Japan in a Nuclear Weapons Neighborhood
2012-10-01 By Richard Weitz
Japanese-U.S. security ties have experienced recurring Japanese worries about strategic abandonment by Washington.
Such concerns could be realized either as part of a general U.S. strategic disengagement from East Asian security issues, or by obtaining a denuclearization deal with North Korea, or by deepening ties with China, which has become a more important commercial partner of the United States than Japan in recent years.
In addition, Japan’s political-military goals, and the means chosen to pursue them, remain different from those of the United States.
Unlike U.S. policy makers, which regularly consider the strategic implications developments across the globe, Japanese security managers remain focused on the Asia Pacific region.
Moreover, whereas U.S. policy makers will often consider military options when considering how to manage security problems, Japanese policy makes will almost always favor relying on non-military instruments to pursue those objectives.
These problems have all been long-standing, which means that they have been both difficult to solve but also can be acceptably managed on a daily basis.
Abstaining from Nuclear Weapons in a Challenging Neighborhood
Thus far, the Japanese government has continued to abstain from pursuing an independent nuclear deterrent. In December 1967, Prime Minister Eisaku Sato announced that Japan would adhere to a policy based on “Three Non-Nuclear Principles.” These affirmed that Japan would not manufacture, possess, or permit the introduction of nuclear weapons onto Japanese soil.
Yet, during the last few years, adverse security developments relating to North Korea have led Japanese leaders to make several statements affirming that altered circumstances could compel Japan to abandon its policy of nuclear abstention.
In essence, these statements affirm that (1) changing international circumstances could lead Japan to decide to possess nuclear weapons; (2) those circumstances have not yet occurred; and (3) the right to possess nuclear weapons is not the same as the right to use them.
In late 1995, following revelations about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, the Japanese Defense Agency conducted a secret investigation into Japan’s nuclear option. Although the full details of the 31-page report have never been released, in 2003 the Asahi Shimbun obtained a copy of the report and revealed some of its findings. The study resoundingly reaffirmed Japan’s non-nuclear status and outlined the numerous drawbacks that would result from Japan’s nuclearization.
In particular, the study found that Japan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would destroy the military balance in Asia and possibly cause an arms race with China, a nuclear South Korea, or an openly hostile North Korea. According to Asahi, the report said that:
“Japan would effectively destroy the basis for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty; the reliability of the U.S. nuclear umbrella would be undermined and Japan would be viewed as distrustful of its military alliance with the United States; neighbors would fear that Japan was taking a more independent defense policy stance.”
The report concluded that continued reliance on the U.S. nuclear deterrent provided Tokyo’s best economic and security option. The authors argued it would be prohibitively expensive for Japan to develop the infrastructure to produce nuclear weapons.
In addition, if the country actually experienced a nuclear attack, its densely populated urban areas would be devastated. The study also asserted that it was highly unlikely that the United States would allow North Korea to develop nuclear weapons.
1998 Events Call This Into Question
But then two events in 1998 shocked the Japanese public and strengthened the hand of those individuals and groups advocating that Japan at least reconsider if not reverse its policy of nuclear abstention. These individuals included conservative academics, some government officials, and a few influential industrialists (in addition to the very vocal nationalist organizations that prowl Tokyo’s streets with bullhorns spewing right wing rhetoric).
First, in May, India and Pakistan conducted back-to-back nuclear tests, formalizing their nuclear status. The perceived laxness that the international community showed in condemning the countries nuclear adventurism troubled the Japanese.
One reason the Japanese had decided to join the NPT in the early 1970s was that they had anticipated severe penalties for those states that defied the international consensus against further nuclear weapons acquisition.
In addition, the Japanese and other nations feared that India’s development of a nuclear arsenal could spur a nuclear arms race with China. A PRC nuclear buildup would have much more potential for upsetting the balance of power in Asia than the India-Pakistan conflict.
And, second, and even more disturbing event in 1998 was the launching of a North Korean Taepodong missile over Japan in August.
This demonstration of North Korea’s ballistic missile capability led to an outcry among all sectors of Japanese society, and caused some to call for remilitarization or nuclear weapons development.
Fukushiro Nukaga, the chief of Japan’s defense agency, said that “his government would be justified in mounting pre-emptive military strikes against North Korean missile bases,” remarks that reflect the potential devastation Japan could suffer from even a single North Korean missile if it were armed with a nuclear warhead. Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi said that he was “extremely concerned” about the tests.
The missile incident gave nationalist conservatives more prominence in the defense debate than at any time since the Sato administration in the 1960s. The conservative Sankei newspaper wrote in an editorial that “in order to counter such a threat, [Japan] has to establish a cold, merciless policy of power politics” in order to let the North Koreans “know that [Japan] has the option of attacking launch sites in North Korea in self-defense.”
However, the general public still was reluctant to flirt with abandoning a well-established non- nuclear policy, and opinion polls at the time showed strong opposition to pursuing nuclear arms.
For example, when Vice Defense Minister Shingo Nishimura said in a 1999 magazine interview that Parliament “should consider the fact that Japan may be better off if it armed itself with nuclear weapons,” it resulted in a public outcry in both Japan and neighboring countries. Other government officials described the comment as “extremely inappropriate,” and Obuchi called for, and accepted, Nishimura’s resignation.Even so, in 2002, both then Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said in separate statements that Japan had never permanently renounced its right to nuclear weapons. Abe told Asahi Shimbun that Japan’s development of a nuclear arsenal would not violate the Constitution because its text “does not necessarily ban the possession of nuclear weapons as long as they are kept at a minimum and are tactical.”
In attempting to clarify Abe’s statement, Secretary Fukuda subsequently said that “in legal theory Japan could have intercontinental ballistic missiles and atomic bombs and that the Three Non-nuclear Principles might change if the people believed Japan should go nuclear.”
Although distancing himself from these remarks, Prime Minister Koizumi implied that Japan had the right to possess nuclear weapons when he observed, “it is significant that although we could have them, we don’t.”
Both Fukuda and Abe later explained that the Koizumi Cabinet had no intention of seeking nuclear weapons at the time, but believed that future foreign policy makers should be free to decide whether to develop a nuclear arsenal.
In March 2006, an article in the Japanese weekly Shukan Bunshun reported that, during his December 2005 visit to Washington, Foreign Minister Taro Aso commented that Japan might need nuclear weapons to manage regional security threats. He allegedly told Vice President Dick Cheney, “If North Korea carries on with its nuclear development, then Japan would have to have nuclear arms.”