Japan will soon have a new emperor and a new dynastic name to mark the traditional Japanese calender: Reiwa (令和). Interminable commentary on the significance of the name is just beginning, but in the end it will be defined not by words but by deeds. One of the most important acts the Japanese people may be compelled to take as the new era begins is to decide whether to allow their government to introduce US nuclear weapons into Japan. They may have to choose between continuing to honor the legacy of Hiroshima and the warnings of the hibakusha or abandoning Japan’s longstanding role as a leading voice for peace and nuclear disarmament.
Prime Minister Abe and the foreign policy elite of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) are pushing the United States to increase the role of US nuclear weapons in Asia. They told US officials they want to alter Japan’s Three Non-Nuclear Principles to permit the introduction of US nuclear weapons into Japan. They also want to revise Article 9 of Japan’s post-war constitution, in which the Japanese people “forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a mean of settling international disputes.” The Abe government’s desire to re-write the constitution and re-arm Japan is well known and hotly debated. But its efforts to bring US nuclear weapons into Japan are a closely guarded secret, known only to a small group of officials in Japan’s foreign policy establishment.
UCS obtained a document that contains a detailed description of the Japanese foreign ministry’s requirements for US nuclear weapons. Multiple conversations with the Japanese official who presented this document to his US counterparts not only confirmed its content, they also revealed this small group of hawkish officials wants to train Japanese military personnel to deliver US nuclear weapons. They would even like the United States to grant Japanese leaders the authority to decide when to use them. Japanese officials refer to this arrangement as “nuclear sharing.”
This information is not being kept from the Japanese people for security reasons. The responsible officials believe it is important for China to know Japan has the authority to make such a decision and the capability to carry it out. Preparations to make “nuclear sharing” a reality are being kept secret because these officials are afraid the Japanese public would oppose it. Their covert nuclear weapons wish list blatantly violates both the letter and the spirit of Japan’s constitution and the Three Non-Nuclear Principles.
Public opinion polls indicate many Japanese people would like to make the use or threat to use nuclear weapons illegal, which is the purpose of the recently adopted UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). A large majority of their elected representatives, even within Abe’s ruling LDP, want to uphold Japan’s Three Non-Nuclear Principles, which forbid “nuclear sharing.” Many Japanese people take pride in the belief that their country plays a leading role in advancing nuclear disarmament.
The gap between the public’s aspirations and the private machinations of its current leaders is difficult to reconcile.
Prime Minister Abe, like US President Trump, governs his country with a mix of nationalism and authoritarianism. His political opponents seem incapable of mounting a serious challenge to his leadership or his policies. But the absence of effective opposition is not an indication of popular support. Abe’s approval rating is not that much better than Trump’s. And like the current US president, he holds on to power with a dedicated minority of loyalists, disingenuous manipulation of the mass media and the resignation of a dispirited majority who see no compelling alternative.
Abe appears to have injected his nationalist agenda into the selection of the name for the new era. Press reports highlight that Reiwa (令和) is the first Japanese dynastic name not taken from the Chinese classics. The collection of Japanese poetry that inspired Abe’s selection was popular among the military officers of Imperial Japan who led their nation into World War II. Critics panned Reiwa as a cold expression of Abe’s authoritarian tendencies, but it seemed to be well-received and gave an immediate lift to the popularity of a man on track to become the longest serving prime minister in Japanese history.
Abe told the press Reiwa suggests a period when “culture is born and nurtured as the people’s hearts are beautifully drawn together.” His cabinet secretary told the world that Reiwa should be translated into English as “beautiful harmony.” So it may be that the initial appeal of the new name is more in line with the widespread public support for Japan’s pacifist constitution and the spirit of international cooperation than with Abe’s atavistic appeals to the chauvinist ambitions that led to Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima.
Only time will tell. Japanese attitudes towards nuclear weapons may be the most important window into the ultimate meaning of Reiwa. Making sure the Japanese people know what their government is saying and doing about nuclear weapons may be the best way to ensure that window is clear.
Also: today we’re releasing a short documentary that we filmed in Hiroshima last year. It covers some of the issues around the Japanese Foreign Ministry and US nuclear weapons, as well as firsthand accounts of the bombing.