Japan sends mixed signals as they push for ‘World Free of Nuclear Weapons’

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President Donald J. Trump meets with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during an expanded bilateral meeting Friday, April 26, 2019, in the Cabinet Room of the White House. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan Visits the White House / Wikimedia Commons

Japan faces a moral conundrum in its stance towards nuclear weapons. As the only country ever to experience the atrocities of the atomic bomb, it holds unique symbolic power in debates surrounding nuclear disarmament. But rising tensions in its region and crumbling global alliances are threatening Japan’s national security and pushing it deeper under the umbrella of nuclear deterrence. Yet, Japan holds onto nuclear energy policies, begging some to question whether they are truly in support of denuclearization.

 In July 2017, Japan, the world’s only victim of nuclear weapons, was not among the 26 countries that signed the revolutionary Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, more commonly known as the nuclear ban treaty. If ratified, the treaty would prohibit countries from developing, testing, producing, acquiring, possessing, stockpiling, using or threatening to use nuclear weapons. Yet, after showing up for preliminary negotiations, Japan abstained from further discussions. At the 2018 UN General Assembly, 122 states continued to back the nuclear ban, but Japan continued to reject it, aligning with nuclear-weapon states.

For the nuclear ban treaty to come into effect, at least 50 countries must sign and ratify it. Under the current UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the UN continues to pursue an ambitious nuclear disarmament agenda, which aims for the total elimination of nuclear weapons. Last August, Guterres was the first U.N. Secretary-General to attend the city of Nagasaki on its 73rd anniversary of the bombing, where he reiterated his promises for a nuclear-free world. “The total elimination of nuclear weapons remains the highest disarmament priority of the United Nations,” he said in his speech during the memorial ceremony. 
At last month’s 74th anniversary, the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu spoke on behalf of Guterres, restating commitment to achieving “a world free of nuclear weapons.” Under the Guterres administration, including this year’s U.N. General Assembly, nuclear disarmament continues to be a hot topic. However, the chances of Japan shifting from its anti-ban-treaty position, seem grim.

Masako Toki, an expert of over twenty years on Japanese nuclear disarmament policies at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, recognizes Japan’s dilemma. “National defense guidelines mention that Japan always supports the world free of nuclear weapons while relying on the US-extended deterrence, as long as nuclear weapons exist,” she said. Because Japan considers the US-Japan security agreement a cornerstone of its security policies, Japan cannot do anything to jeopardize it. “For the foreseeable future,” she said, “Japan has no option but to rely on US-Japan security arrangement.”

Under the Guterres administration, including this year’s U.N. General Assembly, nuclear disarmament continues to be a hot topic. However, the chances of Japan shifting from its anti-ban-treaty position, seem grim.

Meanwhile, the majority of the hibakusha⁠—Japanese atomic bomb survivors⁠—are against the government’s position and continue to push the country to sign the treaty. Setsuko Thurlow, experienced the Hiroshima bombings at age 13, has been advocating for the ban of nuclear weapons for decades and was a key figure in creating the 2017 treaty. Her campaign group ICAN won the Nobel Peace Prize. During the 2019 month’s memorial ceremony last month, Hiroshima mayor Kazumi Matsui called for the signing of the ban. “I urge Japan’s leaders,” he said, “to manifest the pacifism of the Japanese Constitution by displaying leadership in taking the next step toward a world free from nuclear weapons.” 

In response Defense Minister Taro Kono (who was the Foreign Affairs Minister at the time) explained on his official website that while Japan is on board with the goals of the nuclear ban treaty from a humanitarian perspective, national security reasons prevent the country from joining the treaty. “With North Korea conducting their ballistic missile tests,” wrote Kono, “now more than ever, the region is in an unstable and dangerous condition.” The only way to respond to such threats, in Kono’s view, is to deter the use of nuclear weapons with more nuclear weapons.

Toki agreed that “deterrence has a very strong backbone and a very strong reason to believe.” However, “deterrence is not sustainable because there is no guarantee that there is no accidental use,” she said. “And also, from a moral perspective, can we really say that threatening others to mass murder, continuously⁠—can we really justify such a policy?”

Since Prime Minister Shinzō Abe came into office seven years ago, he has been pushing to amend Article Nine of the Japanese Constitution, which would expand Japan’s autonomy in national security measures. Currently, the article prevents Japan from holding its own military and going to war, but Abe is hoping to amend it so that Japan can better exert its right to self-defense. An opposition believes that this amendment could allow Japan to turn the Self-Defense Force into a military and drastically change its national security measures.  

Based on President Trump’s remarks on how Japan is not doing enough in the US-Japan Alliance, the United States may be supportive of such an amendment to the Japanese Constitution. Meanwhile, others like Toki said it is unlikely to affect the US-Japan Alliance. “No matter what Japan does, the bottom line is the continuation of strengthening the US-Japan Alliance,” she said. Toki was also cautious of drawing conclusions. “Some people try to connect Article Nine and nuclearization but to me, these two issues are quite different,” she said. Despite such concerns, so far, Abe and his leading party have failed to convince the public and obtain enough votes necessary for changes.

Japan is the only non-nuclear weapon country under the Non-Proliferation Treaty that possess the capability to reprocess and enrich separated plutonium, which is weapon-usable. “Japan has already accumulated almost 40 metric tons of separated plutonium which could be used on nuclear explosive devices,” Toki said. But at the same time, she went on, “Japan has all the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Association) safeguards including additional protocol, so Japan has a complete safeguard. So, there’s no way for Japan to use such materials to convert to nuclear weapons.” 

For now, Japan is expected to continue following their Four Pillar nuclear policy entailing actively participating in the Non-Proliferation Treaty and depending on American nuclear deterrence. At this year’s UNGA, the U.S. and Japan signed a bilateral trade agreement,  seemingly highlighting a continued friendly alliance.


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Erika Wakabayashi

Erika Wakabayashi is a graduate student at New York University's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and a managing editor at JPI. She is working towards completing a joint master’s degree program in Journalism and International Relations. In 2018, she graduated from Keio University in Tokyo, Japan with a bachelor’s degree in Political Science.

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