Will Japan go Nuclear?

July 31, 2009
Event: 
Fellows' Seminar
Type: 
Only by Invitation
Time: 
1030 to 1300 hrs

Chair: Rajaram Panda
Discussants: J Madan Mohan and Sitakanta Mishra

The tremendous transformation in the strategic and security environment of Japan in the last decade has once again influenced the nuclearization debate in the country. North Korea’s second nuclear test followed by the launch of three short-range missiles on May 25, 2009 and the subsequent launch of seven ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan on July 4, has prompted widespread speculation on Japan’s principled position on non-proliferation and disarmament. The international community is worried whether Japan will abandon its nuclear abstinence and acquire a nuclear capability. In this paper, the author makes an effort to analyze circumstances under which Japan might consider crossing the nuclear Rubicon. An attempt is also been made to trace the nuclearization debate which has resurfaced in Japan periodically when the national interest seems is threatened.

The Japanese position on the nuclear weapons option has been ambivalent. Japan has never made any official decision on whether or not to exercise the nuclear option. Still its pacifist constitution clearly deters the state from maintaining land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential. The right of state belligerency too has been denied in the Japanese constitution. The constitution’s stance on nuclear arms, however, remains ambiguous and it has led many pro-nuclear advocates to debate the possibility of Japan developing nuclear weapons for defensive purposes. Although the Constitution may be interpreted to allow for possession of nuclear weapons, the Atomic Energy Basic Law of 1955 clearly emphasizes the essence of Japan’s policy in maintaining a peaceful, transparent nuclear programme. Besides, Japan has also adopted the ‘Three Non-Nuclear Principles’ expressing the policy of not possessing, not producing, and not permitting the introduction of nuclear weapons into Japan. This position was reiterated in 1976 when it ratified the NPT and committed not to produce or acquire nuclear weapons. However, though the validity of these principles has been upheld by successive cabinets, the degree of restraint that these principles place on Japan’s nuclear policy remains uncertain. Most importantly, they do not represent a legal restraint, because Diet resolutions are passed as an expression of the will of the chamber and are non-binding. Further, over the years, allegations have been made regarding the violation of the third principle of the three non-nuclear principles right from the Cold War period. Still, the support for a robust nuclear weapon policy has not gained enough momentum and Japan continues to remain committed to an anti-nuclear policy.

The dynamic changes in the regional and security areas of Japan have deeply influenced the revival of the nuclear debate in Tokyo. Due to factors like the expanding nuclear programme of China and North Korea; the failure of the Six Party Talks; growing suspicion among the Japanese people over the credibility of the U.S nuclear umbrella; the increasing proximity of U.S.-China bilateral relations, etc., there has emerged an open debate within Japan about whether it should adopt the policy of nuclear disarmament.

At present, many security analysts are of the view that Japan may go nuclear within the next ‘ten to fifteen years’. According to the author, Japan might compromise its principled stand on nuclear armament if the following scenarios unfold: the weakening of the US-Japan alliance; a North Korean nuclear attack on Japan; a war in the Korean Peninsula; a reunified nuclear Korea; a North Korean nuclear test; Chinese nuclear expansion; U.S. withdrawal from the region; possible breakdown of the NPT; rise of a new generation of nationalistic Japanese politicians; China’s response to a sudden collapse of North Korea. Although some of the above scenarios are extreme, they cannot be disregarded altogether by Japan.

While explaining the implications for India, the author states that Japan’s decision to acquire nuclear weapons will be a major setback for the NPT. States like India who are not part of the NPT because of its discriminatory nature will be demoralized to uphold the principles and obligations of the treaty which it has done so far.

According to the author, in order to avoid nuclearization of Japan, a comprehensive and prioritized plan is required. As part of the plan, following measures should be adopted: the US must provide clear assurances of its security umbrella for Japan; efforts should be made for the resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue; measures should also be made to establish regional organizations for security and trade, facilitating greater cooperation and mitigating distrust among Asian countries; and above all, the U.S. and the other NPT members must take initiatives to strengthen the NPT regimes so that all countries feel secure in it including Japan.

Points raised during discussion:

  • If Japan decides to go nuclear, it has to deal with two main hurdles: i) it has to revise domestic laws and conventions related to Japan’s stance on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, which is going to be quite complicated; ii) it also has to withdraw from the NPT, a step which will definitely be against Japan’s national interest.
  • There has occurred an attitudinal shift in the current nuclear debate in Japan. Although the Japanese population is considered to be suffering from the so-called ‘nuclear allergy’, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has called for active discussion of possible nuclear weapons option. The opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which is projected to be the virtual winner of the upcoming August 30 general election in Japan, has also talked about a ‘radical revision’ of the Japan-U.S. Security alliance and advocated an independent security policy for Japan.
  • Even if Japan decides to pursue the nuclear option, it will probably do so with the tacit support of the U.S.
  • The U.S. will inevitably reduce its involvement in Asia over the longer term. It will eventually lead Japan to think seriously about its nuclear option for national security.
  • Engagement in Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan won’t make the U.S. compromise its security pact with Japan.
  • It is true that Japan has not gone nuclear yet. However, the real question is how long Japan can prevent itself from going nuclear.
  • In the near future, Japan will probably decide to keep its nuclear option ambiguous, as it will enhance its bargaining power with the West, particularly the U.S.
  • Yukiya Amano of Japan is the new chief of the IAEA. His election will probably intensify the gap between Japan’s ardent support for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation on the one hand, and Japan’s aspiration to go nuclear for national security reasons on the other hand.
  • In terms of method and theory, the paper could be expanded in scope. Instead of a one-dimensional approach, it should adopt a multidimensional approach in drawing the scenarios. In the paper, the author has identified the scenarios assuming that Japan will go nuclear in the near future. Instead, she should build scenarios keeping in mind different possibilities in terms of outcomes.
  • Most of the scenarios drawn by the author are not realistic enough. The bilateral security arrangement between Japan and the U.S. is still going strong. China has been a security threat to Japan throughout its history. Contrary to assumptions made by security analysts regarding the nuclear issue of North Korea provoking Japan to go nuclear, the North is still not considered such a big threat by most Japanese. Only the hawks in Japan offer the excuse of China and North Korea to discuss Japan’s nuclear option.
  • Instead of offering ten different scenarios, most of which are not ‘realistic’ enough, the author should concentrate on four or five ‘most probable’ scenarios.
  • The paper is very light with respect to the implications for India.
  • The author needs to take into account the contributions of the strong anti-nuclear movements (especially the hibakusha movements) within Japan.
  • In the paper, the author mentions that the constitution of Japan does not talk about nuclear weapons. However, Japan’s Defence White Paper 2008 interprets that the constitution bans possessions of WMDs, ICBMs and fighter bombers.
  • The author needs to discuss the anti-nuclear culture within Japan.
  • The paper needs to analyze the positions of major political parties (particularly the LDP and DPJ) over the nuclear issue in the last few decades, their stances on the same issue before and after the upcoming election in August.
  • The author needs to categorize the scenarios into two parts: one, Japan going nuclear and the second, Japan maintaining an ambiguous position on the nuclear issue.
  • As for public opinion, instead of concentrating on the present situation alone, the author should analyze public opinion on nuclear issues over the last two or three decades.
  • The author needs to discuss in detail the domestic compulsions which are driving Japan’s path to nuclearization.
    • Prepared by Pranamita Baruah, Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.