyongyang. Rice reaffirmed the US commitment to safeguard Japan under its nuclear umbrella, saying emphatically that it would use the "full range" of its powers to defend Japan.
But what had long been considered a taboo subject after World War II is now being openly discussed, not just by the right-wing fringe but even in the mainstream. This apparently reflects the fact that many Japanese feel more insecure in the increasingly volatile security environment surrounding their country.
In August 1998, North Korea stunned Japan by test-firing a Taepodong-1 missile, which flew over Japan and fell into the Pacific. Pyongyang has already deployed an estimated 200 shorter-range Rodong missiles that can strike almost all of Japanese territory. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il acknowledged in 2002 that his reclusive Stalinist state had abducted some Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s to train spies, sparking an outburst of anger - and fears - among most Japanese.
Pyongyang's recent nuclear test, which followed its July test-firing of missiles, including a failed test of a Taepodong-2 missile that could reach some US territory, has significantly heightened concerns among most Japanese. As a result, Japan has revved up efforts to deploy its missile defense system in cooperation with the US.
Shortly after North Korea's missile launches in July, then Defense Agency chief Fukushiro Nukaga even said Japan should consider possessing preemptive capabilities to strike North Korea's missile sites. Abe, then chief cabinet secretary, also said, "If we accept that there is no other option to prevent an attack ... there is the view that attacking the launch base of the guided missiles is within the constitutional right of self-defense." Nukaga's predecessor, Shigeru Ishiba, has made similar calls. Only several years ago, both would surely have been dismissed for their remarks.
There is growing alarm in Japan over potential threats posed not only by North Korea in the short term, but also by China in the medium and long terms. China, an ascendant military power, has boosted its defense spending at a double-digit pace for 18 years - and increased naval activities in the seas close to Japan, as exemplified by the intrusion of a Chinese nuclear-powered submarine into Japanese territorial waters off Okinawa in November 2004.
China already possesses about 30 intercontinental ballistic missiles, which could reach the US, and is now arming them with multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicle (MIRV) warheads to counter the US missile defense system. To keep the Japanese nuclear genie in its bottle in the medium and long terms, the United States might need to keep reassuring Japan that the US nuclear umbrella would apply to a threat from the much bigger nuclear and missile power than North Korea.
Japan and China are locked in potentially explosive disputes over uninhabited islands and gas reserves in the East China Sea. Heightened security concerns among many Japanese made it politically possible for Abe's predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, to stretch the boundaries of the postwar pacifist constitution, including deploying non-combat Self-Defense Forces to Iraq, the first SDF mission to a combat zone after World War II. Abe apparently wants to push the constitutional boundaries even further.
Abe, Japan's youngest postwar premier at 52 and the first born after the war, also wants to have the US-written constitution itself revised while he is in office, altering the war-renouncing Article 9. He has advocated a more assertive foreign policy and called for a "departure from the postwar regime" to enable the country to take a higher profile militarily on the global stage.
Still, public opinion polls, including recent ones, show that the vast majority of Japanese people remain resolutely opposed to going so far as to arm their country with nuclear weapons. Many opponents of a proposed debate on the possible nuclear option insist that Japanese politicians have a duty to strive hard to eliminate nuclear weapons from the globe.
Other critics argue that although Japan has made a bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, it should seek to gain the seat as a non-nuclear nation so as to play a unique role there. At present, all five permanent council seats are held by nuclear powers - the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom and France.
The death of a taboo
Japan's three non-nuclear principles - not to manufacture, possess or allow nuclear weapons on its soil - were first announced by then prime minister Eisaku Sato in a speech to parliament in 1967. The diet formally passed a resolution adopting the principles in 1971, although they have never been enacted into law. The Sato government also signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1970. Sato won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974 in recognition of his announcement of the three non-nuclear principles.
The governments of Sato's successors have vowed publicly to abide by the non-nuclear principles. But actually, Japan has secretly explored the possibility of going nuclear at least twice. Both studies came to the same conclusion: ruling out atomic armament as an option so long as the credibility of the US nuclear umbrella was maintained.
The first consideration was made while Sato was in office. The Cabinet Information Research Office commissioned scholars and scientists to conduct basic research on Japan's nuclear policy between 1967 and 1970. The study was conducted, assuming a nuclear threat from China. In a report on their findings, the experts concluded that Japan should not possess nuclear weapons since they would inevitably result in diplomatic isolation.
In 1995 the Defense Agency produced a 31-page internal study on the benefits and drawbacks of pursuing nuclear arms, after the 1993-94 crisis over North Korea's nuclear-weapons program. This study also warned against moving ahead with a nuclear program on the grounds that it would cost too much, upset the power balance in the region, and undermine Japan's security agreement with the US.
Apart from those secret studies, however, publicly discussing the possibility of possessing nuclear weapons had been considered taboo until recently. In 1999, Shingo Nishimura, then parliamentary vice minister of the Defense Agency in the government of prime minister Keizo Obuchi, was ousted from his post after making remarks suggesting Japan should be armed with nuclear weapons.
Prime ministers and chief cabinet secretaries customarily try to play down obvious gaffes when a cabinet minister utters remarks that contradict official government policies. This usually takes the form of a warning, but it is not rare that such problematic ministers are fired.
Some critics have questioned Abe's leadership abilities, citing his failure to rein in hawkish remarks by Aso and Nakagawa. But they may be forgetting that the prime minister is an equally hawkish nationalist in his own right.
Before taking office, Abe himself said the country's constitution does not specifically forbid development of a nuclear deterrent. This view was in line with a unified official view expressed by the government in 1978 that the constitution does not prohibit the possession of weapons, whether nuclear or conventional, so long as they are limited to the minimum necessary to defend the country.
Abe has been careful since North Korea's nuclear test to say Japan has no plan to go nuclear. But he clearly is aligned with those who feel that the subject of possessing a nuclear arsenal should be on the table for study.
Terumasa Nakanishi, a professor of international politics at Kyoto University and one of Abe's five close, ultra-conservative brain-trusters, collectively known as "the quintet", has called for a review of the three non-nuclear principles.
"A missile defense system alone cannot protect Japan from a nuclear attack," Nakanishi said. "The only way to repress a North Korean nuclear attack is by possessing nuclear capabilities." Nakanishi specifically has called for ditching one of the three non-nuclear principles to allow the US to deploy such weapons on Japanese soil.
Echoing Nakanishi's view, senior LDP lawmaker Takashi Sasagawa expressed doubts about that principle and said debate will emerge on whether Japan's security can be maintained if it continues to prohibit nuclear arms on its territory. Sasagawa said at a party meeting that North Korea will definitely seek to possess nuclear weapons and that he does not think it is realistic for Japan to continue not to allow such arms on to its territory, while accepting the other two principles - of not producing and not possessing nuclear arms. Sasagawa told reporters separately that Japan's non-nuclear policy has so far worked effectively but that he has called for debate on Japan's response to a nuclear-armed North Korea.
Some experts say that in reality, the three non-nuclear principles have never been implemented in full because US warships carrying such weapons have been allowed to visit Japanese ports under a secret agreement between Tokyo and Washington. To be exact, they say, the principles are 2.5 principles. However, the US no longer routinely carries nuclear weapons on its aircraft carriers, so the issue is somewhat moot.
Critics say that any debate in Japan on a possible nuclear armament would just provide North Korea with an excuse to push ahead with its own nuclear-weapons program. Apart from the possibility of Japan going nuclear, many experts worry that even deterrence under the US nuclear umbrella, based only on the threat of retaliation, may not work as effectively as expected against leaders of rogue states like North Korea, who are more willing to take risks, gambling with the lives of their people and the wealth of their nations.
Some people, including in the US, believe that just discussing Japan's possible nuclear armament can be important and effective strategically, not only as a warning to North Korea but as a "Japan card" to pressure China to work harder to stop Pyongyang developing nuclear weapons. Apparently with the Japan card in mind, US Vice President Dick Cheney once said, "The idea of a nuclear-armed North Korea with ballistic missiles to deliver those will, I think, probably set off an arms race in that part of the world. That's not in China's interest."
Suspicions seem to be brewing on both sides of the political spectrum, with Abe's conservative supporters fearing that he will further deviate from the nationalistic path they initially expected him to tread as premier, while critics of the hawkish views he has expressed in the past, on history and other issues, apprehending that he might revert to type before long.
Hisane Masaki is a Tokyo-based journalist, commentator and scholar on international politics and economy. Masaki's e-mail address is email@example.com.