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Recent comments by leading Japanese politicians have raised international concern about Tokyo’s nuclear intentions. Those fears are misplaced: Japan’s nuclear taboo remains as powerful as ever. The comments do signal growing frustration within Japan’s policy community over the need for a long-delayed debate on national security. Just as important is what the reaction reveals: the international community’s lack of faith in Japanese democracy.

For half a century, Japan has successfully sidestepped serious debate on national security. The Peace Constitution, handed down by the Occupation authorities, and the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty provided a ready-made policy framework that permitted this indulgence. Fears of the strains such a debate would create — fears borne out by the riots that greeted the treaty’s extension in 1960 — encouraged Japanese leaders to indulge.

The end of the Cold War forced Japan to acknowledge that new thinking is in order. The first inklings followed the Persian Gulf War, when Japan’s $13 billion contribution earned it ridicule rather than respect. Despite hopes for a new world order, Northeast Asia seems to be a more dangerous place since the demise of the Soviet Union. The 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis, North Korea’s 1998 missile test and periodic violations of Japanese waters by unidentified spy boats have forced many in Japan to challenge assumptions about security policy. As a result, there is a more realistic approach to security thinking in Japan.

This is the context in which the recent comments about Japanese nuclear options must be considered. Liberal Party leader Ichiro Ozawa pointed out in April that China’s heavy-handedness could prompt a Japanese backlash. (His exact words: “if [China] gets too inflated, Japanese people will get hysterical. It would be so easy for us to produce nuclear warheads . . .”)

More recently, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda sparked another controversy when he opined that “depending upon the world situation, circumstances and public opinion could require Japan to possess nuclear weapons.” Fukuda’s remarks were triggered by comments by his deputy, Shinzo Abe, to college students (thought to be off-the-record) that called for a rigorous examination of the legal restraints on Japan’s defense policies.

Neither statement, on its face, is exceptional. Both premise Japanese action on changes in the security environment. That makes perfect sense. To drive the point home, when responding to the furor, the government reiterated its commitment to existing policy and the nation’s three nonnuclear principles: It would continue to ban the manufacture, possession and introduction of nuclear weapons. The international obligations Japan incurred as a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty are an equally powerful constraint.

Moreover, neither statement addresses the fundamental obstacle to Japan’s development of nuclear arms: the Japanese public’s profound rejection of nuclear weapons. The legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is still powerful.

The foundation of Japan’s postwar identity is its status as the world’s only “atom-bombed nation” and its unilateral rejection of nuclear weapons. In 1995, 80 percent of Japanese opposed obtaining nuclear arms. By 1998, 89 percent of Japanese said their country did not need nuclear weapons. Even after the North Korean missile launch, 79 percent of respondents in an Asahi Shimbun poll stated that all countries should destroy their nuclear weapons. A year ago, 55 percent of respondents in a Nihon Seron Chosakai poll agreed that the U.S. nuclear umbrella isn’t necessary for Japan’s defense. Skeptics may make light of the government’s “rhetorical” commitment to its nonnuclear principles, but the crucial point is that every government repeats them without hesitation each time a politician speaks out of turn — clear acknowledgment of the strength of the nuclear taboo.

The skepticism about Japanese intentions is also revealing. It shows a lack of faith in Japanese democracy. There is little doubt about Japanese public sentiment toward nuclear weapons. The charge that the government’s three nonnuclear principles — for which Prime Minister Eisaku Sato won the 1974 Nobel Peace Prize — can be forgotten when convenient is another way of saying Japan is not a democracy. That is implicit in the idea that a small cabal could steer policy against the wishes of the majority of the public. Nor is this the only policy that raises this concern: Many of the difficulties Japan encounters with its neighbors result from that very assumption. Japan and its critics must acknowledge and address this critical issue.

In this environment, a national security debate is more urgent than ever. The Japanese people need to understand the changing security environment and what their options are. Then they can make an informed decision. A debate would offer Japanese the opportunity to see the Peace Constitution and the nonnuclear principles as contributors to regional security rather than as a constraint on national rights and sovereignty. Hopefully, other nations would appreciate this positive formulation of Japan’s nonnuclear policy as well. At the same time, the entire process would quiet doubts about Japanese democracy.

The United States has a vital interest in the outcome of this debate. While we believe that Japan’s best choice is a continuing and revitalized alliance with the U.S., Tokyo does have options. It is imperative that Washington not be seen to be influencing the Japanese debate. The temptation to intervene is strong. Not only because the U.S. has such a stake, but because Japan has relied so heavily on the U.S. in such matters over the last half century. But stepping in would undermine the entire exercise. Worse, it could alienate parts of the Japanese public that might otherwise favor alliance with the U.S.

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