The nation’s largest and most powerful group of scientists has started discussing lifting its decades-old ban on defense-related research as the government seeks more collaboration with civilians in the development of weapons technology.
The move comes as the Defense Ministry, under the “proactive peace” policy of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is pushing for the development of dual-use technology by funding research that can be used for both civilian and military purposes.
It also comes on the heels of a report concluded this month by the national defense committee of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which recommended drastically increasing the ministry’s annual budget for dual-use grants to ¥10 billion from the current ¥600 million.
The Science Council of Japan, a group of some 2,000 scientists in fields ranging from engineering to the humanities to the natural sciences, announced last week it has set up a 15-member panel to discuss abandoning its long-held stance against military research.
Established in 1949 as a special organization under the jurisdiction of the prime minister but operating independently of the government, the SCJ has vowed “never to engage in scientific research to be used in war,” based on the bitter lessons of World War II, in which Japanese scientists contributed, directly or indirectly, to the ravages of war at home and abroad.
But in recent years, “it is becoming increasingly difficult to draw a clear line of demarcation between technologies and knowledge for military and civilian uses,” Takashi Onishi, president of SCJ and the president of Toyohashi University of Technology in Aichi Prefecture, wrote in his May 20 proposition to create the panel. “It has also been widely shared that such deepening of ties between academia and defense could threaten the foundations of science.”
The panel, comprising Onishi and 14 other people, including former astronaut Chiaki Mukai and Kyoto University President Juichi Yamagiwa, will discuss whether to amend statements by the council in 1950 and 1967, in which it vowed “never to engage in military research.”
It will also discuss the burgeoning field of dual-use technology.
Known for having spawned such innovations as the Internet and GPS, dual-use technology is common in the West but has long remained low-profile in postwar, pacifist Japan, with many institutions banning such research for fear of re-militarization.
A big turning point came in December 2013, when Abe, after returning to power the year before, had his Cabinet adopt the new National Defense Program Guidelines, said Morihisa Hamada, a volcanologist working at the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology and one of scores of scientists opposed to defense research.
The guidelines, in a marked departure from previous versions, spelled out the government’s plan to “actively utilize dual-use technologies in enhanced cooperation with universities and research institutes.”
In fiscal 2015, the Defense Ministry began seeking grant applications from civilian researchers for basic research in dual-use technology. The ¥300 million budget rose to ¥600 million this fiscal year.
Meanwhile, universities across the nation have faced a series of funding cuts from the central government, producing growing ranks of researchers starved for alternative funding.
Hamada said a range of universities and research institutes have conducted joint research with Defense Ministry-affiliated agencies in recent years.
For example, the Ground Systems Research Center, which conducts research on firearms, ammunition, ballistics and blast-resistant structures, vehicles and their fittings, and engineering equipment, has tied up with a range of academic institutions, including Kyushu University, Chiba Institute of Technology and Chiba University in such areas as explosives detection, robotics and engine simulation.
“The reason universities are now wavering is because research budgets have been slashed,” Hamada said.
He believes any research in the name of defense will end up aiding wars and urges concerned researchers to join an ongoing campaign led by Satoru Ikeuchi, an astrophysicist and professor emeritus at Nagoya University, to sign an online petition against military use of science.
While some scientists argue for lifting the research ban under certain conditions, such as using their technology only for defense, not offense, Hamada said such distinctions mean little.
“We should never forget the history of Japan, which waged a war under the name of self-defense,” he said. “All wars start with defense. To ban military research, the most nonconflicting stance to take is refuse any research funds from military institutions, be it the Defense Ministry or agencies tied to the U.S. military.”
The SCJ panel’s discussion will be open to the public, with the first meeting scheduled for June, an official with the group said.
The official added that it may take a year or so to reach a decision.