‘Japan: Go Nuclear Now’, urged a recent headline: a statement which has been reverberating from East to West and back again as North Korea continues down an ever-increasing path of antagonism. As the regime’s nuclear program develops, so do tensions overseas, and the threat of war between North Korea and Japan has grown worryingly more tangible as earlier this month the Korea Asia Pacific Peace Committee made a statement purporting to ‘sink Japan’ , reinforced just a day later by the launch of a ballistic missile, which flew directly over Japan’s northern region; Hokkaido.
A sharp rhetoric between Pyongyang and Washington has led many to the disturbing realization that a North Korea- US war is a ‘real possibility’, and amidst these developments, Japan has been widely called upon (both internally and externally) to support the US and ‘stabilize the region’ via means of obtaining nuclear weaponry. But just why should Japan re-militarize? And is it right to ask the only country which has personally suffered the aftermath of an atomic bomb to develop a weapon that nearly saw it’s demise?
Article 9 of Japan’s constitution came into effect in 1947 and stipulates the prohibition of waging a war to settle international disputes – a lesson learned from the devastating 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As the US altered it’s demilitarization policy in the decades which followed however, Japan was urged to share the burden of maintaining it’s security and international peacekeeping. Despite it’s pacifist constitution, Japan has increased it’s defense capability whilst under the protection of the so-called American ‘nuclear umbrella’ (see infographic below). Article 9, it was deemed, did not prohibit Japan from ‘maintaining her defense capability.’ Indeed in 1978, Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda went as far as to say that Article 9 ‘does not absolutely prohibit’ Japan from having nuclear weapons, as long as they are ‘limited to the minimum necessary level’. The possible development of nuclear weapons has therefore been considered as a defense strategy for Japan, to protect it from potential authoritarian threats.
The US administration has reiterated a belief that Japan and South Korea should develop and deploy nuclear weapons so as to free up US military resources for deployment elsewhere, a stance which has left Japanese ministers wary of US commitment should war break out. Political Risk publisher Andrew Corr voiced the following concern earlier this year:
‘In defense of Japan, would the U.S. really strike a major conventional or even nuclear blow against the military forces of one of these authoritarian states, and thereby risk a cold-hearted nuclear counter-attack against Honolulu, San Francisco, New York, or Washington, DC? Such a counter-attack could destroy the U.S. economy for decades, cause a fiscal crisis that would mean decreased military expenditures and military retreat from U.S. forward-deployed positions, and kill millions of Americans’.
The same question, however, could be asked of Japan: in the pursuit of self defense, would the only country to have suffered the direct consequences of nuclear warfare strike a nuclear blow against North Korea or any other authoritarian threat, and thereby risk a cold-hearted nuclear counter-attack against Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, or another major city? An event like this would force the Japanese to re-live the crippling horrors of 1945, killing millions of Japanese citizens in the process, as well as innocent civilians elsewhere. What would be the point then, of reserving ‘the option of using a nuclear deterrent force against any state that attacks it or infringes its sovereignty’, as Corr puts it. Why not instead focus on developing a more robust and reactive defense system?
YouTube channel Asian Boss recently posed the question ‘should Japan re-militarize?’ to members of the Japanese public, and whilst some people were in favor of it, the majority were against the amendment of Article 9. An elderly lady made the following statement:
‘There is no need to change the current law, because we have enough room to operate within it. I think we should make decisions within the current boundaries to maintain world peace. At least that’s what I think Abe should do. I was born just after the war in 1945. I personally experienced what it’s like to live in a post-war world. I don’t want others to go through the same thing.’
These comments echo those of most Hibakusha – the term used for the atomic bomb survivors – whom have devoted a lifetime to achieving a nuclear-free world, and deem such weapons as incompatible with human life. Their activism over the decades has been regarded as a driving force behind Japan’s pacifism.
A young Japanese man comments ‘I think the moment our defense force becomes a proper military, it will drive a wedge between us and America, and we will be seen as a potential threat to other countries as well.’ To which his friend adds ‘right now, we supposedly only have a ‘defense force’ but technically they are capable of launching attacks as well. In that sense, we already do have a military force, so maybe other countries will learn to accept it for what it is.’
As the North Korean missile crisis has intensified, Japan has certainly escalated it’s defense system: an additional missile defense system has been deployed to Hokkaido: with the PAC-3 system arriving at the base on September 19 following North Korea’s second launch over the Northern peninsula. The PAC-3 is a ‘surface-to-air missile defense system, which provides a highly reactive hit to kill capability in both range and altitude while operating in all environments.’
When a rogue state like North Korea continues to embark on a nuclear weapons testing program in spite of the advanced nuclear technology possessed by the US and against UN sanctions, what good will it do Japan to invest in nuclear weapons? It doesn’t seem probable that this would settle tensions in the region, when the might of the US cannot. In fact, it could have an adverse reaction, spurring North Korea onward with it’s own deterrent system whilst unsettling other less friendly neighbors – China.
In a world already plagued with war zones, the uprising of populism, a precarious global economy, deepening climate concerns and the existential threat of a nuclear war, Japan is right to uphold a pacifist constitution, within which force is restricted even with re-interpretation, and it should focus it’s resources on the advancement of a strong defense system which does not rely on nuclear deterrents.
By Robyn Kelly-Meyrick