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WASHINGTON — “Just like the Constitution . . . the amendment of (Japan’s nonnuclear principles) is also likely.”

Two months have passed since Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda made his infamous nuclear weapons comments. The comments were so sensational that the media fixation continued even after both Fukuda and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi retracted them.

Once the excitement ebbed, however, more reasonable voices emerged from the crowd. It became clear that Fukuda’s comments were grossly distorted by overzealous reporting. Perhaps more notably, popular Japanese nuclear pacifism is as steadfast as ever. As of a year ago, 55 percent of polled Japanese even stated that the U.S. nuclear umbrella is unnecessary for Japan’s defense.

But opinions can change, can’t they? Such must be the rationale for questioning Japan’s nonnuclear policy. Japan’s democratic system will keep in check any nuclear militarism — for now. But Japan’s security environment is changing, and so is Japanese military policy.

The dispatch of Japan’s maritime Self-Defense Force abroad punctuated changes that have been going on for some 10 years, and have accelerated since 9/11. How should Japan deal with national security, post-Cold War and post-9/11? The question inevitably suggests that Japanese pacifism must undergo at least some changes, or else be at odds with Japan’s national interests. Then, if pacifism can change, why not nuclear pacifism?

There is a fundamental problem with this line of argument, however. What are Japan’s national interests? It is widely assumed abroad that obtaining nuclear weapons is simply a nationalistic goal of Japan. This is an assumption that needs to be challenged and, ultimately, rejected. Unfortunately, an explanation that will satisfy the media may never arrive, and it must come from the government rather than observers. Nevertheless, even the most cursory analysis of Japan’s nuclear options reveals that obtaining nuclear weapons poses unacceptable problems for Japan.

First, how would obtaining nuclear weapons affect Japan’s economic environment? Unlike the United States, Japan is so dependent on trade, imports and international cooperation that multilateralism is a necessity. In particular, Japan is heavily dependent on imported energy sources. As of 1999, over 79 percent of Japan’s total energy consumption was dependent upon foreign sources. Were Japan to test its diplomatic waters by going nuclear, foreign energy suppliers could easily put the squeeze on Japan. Moreover, the U.S. and others could quickly move to stop the export of uranium to Japan. Nuclear power provides 15 percent of Japan’s energy consumption, and such a loss would cripple the Japanese economy. It can be assumed that such a loss would not be acceptable for Japan’s affluent society.

Second, what would nuclear acquisition mean for Japan’s military security? As foreign observers may believe, would nuclear strength really give Japan some sort of military supremacy in the Pacific? The Pacific security balance is a complicated one, but it isn’t difficult to imagine how Japan’s neighbors would react to a nuclear Japan. China would react defensively, and likely start an arms race if nothing else. Rather than a situation in Japanese supremacy prevailed, a nuclear standoff like the one between India and Pakistan might result.

And what about the reaction of other regional military powers? What would be the reactions of North and South Korea? Would this have implications in Taiwan? How would the U.S. military presence deal with the situation, and how would it deal with its relationship with Japan vis-a-vis China? The current security situation of the Pacific Rim, while not perfect, is certainly better for all without these problems in the mix.

Additionally, how would going nuclear affect Japan’s political clout? Those who believe it would increase Japan’s diplomatic leverage generally see nuclear weapons as symbols of power and prestige. This, however, is an outdated Cold War notion. Four years ago, Richard Betts wrote in Foreign Affairs that “(weapons of mass destruction) no longer represent the technological frontier of warfare. Increasingly, they will be weapons of the weak states or groups that militarily are at best second class.”

One need only look at the present international security landscape to affirm this view; nuclear proliferation is no longer vertical but horizontal. States like Iraq or Pakistan threaten to use nuclear weapons as political leverage, because they see no other means to do so. The U.S., however, can exercise its overwhelming military supremacy through high-tech conventional means. Japan is also capable of increasing its conventional strength, while suffering less diplomatic damage relative to going nuclear. And who wants another nuclear situation developing, at the hands of Japan? There are better options.

Even if one finds this argument unconvincing, it’s worth noting that Japan has taken it to heart. No Japanese government body has any sort of study group or initiative investigating the nuclear question. No one is taking the issue seriously. Furthermore, alternative measures for deterrence and national security are being pursued, as with Japan’s joint efforts with the U.S. to develop Theater Missile Defense.

Thus, a serious debate on whether Japan will go nuclear must clarify Japan’s motives for doing so. To forgo this while ascribing pronuclear ambitions to Japan is to build an argument on nothing. The problems mentioned here are only the tip of the iceberg, and Japan’s military is well aware of this. Certainly, Japan could go nuclear. But why?

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