Nuclear Disarmament in Japan
- Background of the 'Anti Anti-Nuclear Nation'
Reporting from Japan
NI Japan No.100
June 2008 p38-52


The Japanese Government has repeatedly stated that elimination of nuclear weapons is a fundamental national policy, but the government has never made any real attempt to seriously engage in nuclear disarmament. On the contrary, the Japanese Government tends to pour cold water on any concrete efforts to reduce nuclear weapons and is especially sensitive to any moves to declare nuclear weapons illegal, an idea which it opposes with a vengeance. However, this contradiction between what the government is saying and what it is doing has not been adequately recognized. In this article I will review the issues by looking back over the relevant history and political situation in Japan.

by Kawabe Ichiro (Aichi University)

1. The emergence of Japan's nuclear policy

In April 1952, Japan's autonomy was restored under the terms of the San Francisco Peace Treaty, which was signed in September the year before. The US's occupation was brought to an end rather hurriedly against the backdrop of heightened tension between the US and the USSR, especially the outbreak of the Korean War. At the same time, the Japan-US Security Treaty was signed, allowing US's troops to remain stationed in Japan. Meanwhile, other countries such as USSR, China and India did not sign a peace treaty with Japan. In other words, regardless of the fact that it was reviving the old regime which supported Japanese militarism, US placed Japan firmly in its own camp. The Japanese Constitution, which was promulgated in 1947, renounces war as a sovereign right of the nation and prohibits the maintenance of all war potential, so after independence, Japan should have been able to base its diplomacy on this ideal, but the Japan-US Security Treaty put a stop to that. As a result, Japanese diplomacy's starting point was not the Constitution, but US military policy.

In 1954 a Japanese fishing vessel was caught in a nuclear test carried out by the US in the Bikini Atoll area. This turned public opinion strongly against US. In order to weaken anti-American sentiment, Shoriki Matsutaro, a man who owned the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper and Nihon TV, and had once been classified as an A-class war criminal, set about improving the image of nuclear power. Of course both the US and the Japanese Governments were working toward this end, but whereas the Americans were working in an unofficial capacity, Shoriki's actions were explicit. Not only did he run advertisements in the newspaper and on TV supporting nuclear power, he became a Member of Parliament in February 1955 and then, as a State Minister, the first chair of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission which was established in January 1956. For the Japanese Government, promotion of nuclear power generation and supporting the US nuclear weapons policy, were tied together from the start.

In 1957 another A-class war criminal, Kishi Nobusuke, became Prime Minister. Kishi was keen to revise the Japan-US Security Treaty so that Japan could play a more active role, even without a military, and President Eisenhower agreed. Public opinion was, however, against this revision, as people feared Japan would be dragged into an American war and eventually Kishi resigned after the new treaty had been ratified in 1960. He made repeated statements such as 'possession of nuclear weapons is possible, as long as it's for defense,' and 'small defensive nuclear weapons are constitutional.'

Ikeda Hayato who took over after Kishi is recognized as a man of business and did not play important role in foreign relations. But he tried to make a sharp departure from Kishi's line of diplomacy. Though it is not common in Japan for ambassadors to be named directly by the Prime Minister, Ikeda appointed Okazaki Katsuo, a former Foreign Affairs Minister, to the position of Ambassador to the United Nations. In November 1961, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a resolution titled "Declaration on the prohibition of the use of nuclear and thermo-nuclear weapons". This was the first time that a UN body had declared the use of nuclear weapons to be against the UN Charter. Okazaki voted for the resolution, making Japan the only 'western' country to do so.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs reacted immediately. The following year in 1962, a new position was created to 'assist' the UN Ambassador and a specialist on disarmament, Matsui Akira, a career diplomat, was appointed to this position as Okazaki's supervisor. Following this, Japan never again supported any UN resolutions to ban the use of nuclear weapons.

2. From the 3 non-nuclear principles to the anti anti-nuclear policy

In 1967 the then Prime Minister Sato Eisaku announced the 3 non-nuclear principles-that Japan would not possess, produce or allow nuclear weapons in its territoy. The background to this announcement was the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) (under which only China, France, USSR, Britain and the US were permitted to possess nuclear weapons), a draft of which had been made public, in preparation for its signing the following year. The NPT came into effect in 1970 and around this time nuclear deterrence theory was becoming more widespread. While the US and the USSR were still at loggerheads, demands from small to medium sized countries for full nuclear disarmament were becoming louder and the nuclear powers wanted to justify their possession and development of nuclear weapons both through law and logical constructions, by showing smaller countries that, as nuclear powers, they were in the same position. Japan also signed the NPT in 1970 but ratification was delayed until 1976 because conservative elements expressed concern about Japan abandoning its nuclear potential completely. That was also the year that the UN General Assembly decided to hold the first Special Session on Disarmament.

In 1961, the declaration to ban the use of nuclear weapons was supported largely by the African countries. Those along with Asian and Latin American countries, namely the Third World, also took the lead in bringing up issues of trade, Apartheid, the Palestine problem and so on throughout 60's and 70's, and the peak of those efforts was the Declaration of Establishment New International Economic Order which was adopted by the General Assembly in 1974. US and USSR, for their part, were systemizing nuclear weapons possession through the NPT and trying to move disarmament discussions away from the UN. The year after the adoption of the declaration banning the use of nuclear weapons, in 1962, the Eighteen Nation Committee on Disarmament (which later became the Geneva Conference on Disarmament) was convened outside the UN and in 1969 the bilateral Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) between the US and USSR commenced. This was symbolic of US/Soviet ulterior motives. It meant that instead of all UN member states debating disarmament in the General Assembly, a system was created whereby only selected countries could participate in discussions that took place outside the UN. The Final Document of the Special Session on Disarmament which was held in 1978, states that the main purpose of disarmament is to eliminate the threat of nuclear war and that the UN has a central role and primary responsibility, according to the UN Charter, to pursue disarmament. This was a criticism against the US and Soviet control over disarmament negotiations.

At the General Assembly held after this Special Session, Japan, for the first time, voted against a resolution on disarmament. This historical 'no' vote was made against the resolution on the non-deployment of nuclear weapons to non-nuclear countries. What the Japanese Government couldn't allow was the nuclear issue. This voting pattern of opposing General Assembly resolutions on disarmament became more pronounced after the Reagan Administration came to power in 1981 and even more so after the Nakasone Cabinet in 1983. Japan voted against many resolutions and declarations on nuclear disarmament, including on themes such as non-use of nuclear weapons and prevention of nuclear war; prevention of nuclear catastrophe; prohibition of the nuclear neutron weapon; nuclear-arms freeze; condemnation of nuclear ware; and strengthening the security of non-nuclear states. Up until this period, the rate at which Japan had voted in favor of resolutions on disarmament was higher than the rate it had voted 'yes' on other issues, but this situation was reversed in the 1980s, with Japan's 'yes' vote on disarmament issues even dropping below that of other 'western' developed countries. As a country that considered itself to be protected under the so-called nuclear umbrella, Japan's opposition to disarmament was also a pre-condition of ratifying the NPT which recognizes the possession of nuclear weapons only by the 5 declared 'nuclear countries.' Up until the present, when the Japanese Government talks about disarmament, it uses phrases such as 'protection of nuclear non-proliferation system' but this is simply an expression of support for the present nuclear structure.

3. The End of the Cold War
- re-questioning 'nuclear' and the protection of nuclear weapons

In December 1989, the US and USSR declared the end of the Cold War. This meant that the basic premise which had justified nuclear weapons had vanished. Both the anti-nuclear movement and nuclear powers accelerated efforts to reconstruct their basic premises. In 1993 and '94 the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN General Assembly adopted resolutions calling for the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to give an advisory opinion on the illegality of nuclear weapons. This is one example of the anti-nuclear movement's efforts bearing fruit. Nuclear weapons supporters became more active in their efforts to extend the NPT, which was due to be reviewed after 25 years.

Meanwhile, in Japan, the government had changed in 1993, putting the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) into opposition for the first time since 1955. Until 1998, there was a series of coalition governments, consisting of the Socialist Party or another relatively progressive party, opening a window of opportunity to change nuclear policy. In 1994 Japan independently proposed a resolution on nuclear disarmament to the UN General Assembly for the first time. This was possible because of the Foreign Minister Kono Yohei's new policy of 'forging a basic agreement between developed and developing countries on abolition of nuclear weapons.' Under Kono's directions, a White Paper on Disarmament was also released.

However, from the point of view of maintaining the nuclear status quo, it was easy to reduce this 'new policy's' effectiveness by simply not making it concrete. But possible shaking up of the legal basis of nuclear weapons was a cause for concern for supporters of the nuclear status quo. Regarding the discrepancy between the Japanese Constitution and the Japan-US Security Treaty, and also regarding Japan's nuclear policy, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' manipulated explanation was questioned closely by the opposition. The extension of the NPT was not just important for US, but also for the Ministry itself. The Ministry refused to declare nuclear weapon illegal during ICJ deliberations regarding the illegality of nuclear weapons, which were attracting world attention. The Japanese Government's approach of making its own position vague while trying to secure a legal grounding for nuclear weapons epitomizes the way the government has glossed over the blatant contradiction between its words in Japan and its actions on the international stage. But there were some Japanese who could not keep one's position vague. Oda Shigeru who was elected ICJ judge in 1976 with a nomination of Japanese Government and was serving his third term was the one.. He not only declared that nuclear weapons were legal, pointing at the extention of NPT in the previous year, he also claimed, inexplicably, that the original WHO and General Assembly request to the ICJ was just the result of "a handful NGOs" and that ICJ should not issue an advisory opinion at all on the legality of nuclear weapons. It was quite obvious that Oda's opinion neglecting the role of NGOs are not acceptable internationally but Japanese academics did not strongly criticize this international law heavyweight.

4. The advance of militarism and the Iraq War

9.11 reminded America of the tragedy 60 years before. President Bush called it a fight between civilization and terrorism and proceeded to bomb Afghanistan. In his State of Union Address in January 2002, he said Iraq was part of an 'axis of evil,' whipping up a feeling of conflict. Those speeches were echo of Roosevelt's speeches calling for economic sanctions against Japan, because of the militarism which was threatening the foundations of civilization or the Declaration by United Nations in January 1942, making clear that US would fight against the axis countries including against Japanese militarism and German Nazism.

Even without looking back over this history we know that the values of American conservatives are quite different from their Japanese counterparts. One would not expect American conservatives to approve of Japanese militarism. Until 1941 the American right wing believed in isolationism, which was basically another word for pacifism. It was also the conservatives who propounded the 'merchant of death' theory that it was the military industrial complex that made the US participate in World War I. Even after World War II president Eisenhower, that bulwark of traditional conservatism, blew the whistle on the political influence of the military industrial complex in his farewell address. He could have been talking about the 'merchant of death' theory in a different form.

But it was the aggression of Japanese militarism that turned the thinking of the conservatives on its head. And it was through the actual battlefield that America came to realize the aberration that is Japanese militarism. Not only did Japanese soldiers not respect the life of citizens of other countries and POWs, they didn't even balk at sacrificing their own men, repeatedly carrying out attacks that were quite irrational, undertaking suicide attacks and not seeming to mind that even their own citizens were becoming 'collateral,' as was the case in Okinawa, the only place where ground battles took place. These experiences only strengthened the American idea that it was necessary to drop an atomic bomb in order to reduce overall war casualties, not only American, but also Japanese.

In Japan, conservatives, especially the right-wing such as Kishi and Nakasone are deeply connected to militarism. They called the invasion of Japanese militarism the war to free Asia and say that the US was responsible for the bombing of Pearl Harbor because Japan was forced to do so by president Roosevelt who decided economic sanctions against Japan, but that the Americans dropping atomic bombs on Japan is because of their racist mentality. Of course American conservatives and liberals alike would not accept this at all.

The reason that Japanese conservatives were able to build relations with America is that people like Kishi and Nakasone have a deep hatred of communism. Because the only thing they had in common with other countries was this hatred of communism and the military theory that goes with it, militarily, they became the lapdogs of the US. But then the Cold War, which had masked the differences in ideology of Japanese and American conservatives, ended.

At the same time Bush came to power in the US, Koizumi Junichiro, who was in the Kishi political tradition, came to power in Japan. Koizumi had made a public pledge to worship at Yasukuni Shrine, where A-class war criminals are enshrined, provoking criticism from American conservatives. But after 9.11, Koizumi was able to find a common language with Bush in the 'War on Terror.' What this actually meant was that Koizumi simply supported Bush's Wars.

Even so, the intensity of international criticism of the Iraq War makes it very difficult to convince the Japanese people to support it. What was more convincing was the North Korean Crisis-the argument that Japan needs US support in order to solve the North Korea issue so Japan cannot cross US. Of course North Korea issues are totally unrelated to Iraq, and if looked at from the point of view of American society, this way of thinking is cowardly and somewhat pathetic, but Japanese people were convinced by this. Furthermore, the government made repeated claims that it was necessary to send the Japanese Self Defense Force to Iraq in order to secure Middle Eastern oil. In the US this idea of waging war for oil was considered to be reprehensible, but in Japan it made sense. Whether conservative or liberal, the understanding of people in Japan and people in the US and Europe is quite different.

In 2002 Koizumi visited Pyonyang, resulting in increased attention on the Japanese kidnapped by North Korean agents, which in turn increased the power and influence of the conservatives in Japan. Up until then the conservatives had not been able to sufficiently rebut North Korea's criticism of Japan's militarism. But since concrete damage to Japanese people has been revealed, the conservatives have been able to get over these past weaknesses.

In 2006 North Korea carried out a nuclear test and this gave new momentum to calls for Japan to become nuclear capable. What again captured the attention of American society was the Prime Minister's official visits to Yasukuni Shrine and the issue of the 'Comfort Women' (women forced to become sex slaves by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II). Some conservative elements in Japan do not understand that their claims simply do not wash with the rest of the world and attempt to explain their opinions to the US. This only makes the job of the Neo Conservatives in the US who try to stand up for the Japanese Government all the harder.

Perhaps it is time that Japanese diplomacy got out from under the thumb of the US. But Japan chose the path of non nuclear disarmament itself, it was not forced down this road by the US. Since the exposure of the North Korean problem and the Iraq War especially, Japan has moved deeper and deeper, not out of, but into the American shadow, going beyond the requirements of the Japan-US Security Treaty and the Bush Administration is urging Japan to even greater deeds.

One reason why such a situation has perpetuated is that the Japanese people have not monitored the foreign policy of their own government. In other words, in Japan, at least for diplomatic policy, democratic systems have not been functioning. Even now there are many 'liberals' who claim that if Japan, a country that has renounced war, was given a permanent seat on the UN Security Council the world would change. On this point, not just conservatives, but also liberals face serious problems. Under these circumstances, it may not be such a good thing for either nuclear disarmament or creating a less militaristic world if Japanese diplomacy were to have more independence. Right now, at least within the framework of US policy, it is indeed much more preferable for Japan to remain 'subservient.' That this point must be made indicates the seriousness of the problem that Japanese must confront. (June, 2008)

Kawabe Ichiro
Born in 1960. Professor at Aichi University, majoring in United Nations issues and contemporary Japanese diplomacy. Publications include: 'Kokuren to Nihon (The UN and Japan)' (Iwanami, 1994); 'Nihon Gaiko to Gaimusho (Japanese Diplomacy and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs)' (Kobunken, 2002); 'Kokuren Seisaku (UN Policy)' (Nihon Keizai Hyoronsha, 2004); 'Nihon no Gaiko wa Kokumin ni nani wo Kakushiteiru no ka (What is Japanese Diplomacy Hiding from the People?)' (Shueisha, 2006)