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Weighing the nuclear option

In his 2008 New Year’s speech, Japanese political doyen and former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone warned that without a clear-cut national vision and objective, Japan might tread a path toward ruin like the ancient city-state of Carthage, which was defeated and destroyed by Rome in 146 B.C.

Referring to the confusion in the country over how to address the question of national security, especially the alliance between Japan and the United States, Nakasone made these points:

• Since North Korea and China now possess nuclear weapons, the question is how Japan should expect to defend itself in an emergency. The U.S. is supposed to defend Japan with nuclear weapons. As long as Japan firmly sticks to its three-point nonnuclear principle of not possessing, not making and not letting in nuclear weapons, the Japan-U.S. security treaty remains indispensable.

• Should the U.S. refuse to give Japan nuclear protection, it would become necessary for this country to review the nonnuclear principle. Primarily, Japan should have the freedom to choose whether to remain nonnuclear.

• It is thought that the U.S. will maintain the security treaty for the time being. But the setup appears to have grown “fatigued” over the years. As a result, the cohesion of recent Japanese Cabinets has waned.

• On the U.S. side, too, the resolve to honor the obligations under the bilateral pact appear to be declining. So, Japanese governments need to make efforts to refasten the security ties.

Nakasone was the first prominent Japanese politician to openly urge a review of the three-point nonnuclear principle. But neither Yasuo Fukuda, who was prime minister at that time, nor Fukuda’s successor, Taro Aso, has paid any attention to Nakasone’s remarks.

Japan’s three-point nonnuclear principle was adopted as national policy by Diet resolution in 1971 — toward the end of Eisaku Sato’s administration. Despite strong objections from members of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) who feared that the policy might tie the country’s hands, the Sato administration proposed it to obtain opposition-party support for Diet approval of the agreement returning Okinawa from U.S. to Japanese rule.

Ever since the end of World War II, Japan has relied on the U.S. “nuclear umbrella” to meet its national security requirements even as nuclear weapons have proliferated worldwide.

In the event of an imminent nuclear threat to this country, would the Americans really come to our rescue? And would Japan’s national security arrangements be sufficient?

Despite these apprehensions, the Japanese people have long avoided comprehensive discussions on the question of national security due to their peace-addicted frame of mind. Now, Japan finds itself surrounded by nuclear-armed China, Russia and North Korea.

Three years ago, when North Korea carried out its first nuclear test, the U.S. and China naturally watched for any signs of domestic support for Japan arming itself with nuclear weapons. Some Japanese politicians at the time, including Shoichi Nakagawa (chairman of the LDP policy board and then Foreign Minister Aso), suggested it might be worthwhile to launch discussions on the nuclear armament issue. But the ruling and opposition parties as well as the media objected.

The opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) went as far as to demand the resignation of the foreign minister for making controversial remarks. Thus, calls for a nuclear security debate were quickly dispelled.

It is quite natural for Japan, as the world’s only country to be attacked with atomic bombs, to stand at the forefront of the international movement for abolishing nuclear weapons. But this issue should be handled separately from the question of whether to have a comprehensive debate on how to react to a modern-day nuclear threat. Unless we’re determined to defend ourselves from another nuclear calamity, the Japanese could end up like Carthage, as Nakasone warned.

Amid North Korea’s repeated missile launches and China’s increasingly conspicuous miliary buildup, various developments have led to subtle changes in Japan recently. In one, former Vice Foreign Minister Ryohei Murata and some other former ranking officials in the Foreign Ministry affirmed the existence of a secret deal in which Japan was obliged to allow U.S. warships carrying nuclear weapons to call at Japanese ports. The secret agreement was clinched during the 1960 negotiations between Japan and the U.S. on revising the bilateral security treaty, then reconfirmed in 1963.

Does Japan not contradict itself if it refuses to allow the U.S. to carry nuclear weapons into Japanese territory while it continues to depend on the U.S. nuclear umbrella? Even before the secret deal was exposed, many Japanese people had suspected that a secret pact of this nature had existed subject to tacit approval.

The Japanese government still denies the existence of the deal, but recent moves by former ranking government officials to release revealing statements might be a sign of their intent to cope with the changing nuclear environment in Northeast Asia.

Another noteworthy development related to this issue is that DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama, who is likely to become Japan’s next prime minister, has hinted at the possibility of reviewing the three-point nonnuclear principle. He adds that he would like to disclose the secret deal and that matters related to the nonnuclear principle should be dealt with realistically.

The Japanese and U.S. governments held high-level working talks on security treaty problems last month and reached agreement to launch regular consultations concerning problems with the nuclear umbrella. What’s important is that Japan determine a direction for national security policy instead of merely maneuvering out of consideration for the U.S.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the August issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japan’s political, social and economic scenes.