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Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda’s comment on Japan’s three nonnuclear principles caused political confusion at home and deepened misunderstanding abroad.

It was a serious blow to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s administration, which has been losing public support lately. The gaffe, by a leading administration official, resulted in erosion of international trust in “nonnuclear Japan.”

In a background briefing for reporters May 31, Fukuda noted that there were growing calls for amending the pacifist Constitution and said if the international situation were to change, public opinion might favor a nuclear-armed Japan. Media reports said Fukuda suggested the possibility of changing Japan’s three-point pledge not to manufacture, possess or allow the introduction of nuclear weapons on its soil.

Fukuda later denied the government had any intention of revising the nonnuclear policy. He told the Diet last Monday that he only meant that changing times and a changing international situation could prompt national debate on security issues, adding that his comment did not indicate a policy change. He said the Koizumi government will abide by the principles.

Koizumi told the same session that Japan is an economic power but will not become a military power, adding his administration will stick to the nonnuclear vow.

Fukuda’s comment, however, caused some international criticism. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said the Japanese pledge was a sacred international commitment. A Russian official said Fukuda’s remark did not contribute to nuclear nonproliferation and was clearly “anachronistic.” A South Korean official warned that a nuclear-armed Japan would be detrimental to the security of Northeast Asia.

The New York Times, in an article headlined “Nuclear Arms Taboo Is Challenged in Japan,” said: “Despite the denials of an imminent change, remarks like these indicate that a major shift in Japanese security thinking is under way.” The newspaper also recalled that Liberal Party chief Ichiro Ozawa said in April that Japan could easily acquire “thousands of nuclear warheads” to deal with China’s potential threat (although Ozawa said he had been misquoted). The paper also said Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara called Fukuda in support of his comment.

The three-point nonnuclear pledge, formulated in 1967 by then-Prime Minister Eisaku Sato and endorsed by the Diet, is a long-standing national policy.

However, some influential U.S. experts on security issues have already suggested the possibility of Japan going nuclear. “The Next War,” a 1996 novel by former U.S. Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger and Peter Schweizer, concerns a 2007 war between the United States and Japan, which goes nuclear in 2001 to cope with North Korea’s deployment of nuclear arms.

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger does not rule out the possibility of Japan going nuclear. In his 2001 book, “Does America Need a Foreign Policy?,” Kissinger says that without an American military presence in Asia, “Japan will be increasingly drawn to security and foreign policies based on national impulses.” Kissinger anticipates that Japan will seek more freedom of action in its policy, and believes that U.S. military presence is needed to prevent Japan from going in a direction harmful to U.S. interest, including going nuclear.

Reckless remarks by Japanese politicians have added fuel to debate on nuclear arms for Japan and put Japan at a disadvantage in the international community. Japanese politicians must be sensitive to this problem.

Beginning 20 years ago, Cabinet Legislation Bureau officials have consistently said that under their interpretation of the Constitution, the war-renouncing Article 9 does not bar Japan from acquiring the minimum equipment for self-defense, whether nuclear or conventional.

Nevertheless, Japan has maintained the three nonnuclear principles. In addition, the Atomic Energy Basic Law allows Japan to use nuclear energy only for peaceful purposes. And as a nonnuclear signatory of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty ratified in 1976, Japan has pledged not to manufacture or possess nuclear weapons.

The Japanese government has upheld nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation as the pillars of its foreign policy. Since 1994, Japan has annually presented resolutions on nuclear disarmament to the United Nations General Assembly and has received overwhelming international support. The Foreign Ministry has stepped up an international campaign for the early implementation of nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, with the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as the centerpiece.

Politicians’ gaffes on nuclear arms cast doubt on Japan’s sincerity about nuclear disarmament. The international community will have doubt about Japan’s policy directions.

Eisei Ito, a Lower House member of the Democratic Party of Japan, criticized Fukuda for lacking a diplomatic sense at a time when nuclear-armed India and Pakistan were on the brink of war. Ito expressed serious doubts about the Koizumi administration’s diplomatic policy, saying Japan was giving a wrong message abroad and questioning the roles Japan intended to play in the international community.

At issue is the lack of political leadership that has left Japan’s future diplomatic course in doubt.

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