When the foreign ministers from the Group of Seven industrialized nations gather in Hiroshima for a two-day meeting from Sunday, they will visit Hiroshima Peace Park and conclude their gathering with a “Hiroshima Declaration” that will likely express hope for a world without nuclear weapons.

The future of such weapons and how to reduce them is shaping discussions in Tokyo and Hiroshima this year, following the nuclear security summit held in Washington on March 31 and April 1 and the upcoming G-7 Ise-Shima summit at the end of next month.

But even as Japan seeks to play a larger role in international nonproliferation efforts, past personal statements by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, his allies, and, more recently, official government replies about nuclear weapons for Japan, raise questions about how politically credible any leadership in that role might be.

During an Upper House budget committee session on March 18, Yusuke Yokobatake, who heads the Cabinet Legislation Bureau, said he does not think that, under the Constitution, the use of all types of nuclear weapons is banned. His statement echoed a comment that Abe made back in 2002 while deputy chief Cabinet secretary in which he said that small-scale nuclear weapons were not unconstitutional.

In response, Democratic Party lawmaker Seiji Ohsaka and Takako Suzuki, an independent who left the DP’s predecessor earlier this year, submitted questions to the government, saying Yokobatake’s views are considered a violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Constitution.

The government responded that it is respecting the so-called three non-nuclear principles of not possessing, not producing and not permitting the introduction of nuclear weapons into Japan, even as it basically supported Yokobatake’s statement.

“As a purely doctrinal problem about the relationship between Article 9 of the Constitution (the no-war clause) and nuclear weapons, our country has the inherent right of self-defense. The use of the minimum level of ability for self-defense doesn’t mean nuclear weapons are banned under Article 9, section 2,” the government stated in its written response.

But in a follow-up set of questions sent to the government on Wednesday, Ohsaka expressed several concerns.

“What does the government mean by the ‘so-called’ three non-nuclear principles? In addition, the government says it is respecting the principles as a matter of policy. Does this mean that if the policy is changed, Japan can have nuclear weapons?” Ohsaka asked.

The three non-nuclear principles were formally mentioned in a statement made by former Prime Minister Eisaku Sato in the Diet in 1967, when he said they were in line with the Constitution.

Yokobatake’s statement and the government’s reply are in line with not only Abe’s 2002 statement but also at least two other senior party leaders. Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, who also serves as finance minister, and Liberal Democratic Party policy chief Tomomi Inada, who has been mentioned as a possible future prime minister, have both made past statements supporting at least a debate on whether Japan should have nuclear weapons.

Most experts agree that Japan actually possessing nuclear weapons is an extremely unlikely scenario, at least under present circumstances. But official statements indicating it could, as well as Japan’s attempts to bring Aomori Prefecture’s Rokkasho reprocessing center for spent nuclear reactor fuel into operation, create international doubts that Japan is serious about ridding the world of nuclear weapons and nuclear materials.

Such doubts must also be addressed at a time when regional tensions are high.

At a news conference on Tuesday, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, when asked about pursuing denuclearization versus the security environment, said what is necessary is an accurate awareness of the inhumanity of nuclear weapons and an objective assessment of the severe security environment.

“I therefore do not find any contradiction between the severe security environment and Japan’s practical and realistic efforts to achieve a world without nuclear weapons,” Kishida said.

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