In a world where relatively minor powers such as North Korea and Iran and perhaps even Syria and Myanmar [Burma] are trying to get them, that the world's second largest economy and a formidable technological leader should eschew weapons of mass destruction may be an affront to history.
But the Japanese aversion to nuclear weapons arising out of its experience of being the only victim of nuclear bombardment and allied with Washington along with the other major powers in an effort to prohibit the proliferation of nuclear clad states had been seen as an insurmountable block.
That assumption can no longer be taken for granted for a number of reasons.
Perhaps as much as anything else, when the Japanese now enjoying the creature comforts of an industrialized society the search for which long was the basis of its ethos turn to politics, they are increasingly frightened.
They face a China spending an increasing part of its income, despite the abysmal poverty of most of its people, on the most sophisticated armaments. The continued exploitation of Japan's long history of aggression against the Mainland by Chinese propaganda, coupled with the lack of any transparency in Beijing's armament, is forcing Japan out of its postwar pacifist shell. North Korea's attempt to blackmail Japan and the rest of the world with its own program of weapons of mass destruction adds another element. All this is reinforced by a long period when "the Japanese model" has not continued its spectacular economic gains, when the Japanese face a demographic catastrophe with a rapidly ageing and declining population, and when, again, as at several times in the postwar period the ethos of the nation has been put into question by a muted but bitter argument between traditionalist conservatives and postwar idealistic reformers.
But the newest element in the northeast Asia equation is the growing suspicion that the American nuclear umbrella which protected Japan and South Korea during the decades of The Cold War may not be reliable. That suspicion took root long ago fed, ironically, by the Japanese left which had always opposed the American defense alliance initiated after the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, and by a small minority on the xenophobic right.
It has blossomed now with the failure during the last years of the Bush Administration to make Japanese interests paramount in the negotiations with the North Koreans for nuclear disarmament of the peninsular. No international issue in post-war Japanese politics has so tugged at the heartstrings and loyalties of ordinary Japanese as the final revelation of how its peaceful citizens were kidnapped over decades for bizarre Pyongyang espionage machinations. Pyongyang's obfuscation and refusal to account for the missing infuriates the Japanese. The failure of Special Envoy Christopher Hill it now appears he often exceeded his brief in appeasing the North Koreans for supposed "concessions", "breaththroughs", "agreements", etc. to make the Japanese kidnappings a sine quo non of any settlement has had a disastrous effect on Japanese official as well as unofficial opinion. [Not even President George W. Bush's emotional and apparently sincere personal interest in the issue with a meeting with relatives in the White House salved that wound.]
The recent successful "mission" of former President William Jefferson Clinton to Pyongyang to rescue two young American female journalists, caught in the North Korean web, only added fuel to these abrasions. In the wake of the dramatic American "rescue" effort, so much a contrast to Tokyo's unrequited claims against Pyongyang, two of Japan's three major, left leaning, newspapers have explored the nuclear issue in a way unparalleled in Japanese public discussion for a half century. Always eager to question the reliability of the American commitment at the same time it was being opposed, both newspapers have pointed to recent developments concerning the dreaded nuclear question. Their calls for a reexamination of the issue are in reality a call for a new statement of American commitment. Washington has initially responded to requests from the Japanese government with a team of envoys. But there is no indication that the Obama Administration, so busy with its efforts to seek "comprehensive" solutions to a host of domestic and foreign issues has made the issue one of highest priority which it deserves.
A longtime not so secret protocol with the Americans for the transport originally totally forbidden of nuclear powered warships and nuclear weapons through U.S. bases on Japanese soil was "leaked". Questions are being raised about whether for example, in the light of the nuclear-powered American aircraft carrier now being home-ported "permanently" at the U.S. base at Yokusuka as it has for decades, is now being asked for redefinition. [America's last diesel aircraft carrier, the Kitty Hawk, which had been home-ported in Japan was retired in January.]
All of these issues now are being rapidly subsumed in the question of the reliability of the American nuclear umbrella in the face of events on the Mainland.
It is true that Sec. of State Hillary Clinton made the protocol-conscious first foreign visit to Japan. And the Obama Administration, generally, has made the perfunctory statements on the importance of the Japanese alliance. But an increasingly suspicious Japanese "permanent government" noted the phraseology of Obama's statement to a vast gathering of Chinese and American officials for a kumbayah session a few weeks ago, almost designating the Washington-Beijing relationship as more important. Obama's remarks reflect the China fever which has seized the U.S. in its relations with Asia in recent decades, in no small part due to the enormity of the growth of the trading relationship. But the withering of the relationship has also been reflected in the growing neglect of Japanese studies in the American universities and a relative downgrading of things Japanese in the popular culture. [Another of Obama's historical never-happeneds when he referred to the Emperor Hirohito appearing for the surrender ceremony on the Battleship Missouri in discussing the future of the war in Afghanistan was duly noted.] Everyone in Tokyo is very much aware that Japan's "soft power" in regard to the U.S. is waning.
There are harder issues, too, in the changing U.S.-Japan equation. Obama threatened his first veto in following on Sec. of Gates Robert Gates' lead in winding down production of the F22 fighter aircraft. The question of the Raptor is, of course, technically, economically, and politically complicated and in dispute by authorities on all sides. But it could not but be noted in Japan that Tokyo's persistently public calls to purchase the aircraft was not even a factor in the Administration's decision to begin to shut down the production line. For the Japanese, it is obvious [as it seems to be for the Israelis who also want the plane] that whatever its defects [including its enormous cost] and speculation about when the Chinese would have something technically competitive, the plane's state of the art technology was seen as something that Japan should have if it is to match Chinese numerical heft with Japanese technological jujitsu.
Ditto for Gates' recommendations for downgrading the nuclear capacity of surface to surface naval missiles. This collides with Japan's purchase and proud operation of its Aegis destroyers. [That was extended in what can only be called a tangential interpretation of the still pacifist clause of the MacArthur Constitution by deployment in the Indian Ocean as part of the UN-endorsed US/NATO Afghanistan operations].
Tokyo sees its role as having played the ally's game loyaly. Its acquiescence as one of the world's largest fossil fuel importers in canceling at Washington's request important oil and gas deals with Iran was a function of subordinating major economic interests to the alliance. It also played to Tokyo's long adherence and support for the American line against proliferation. Japan was, for example, a signatory to the U.S. Anti-Proliferation Initiative with which the Bush Administration tried to win support to police North Korean shipments of nuclear and missile components and technology before the UN lukewarm sponsorship of similar efforts. True enough, this allegiance to nonproliferation drew as much as from the alliance on Japan's traditional opposition to nuclear weapons and its endorsement of President Ronald Reagan and almost every other president's prayerful hope for universal nuclear disarmament. The Obamaites appear in this as in other matters to have discovered the wheel; Obama has championed hoped for demise of nuclear weapons as though it were something he invented when he arrived in town. It is a display of ignorance and arrogance that typifies so many conventional if idealistic concepts reflected in the Obamaites' amateurishness in foreign affairs.
True enough no major Japanese politician has stepped out of line to propose nuclear weapons. The domestic opposition to Japan having anything to do with nuclear weapons is profound and widely held. But it has not been as much of a taboo as conventional wisdom holds; Yasuhiro Nakasone, a naval war veteran and one of Japan's most popular postwar prime ministers [father of the current foreign minister], proposed Japanese nuclear weapons as a young politician in the early postwar period. Interestingly enough the Chinese Communist response at that time by then Foreign Minister Chou Enlai was to compliment Nakasone as a coming young politician who would go far perhaps an expression of what has been an abiding Maoist dogma in Beijing, never forcefully expressed except by Mao himself, of the inevitability of nuclear proliferation.
Most observers acknowledge that Japanese technology could quickly produce nuclear devices and probably weaponized in record time if and when such a political decision were made. Japanese world rank physicists with extensive nuclear experience in one of the world's most extensive nuclear power systems could handily master "the device" and plutonium abounds in the current power grid system. Japanese highly publicized failures with missile systems perhaps because of too much dependence on U.S. licensed production and too little development of indigenous expertise might compromise the delivery vehicle possibilities for a while. But that, too, might be less of an impediment given the nature of short distances to be reckoned with given the proximity of the Mainland threat and the possibility of tactical nukes as a principal part of adequate defense.
While Obama is as popular with the Japanese glitterati and the young as he is elsewhere in the democratic world, there is an increasing wariness on the part of policymakers. The long delay in appointing an ambassador, and then the choice of neither an intimate or the president [which, as in other capitals, is the preferred choice] nor a Japanese specialist, has come as an additional disappointment. California corporate lawyer John Roos' credentials for the job seem to be that he rounded up large amounts of campaign funds in Silicon Valley for Obama and that he wants it for whatever arcane reason. One can only hope for the best from a gifted amateur in a period of intensive destabilization in Japanese politics as well as from a Washington Administration which always seems to be want change, any change, as its only mantra in international affairs.
An election later this month, which might turn up by fluke a victory for the motley crew of rejects, has-beens, and malcontents of different ideological persuasion that make up the opposition Democratic Party of Japan [DPJ], is likely to further confuse the issues. Although the old leftists in the DPJ still adhere to their long-held pacifist and anti-American rhetoric, it is opportunism that has dictated the Party's policies on a number of issues related to the military alliance. Early DPJ opposition to deployment in the Indian Ocean, the anti-pirate deployment, the transport of nukes through Japan, have all been initially grandstanded but in the end acquiesced to in the interest of the national interest and the alliance and political reality. That would likely be the pattern for a short-lived DPJ government if it comes about.
But with that inner discipline which somehow seems to guide Japanese politics despite frequent and erratic changes of nominal leadership, the nuclear issue is stirring. Alert to the way the Japanese tradition has for quietly [sometimes secretly] studying a problem in infinite complexity over a long period, and then darting quickly to implement a decision, the nuclear issue must be seen as percolating and perhaps manifesting itself sooner than expected in Washington.
The U.S could live with a nuclear-clad Japan just as it has with Britain [with whom despite its intimate collaboration on the early bombs Washington wished to see nuclear bereft] and a much more difficult France with its "force de frappe". But it would further complicate strategies for peace and stability in Asia, as the Indian and Pakistani acquisition has done and might well signal the death knell for any kind of worldwide anti-proliferation strategy.
Sol W. Sanders, (firstname.lastname@example.org),
is an Asian specialist with more than 25 years in the region, and a former correspondent
for Business Week, U.S. News & World Report and United Press International.
He writes weekly for World Tribune.com and East-Asia-Intel.com.