A Nuclear Japan?


In Japan, the shackles that have constrained the nation since 1945 are slowly being loosened.

Japan’s pacifist constitution explicitly renounces the use of force to resolve international disputes and denies Japan the right to collective security—restrictions imposed to prevent Japan from ever again waging offensive warfare.

But the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the subsequent war on terror have accelerated a change in the way the Japanese view their role in an increasingly volatile world. Neighboring North Korea is unpredictable and has proven willing to provoke Japan with hostile gestures; there is the threat of terrorist strikes against Japanese interests in retaliation for its support of the U.S. Add to that Japan’s own desire for greater regional influence. All this has brought about what was not so long ago considered taboo—discussion of acquiring nuclear weapons by the only nation ever to be victims of a nuclear attack.

“As Ichiro Ozawa, the leader [of] Japan’s Liberal Party, said last year: ‘We have plenty of plutonium in our nuclear power plants, so it is possible for us to produce 3,000 to 4,000 nuclear warheads. If we get serious, we will never be beaten in terms of military power’” (Times, London, Feb. 22).

Japan’s principal obstacles to acquiring nuclear weapons are legal and political—but these are steadily being overcome. As right-wing member of the Japanese parliament Shingo Nishimura stated, “‘When I talked about nuclear weapons in the past everyone attacked me. … But now no one does.’ [A]mong politicians, academics and bureaucrats the possibility is now being discreetly and cautiously discussed” (ibid.).

Some note that Japan is not isolated in its ambitions. U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney has said that North Korea’s nuclear weapons program could trigger Japan to rethink whether to become a nuclear power itself. In March he told nbc News, “The idea of a nuclear-armed North Korea with ballistic missiles to deliver those will, I think, probably set off an arms race in that part of the world …” (Japan Economic Newswire, March 17).

Despite its political hurdles, geostrategic pressures dictate that Japan will become a well-armed nuclear power.