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IDSA COMMENT

Japan's (un)clear nuclear ambition

July 11, 2012

Japan’s recent amendment to its Atomic Energy Basic Law stating that nuclear energy should contribute to “national security” has stirred a debate both inside the country and outside about its true intentions. Critics contend that the national security clause could pave the way for Japan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons in the near future.

The revision in the 1955 atomic energy law was made during the process of passing a legislation backed by three main political parties, viz., the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, the Liberal Democratic Party and the New Komeito Party, to set up a new nuclear regulatory body, the Nuclear Safety Commission, on June 20. The Japanese government considered setting up a new nuclear regulatory body amid public pressure blaming the existing Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency of having cosy ties with nuclear companies and industry bodies. The new Commission would come into effect in September 2012. The revision, added by an appendix to the basic law, states that “nuclear safety should be guaranteed not only to defend lives of people’s health and the environment but also to contribute to Japan’s national security.” Critics in Japan view the addition of the national security clause as an ‘underhand deal’ among the three parties, which “allows the possibility of nuclear armament open to interpretation.”

Japanese anti-nuclear activists have been casting doubts about the true intention behind the alteration in the Atomic Energy Basic Law, which is considered as the constitution for Japan’s nuclear energy sector. The basic law adopted in 1955 stipulates that Japan will use nuclear energy for “peaceful purposes” and identifies “democracy, independence and openness” as basic principles of the nuclear industry. The main reason for the anti-nuclear activists’ wariness about the true intention behind the legislation is the hasty passing of the legislation without a proper debate in the Diet. The legislation was tabled on June 15 in the Diet and passed on June 20, which is very rare given the present political set-up wherein the opposition has a majority in the upper house.

Japanese media reports provide interesting insights into the adoption of this contentious clause. The amendment in the atomic energy law was proposed by Masayoshi Yoshino, a member of LDP in the lower house of the Diet. When a DPJ member questioned the true motive behind the clause, the LDP member explained that “the purpose is to centralize the safety of nuclear power, safeguards by International Atomic Energy Agency to prevent military use of nuclear materials and nuclear security to prevent terrorism into one Commission.” Questioning the lawmaker’s intention, Japanese media organisations including the Asahi Shimbun have argued that “the word safeguard should be used. Why say ‘national security’?” Michiji Konuma, professor emeritus at Keio University and an anti-nuclear activist, viewed the inclusion of the national security clause as a “cryptic expression” that “left room for stretched interpretation” to provide cover for military use of nuclear technology.

The amendment in the basic atomic energy law has generated unease in the region as well. South Korea expressed concern over the revision saying that “we will watch the true intention behind the amendment and its future impact.” Yonhap, the South Korean national news agency, asked Japan in an editorial to “clear up concerns over nuclear development”. Stating that “the real intention of the controversial clause should be closely watched,” the editorial added that “if Japan really has no intention of nuclear armament it should prove its real intention through action so as to clear suspicion.” Further, the Yonhap editorial went on to suggest that Japan “delete” the national security clause.

In Japan, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura and Nuclear Disaster Minister Goshi Hosono tried to shrug off these concerns. In separate remarks they said that Japan would not use nuclear power for military purposes and that Japan has not changed its three non-nuclear principles of not producing, possessing or allowing nuclear weapons on its territory.

However, many in the Japanese media continued to question the ulterior motives behind the inclusion of the ‘national security’ clause in the atomic energy law. The thrust of the debate in Japan is selection and usage of the phrase national security in the clause in question. In Japan, national security has been traditionally interpreted as national defence through military force. The Japan Times, questioning this aspect of the clause, opined in its editorial that “the word security leaves room for stretching the meaning of the clause, thus theoretically leaving the possibility of allowing Japan to use nuclear power for military purposes.” The daily suggested revision in the law “to rule out any possibility of using nuclear power for military purposes.” Similarly, Mainichi Daily editorialised that “there are fears that the development of atomic energy could lead to the development and production of nuclear arms.” It suggested that Japan “draw a clear line between such energy [nuclear energy] and national defense” and urged to “delete” the national security clause. The Asahi Shimbun too suggested the dropping of the national security clause, adding that “those words which could provoke suspicions that Japan is planning to develop nuclear weapons should be deleted in the next Diet Session.”

In the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear crisis, a group of Japanese media has been demanding a phase out of nuclear reactors as well as the spent fuel reprocessing facility in Rokkasho, Aomori prefecture. The Asahi Shimbun, in an editorial following the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, suggested that Japan stop nuclear fuel cycle policy and added that “if Japan stops the use of plutonium,1 it would provide the country with a card to strengthen its nuclear nonproliferation diplomacy.” Seen against this context, the reactions expressed through the latest editorials suggest that the Japanese media’s campaign to wean Japan away from nuclear power has not yielded the desired result and therefore they are venting their anger over the insertion of the national security clause.

But what does Japan want to achieve through such an amendment in the atomic energy law? The answer could be found in arguments offered by Takao Yamada, a senior columnist of the Mainichi Shimbun. Based on conversation with a Japanese bureaucrat, Yamada draws the conclusion that the entire exercise of including a “national security” clause is aimed at granting “legal legitimacy” to the Rokkasho reprocessing plant, which will lose meaning if the country moves toward the abandonment of nuclear power. “If it is legally granted legitimacy as a facility for the military use of nuclear materials, then it can continue to exist. I believe that there were LDP lawmakers who thought of that and bureaucrat who supported them,” Yamada quotes the bureaucrat as saying. Yamada also notes that “a section of Japanese lawmakers and the bureaucrats have revealed their off the record hopes for country’s nuclear armament.”

For long Japan kept itself away from the ongoing nuclear armament in the East Asian region; nuclear armament remained a taboo for the post war generation leadership. Instead of opting for Japan’s nuclear armament, they relied on the nuclear umbrella provided by the United States. But it seems the new generation of the Japanese leadership sense vulnerability amid North Korean nuclear armament as well as nuclear armed China’s assertiveness. Therefore, they do not want to drop the nuclear option altogether and want to maintain some ambiguity in the country’s nuclear policy. But since the Japanese people remain largely opposed to the country’s nuclear armament, an overt inclusion of such a clause was impossible. That is why they quietly included a clause in the appendix while amending the 1955 atomic energy law.

The near secrecy maintained during the insertion of the clause is not unique in Japanese politics. According to the Japanese lawmaker Ashida Hitoshi, in 1946 the war renouncing clause of the draft constitution presented by the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers was intentionally amended in such a way as to enable Japan’s later gradual rearmament in the name of self-defence. Only time will tell whether Masayoshi Yoshino will also similarly admit that he had a hidden intention behind his aggressive pursuit of the inclusion of the national security clause. In any event, the ambiguity maintained by Japanese politicians points towards this direction.

  • 1. An Asahi Shimbun report in July 2011 noted that “Japan has stockpiled about 10 tons of plutonium, enough to produce 1250 nuclear weapons.”