Japan and America’s Nuclear Posture: Lost Promise

November 27, 2013 | 1:03 pm
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

At the very beginning of his presidency Barack Obama promised the world he would reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy and encourage other nations to follow suit. It was the most significant single act in a new U.S. approach to international diplomacy, for which he was awarded the Nobel peace prize. Not long afterwards, Mr. Obama was presented with an historic opportunity to diminish the role of U.S. nuclear weapons in the defense of Japan. Unfortunately, he did not live up to his promise.


Five months after the new U.S. president spoke in Prague, Yukio Hatoyama led a new political coalition to power in Japan, unseating the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which had ruled the country for more than 50 years. Like President Obama, the new Japanese leader was compared to President Kennedy. And like the new U.S. president, Mr. Hatoyama moved quickly to change his country’s national security policy, including its stance on the role of U.S. nuclear weapons in Japan’s defense.

The changes Mr. Hatoyama proposed were very much in keeping with the gradual, concrete steps President Kennedy called for in his 1963 address at American University on the dangers of nuclear weapons. In the words of his Foreign Minister, Katsuya Okada, the new Japanese government proposed that “the role of nuclear weapons be restricted to deterrence of the use of nuclear weapons and that the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon state members of the NPT be banned.” These modest but significant changes were supported by the International Commission on Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament, a joint initiative with Australia sponsored and led by Mr. Hatoyama’s LDP predecessors.

The Obama administration rejected the Hatoyama government’s proposal to reduce the role of U.S. nuclear weapons in Japanese national security policy.  A new UCS white paper explains how President Obama’s Asia policy advisors misinterpreted the new Japanese government’s push for changes in U.S. nuclear weapons policy as part of a broader shift in Japanese foreign policy they mistakenly perceived as hostile to U.S. interests and “tilted towards China.” In contrast, the Hatoyama government believed its efforts were consistent with the spirit of President Obama’s April 2009 speech in Prague and would be interpreted as an expression of support for the new U.S. president and the changes in U.S. nuclear weapons policy he promised to enact.

It appears this misunderstanding was a product of the lobbying efforts of a group of bureaucrats in the Japanese defense establishment who desire an increased role for U.S. nuclear weapons in the defense of Japan. Their influence over U.S. Japan policy trumped the policy preferences of Prime Minister Hatoyama’s government. As a result, an historic opportunity to reduce the role of U.S. nuclear weapons in U.S. security strategy in the region was lost.

In the wake of this failure Mr. Hatoyama’s government was replaced by nationalist hard-liners who scoff at his continuing outreach to China and appear to be clamoring for a heightened role for U.S. nuclear weapons in countering China’s military modernization. The same U.S. Asia policy experts who misread the Hatoyama government’s intentions towards the United States now believe the U.S. needs to strengthen the “nuclear umbrella” it extends over Japan to prevent Japanese nationalists from seeking their own nuclear weapons.

A 2010 UCS report on Japan and America’s Nuclear Posture explains why it is unlikely that Japanese voters would permit their government to develop nuclear weapons.  Moreover, at two critical junctures in the post war period—after China’s first nuclear weapons test in 1964 and before Japan’s decision to agree to a permanent extension of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1995—Japanese defense experts concluded there is no imaginable scenario, including a complete collapse of the U.S.—Japan alliance, in which developing nuclear weapons would be considered advantageous to Japan’s national security. The new UCS white paper—an update to the 2010 report—indicates this consensus among Japanese defense experts still holds, even among those who opposed the Hatoyama government’s policies.

Although President Obama lost an opportunity to live up to the promise of Prague and reduce the role of U.S. nuclear weapons in East Asia at the beginning of his presidency, it is not too late for him to prevent hard-liners in the defense establishments of both countries from attempting to raise the profile of U.S. nuclear weapons in the region at a time of increasing tension.


About the author

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Gregory Kulacki is a Senior Analyst and the China Project Manager for the Global Security Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). He is also a Visiting Fellow at the Research Center for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (RECNA) at Nagasaki University. He works on improving cross-cultural communication between the United States of America, China and Japan on nuclear weapons and related security issues. Prior to joining UCS in 2002, Dr. Kulacki was the Director of External Studies at Pitzer College, an Associate Professor of Government at Green Mountain College and the China Director for the Council on International Educational Exchange. Gregory completed his doctorate in government and politics at the University of Maryland College Park.