Does Japan Support Nuclear Disarmament?

July 7, 2020 | 8:00 am
Shealah Craighead/Flickr
Gregory Kulacki
East Asia Project Manager

Most Japanese people do. The current Japanese government does not.

The public’s record

Japanese opinion polls consistently show strong opposition to nuclear weapons. This opposition is rooted in the pacifist national identity that emerged after the Second World War. That identity is codified in Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, which renounces the sovereign right to resort to war, or the threat of the use of force, to resolve international disputes.

The United States imposed Article 9 on Japan’s post-war government and, ironically, has been trying to change it ever since. But the Japanese people embraced their pacifist constitution and continue to defend it against the predations of overbearing US officials and nationalist politicians, like their current prime minister.

Popular opposition to nuclear weapons is also enshrined in Japan’s Three Non-Nuclear Principles: a legislative resolution that prohibits Japan from manufacturing and possessing nuclear weapons as well as prohibiting the entry of foreign nuclear weapons. Japanese leaders, under tremendous US pressure, violated the last principle repeatedly. Fear of public opposition forced them to lie about it for more than 50 years.

That’s a pretty successful record of public intervention to curtail the role of nuclear weapons in Japan’s national security policy. The people responsible for it, led by the survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, deserve our gratitude and support as the 75th anniversaries of the bombings approach.

Official indifference

The Japanese government nominally supports international nuclear arms control agreements like the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The Disarmament, Nonproliferation and Science department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs labors earnestly to advocate for nuclear disarmament. But its efforts are eclipsed by the North American Affairs Bureau, which, together with the US military, maintains US nuclear weapons are the core of Japan’s national security policy.

Perhaps that’s why Prime Minister Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) remained silent while the Trump administration undermined international nuclear arms control norms and agreements. They did not protest when the United States announced it was withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. They did not object to the US decision to quit the Open Skies Treaty. They have not attempted to save New START or criticized US preparations to subvert the CTBT and resume nuclear testing.

In his new book, John Bolton, Trump’s former national security advisor, includes 199 references to Japan. They describe aggressive Japanese efforts to influence the Trump administration’s defense and foreign policies. Bolton noted Abe “conferred frequently with Trump” because the prime minister felt his US counterpart “needed continual reminders” of Abe’s concerns about Japan’s security. His account leaves little doubt Trump’s assault on nuclear arms control was not one of those concerns.

Future prospects

There are signs at least some LDP voters and officials may have doubts about Abe’s hard-line approach to security issues and his willingness to accommodate Trump.

In July 2019 an LDP stronghold in Akita prefecture elected opposition candidate Shizuka Terata because she pledged to block the deployment of a new, expensive and potentially hazardous missile defense system called Aegis Ashore. Abe, under pressure from President Trump to spend more on defense, agreed to purchase and deploy the controversial system several years earlier. In June 2020 LDP Defense Minister Taro Kono apologized for Abe’s mistake and abruptly scrapped what the government previously described as an essential defense program.

Kono – rumored to be a contender to succeed Abe as the leader of the LDP– recently held a press conference where he mentioned that responding to the pandemic and adapting to climate change were important security concerns. He said Japan’s fiscal situation made increases in defense spending highly unlikely. He batted down US claims Japan was discussing deploying intermediate-range ground-based missiles in Japan. And most importantly, Kono affirmed that any adjustments to Japanese defense policy made necessary by the cancellation of Aegis Ashore would be consistent with the Japanese constitution.

That last point suggests Mr. Abe, the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history, will fail to realize his life-long ambition to change Japan’s pacifist constitution. Holding that line against this extraordinarily successful Japanese politician bodes well for the future of the Japanese public’s ongoing efforts to advance the cause of nuclear disarmament.

Those efforts are currently focused on getting Japan to join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). You can help by signing this appeal.


Header image: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead/Flickr