Kishida’s Nuclear Conundrum

January 12, 2023 | 8:13 am
White House/Flickr
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is coming to the United States to meet with President Joseph Biden. His visit is part of a tour of the member states of the G7; an elite group among the world’s 193 nations that holds approximately 10% of the world’s population, 53% of its wealth and 47% of its nuclear weapons

The leaders of the G7 still believe nuclear weapons make them safer, including Kishida, who asked for and received a commitment from Biden to keep nuclear weapons a core component of US and Japanese defense policy. Kishida’s leading national security adviser, Takeo Akiba, has been lobbying the United States to increase the role of US nuclear weapons in the defense of Japan since 2009, when he testified on behalf of Japan’s Foreign Ministry to a US congressional commission providing advice on US nuclear weapons policy. Thanks to Mr. Akiba’s efforts, Japanese and US officials now meet twice each year to discuss strengthening US nuclear security guarantees for Japan.

Japan assumed the rotating presidency of the G7 this month and this year’s leadership summit will be held in Hiroshima, Kishida’s ancestral home. The leaders of the G7 will undoubtedly pay homage to the victims of the atomic bombings in 1945. They may also meet with a few of the remaining survivors. I hope these hibakusha are given a chance to tell their horrific stories –stories Kishida heard from relatives as a child–and that the leaders of the G7 will listen. I hope this experience in Hiroshima will convince them to take steps to eliminate the G7’s reliance on threats to use nuclear weapons first in a future war, and to stop ongoing efforts to increase the nuclear war fighting capabilities of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and NATO. 

Japanese press reports indicate the G7 statement traditionally issued at the end of the meeting will include a reference to nuclear abolition similar to the statement US President Barack Obama made in Prague at the beginning of his presidency. But what we’ve learned since Prague is that talking about a distant goal is often an easy way for leaders to delay taking the difficult but necessary steps needed to reduce the growing risk of nuclear war today.

The G20, a larger and more representative group of nations that includes all the G7 members, issued a final statement at the end of its November meeting in Bali, Indonesia that said, “The use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is inadmissible.” If it is, then there should be major changes to the nuclear weapons policies of the all the G7 members. The statement they will issue in Hiroshima is the perfect vehicle to announce specific changes, beginning with commitments to never start a nuclear war, and to stop funding the development and deployment of new tactical or “non-strategic” nuclear weapons.

Unfortunately, no government resists making those changes more than Japan’s. It opposed the Obama administration’s consideration of a US declaration that the sole purpose of US nuclear weapons should be to deter, or retaliate after, a nuclear attack. The Japanese government also continues to support the development of new US tactical nuclear weapons, like the US submarine-launched nuclear-capable cruise missile proposed during the Trump administration and funded by the US Congress over the objections of President Biden.

There’s no indication Kishida intends to take Japan in a new direction. Moreover, hosting the G7 summit in Hiroshima and making a general statement on nuclear abolition, which 75% of the Japanese public supports, obscures his government’s continued support for the role of US nuclear weapons in Japanese defense policy. Seasoned observers of Japanese politics wonder if Kishida is using the G7 meeting in Hiroshima to hold on to political power amid declining approval ratings and factional competition within his ruling coalition.

Japanese colleagues told me Kishida is an honorable man trapped in a corrupt political party. They see him as a genuine reformer hemmed in by powerful bureaucrats Japan’s elected leaders cannot control.  If that is true, the G7 statement on nuclear weapons is an opportunity to outflank them. It gives Kishida a chance to set Japanese security policy on a new non-nuclear course consistent with the aspirations of the Japanese public and the remaining survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, who’ve dedicated their lives to describing horrors only they know, and warning the rest of us we really don’t want to experience those horrors ourselves.

UCS, in cooperation with non-governmental organizations in the G7 countries, will be doing its best to help Prime Minister Kishida choose change.

About the author

More from Gregory

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.