Will Japan get nuclear weapons?

Japan’s militarization, including nuclear weapons, is a great risk. Will the USA run the risk of doing this to contain China? 

Containment of a growing China is probably the main issue for the United States. The main candidate in Asia to pursue the policy of China’s containment is Japan. Obviously, Japan must be militarized to accomplish this task. Will Japan get nuclear weapons for this?

Nuclear weapons have never been forgotten in Japan, despite the adoption of non-nuclear principles and a pacifist constitution and other statements about a coveted “nuclear-free world.” But recently the talk about the need to acquire nuclear weapons has gained new momentum.

Japanese society’s attitude toward nuclear weapons

Japan is the only country that has experienced the military use of nuclear weapons. In 1945 the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As a result, the cities were virtually destroyed. Tens of thousands of people died directly during the bombings, and many more died later from the various effects of radiation exposure.

Therefore, it is not surprising that after the war a strong anti-nuclear power movement developed in Japan. It was very influential in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1955, the Japan Council against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs was founded. It included representatives of all political parties in the country at the time. This event was preceded by an incident with a Japanese ship in 1954 – it was covered by a cloud of radioactive ash from another US nuclear testing, and one person died as a result of this incident. After this accident, 35 million people signed an anti-nuclear power petition.

The anti-nuclear power movement in Japan has never been unified. Its activity was accompanied by splits, and political issues prevented different forces from agreeing on a number of issues. Therefore, the country’s authorities could ignore the opinions of the supporters of the movement without much political harm.

Moreover, as time passed, the intensity of the anti-nuclear power struggle waned as eyewitnesses of the bombings passed away, memories of the tragedy weakened, and the political situation changed. Nevertheless, there are still many opponents of the army nuclear power programs in the country.

Not everyone is fond of using nuclear power for energy production, especially after the Fukushima-1 nuclear disaster in 2011. At that time, a strong earthquake off the coast of the Fukushima Prefecture caused a powerful tsunami, which the protective mechanisms of the coastal plant were unable to cope with. The cooling system malfunctioned, and several reactors overheated, causing explosions that released radioactive substances into the atmosphere. The accident was assigned the highest, level 7 according to the International Nuclear Event Scale. Its consequences will be dealt with for many years to come.

It is not yet very clear whether there is any real consensus on nuclear weapons among the country’s political elite, but there is no unity among the authorities and the people of Japan on the issue of nuclear weapons.

Japan’s Three Non-Nuclear Principles

In 1967 the Japanese authorities adopted the so-called three non-nuclear principles, that is, they pledged not to produce nuclear weapons, not to possess them, and not to allow such weapons on Japanese territory. The document was approved by the parliament in 1971. Earlier, in 1968, Japan had acceded to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

Japanese politicians referred to these principles from time to time, stating that Japan would continue to adhere to them and calling for a nuclear-free world. However, documents declassified in 2010 showed that at least three non-nuclear principles were still formally violated.

For example, under secret agreements between Japan and the United States, US warships with nuclear weapons could approach Japanese shores without the consent of Tokyo.

Prime Minister Eisaku Satō allegedly called the non-nuclear principles “ridiculous” exactly at the time when they were introduced. It should also be noted that they have been never adopted into law, and the authorities have rejected proposals to give them such status.

The US Nuclear Umbrella

It should be noted that talk of nuclear weapons, like much on the subject of militarization that has been mentioned lately, is far from new in Japan. In 1964 China tested its first nuclear bomb. This certainly could not go unnoticed in Japan and caused some anxiety.

In 1965, during talks with US President Lyndon Johnson, Prime Minister Satō said that Japan would like to take shelter under the US “nuclear umbrella” with appropriate guarantees. Thus, despite its many statements about fighting for a nuclear-free world, the Japanese authorities today continue to avail themselves of US nuclear protection and do not demand that the US give up nuclear weapons.

It should be noted, however, that Japan has never absolutized the “nuclear umbrella.” The country’s Foreign Ministry pointed out in a report published in 1969 that Japan could not enlessly rely on the US “nuclear umbrella”. It was recommended to begin to create the basis for building its own nuclear weapons. In general, there has long been some skepticism in Japan about the fulfillment of obligations by the USA in case of an attack.

The Japanese authorities have also mentioned their willingness to revise the country’s nuclear-weapon-free status. For example, in 1994 Prime Minister Tsutomu Hata said that Japan had the potential to produce nuclear weapons and could in a short time produce warheads for ballistic missiles (which already existed at the time), if a corresponding political decision will be made.

Obstacles to acquiring nuclear weapons

Japan has a very advanced nuclear industry and possesses, among other things, some stockpiles of plutonium suitable for nuclear weapons production. By now, Japan is believed to have the capabilities to produce such weapons in a short period of time, as the same Prime Minister Hata has stated.

In November 2006, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso also stated that Japan has the technology to produce nuclear weapons, although he added that the country has no intention to do so. In addition, he noted that the country’s constitution does not prohibit it from possessing nuclear weapons.

The government also repeated this later, for example, in 2016 in response to a request from a parliamentarian. Earlier, Director-General of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau Yusuke Yokobatake told parliament that Japan’s constitution does not prohibit the use of nuclear weapons for minimally necessary self-defense.

All in all, we see that issues of interpretation and political expediency come into play. Something similar has happened before with Japan’s army, which is supposedly not authorized, but at the same time, it obviously exists under the guise of a self-defense force.

So what stood in the way of Japan acquiring nuclear weapons earlier? Of course, there is a whole set of reasons, to mention just a few. The very first point is Japan’s relationship with the United States. A serious nuclear capability would surely take Japan out of the US protectorate to a substantial degree, something the United States is unlikely to like. But given the current confrontation with China, this may not matter so much.

Second, one should not underestimate the banal issue of money. A nuclear umbrella of one’s own is quite expensive. This is not a one-time expenditure, and considerable sums will have to be allocated annually.

In addition, it can be pointed out that Japanese politicians are fully exploiting the image of a pacifist Japan, constantly declaring the struggle for a nuclear-free world and the need to get rid of nuclear weapons. It is difficult to say whether the anti-nuclear movement in Japan was ever unified, but the relevant public sentiment cannot be underestimated in any case.

Sharing of nuclear weapons

At the end of February 2022, already after Russia’s special military operation to denazify Ukraine had begun, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for a discussion of the deployment of nuclear weapons in Japan. This time, it was about the so-called joint use of such weapons with the United States.

“Although Japan adheres to the three non-nuclear principles, however, we must not make it a taboo to discuss the reality of world security,” Abe said.

At the same time, he also added that Japan should aim to eliminate these very weapons.

This scheme is not new. US nuclear weapons are still deployed in Germany, for example. Berlin can vote for the decision regarding the planning or conducting of NATO operations using nuclear weapons, in turn committing to provide aircraft that can carry such weapons. US nuclear tactical weapons are also deployed in Italy, Turkey, Belgium and the Netherlands.

According to a March poll by the Japanese newspaper Sankei Shimbun and the FNN TV channel, about 83% of Japanese citizens support a broad discussion on nuclear sharing. Another 15% said there was no need to discuss anything.

20.3% of respondents said that discussions on sharing of nuclear weapons should be held, while 62.8% said that a debate should be held, but that the sharing should not be allowed.

That is, considering this poll, it appears that 77-78% of the country’s citizens are opposed to the deployment of US nuclear weapons in Japan. This, by the way, correlates with the data of the 2021 poll, in which about 75% of respondents supported Japan’s accession to the INF Treaty.

So despite the fact that the appropriate information brainwashing of the population has been going on for a long time now, the Japanese authorities still have much to do in that area. The proponents of the aforementioned changes are also talking about this, noting that they will have to prove to citizens that the acquisition of nuclear weapons is vital.

On the other hand, a broad discussion is precisely the opportunity to convince someone, and the vast majority of Japanese support such debate.

Will Japan shift toward the acquisition of nuclear weapons?

Considering all of the above, as well as recent trends, it is quite possible that Japan will acquire nuclear weapons. Japanese citizens are frightened by China, North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, and now Russia (not excluding the nuclear aspect).

It is unlikely that Japan will produce ballistic missiles with nuclear charges, but the option of tactical nuclear weapons under a joint-use scheme is more likely. This would definitively lift Japan’s “nuclear-free seal” and pave the way for more serious nuclear weapons options.

It is difficult to talk about the specific timing of this shift. On July 10, Japan will hold elections to the upper house of parliament, and much will depend on the results of these elections. Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has already embarked on a policy of militarizing the country, having announced such measures before last year’s elections to the lower house. The result of that election effectively gave the party carte blanche to pursue its policy. In this election, the issues of “ensuring Japan’s security” were not removed from the agenda, but their discussion was further developed.

The ratings for the current Cabinet are quite high, so even with all the economic turmoil, the LDP is likely to get the votes it requires in the next election.

And that means that all the militarist ideas, including the changes to the country’s constitution that Abe has long dreamed of, the military budget increase, and so on, will gain new momentum after the elections. Nuclear-weapons issues may well be among them.

Source: Rossa Primavera News Agency

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