TOKYO—A few weeks ago, a former prime minister said the once-unspeakable, suggesting that it may be time for Japan to study whether to acquire nuclear weapons. The remark caused barely a ripple.
As the only nation devastated by nuclear weapons, Japan has long held to pacifism. There's been virtually no public debate about whether the country needed nuclear weapons, although they're well within its technological grasp.
But a combination of factors—including the nuclear threat from North Korea, the rise of China, the ebbing of once-strong peace movements and Japan's rightward drift—have chipped away at old taboos.
Underlying the shifting mood is public anxiety that the U.S. security blanket on Japan may unravel. Former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone evoked that uncertainty Sept. 5 when he said Japan should look into obtaining nuclear weapons.
"There are countries with nuclear weapons in Japan's vicinity," the 88-year-old elder statesman said, adding, "We are currently dependent on U.S. nuclear weapons (as a deterrent), but it is not necessarily known whether the U.S. attitude will continue."
Japan has the tools to build nuclear weapons quickly if it desired, including abundant nuclear material, a tested rocket and vast experience dealing with nuclear energy.
"Japan has a virtual nuclear deterrent. Every country in the region knows it can produce a nuclear device, a rather sophisticated one, probably in six months," said Richard Tanter, a Japan scholar at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia.
Some experts go farther, suggesting that Japan may have a design on the shelf.
"I'd be surprised if they didn't," said Frank Barnaby, a British nuclear physicist and nonproliferation advocate who's studied Japan's nuclear energy industry. "They have stocks of plutonium. They have the know-how. All that is lacking is the political decision."
Japan is third, after the United States and France, in nuclear power output. Its 54 reactors produce as much as 35 percent of the electricity consumed here, and its 43 tons in plutonium stockpiles are among the largest in the world. A nuclear bomb can be built with 17 or 18 pounds of plutonium.
Japan's pacifist impulse is still strong, and observers see almost no public support for obtaining nuclear weapons. Yet major figures in Japan's political firmament all have talked about the issue, including the likely incoming prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who's backed Japan's right to launch pre-emptive strikes against enemy states and said Japan has the legal right to possess small nuclear weapons.
Their attitude hardened after North Korea launched seven ballistic missiles on July 5, including a long-range Taepodong-2, into the Sea of Japan. The launches sent jitters across East Asia, and reports have followed that North Korea soon may test a nuclear device.
Japan's view of nuclear weapons has evolved markedly since the 1980s.
"In those days, if any political figure said, `I'm in favor of nuclear weapons,' you were considered a complete lunatic and a moral reprobate," Tanter said.
Debate about the issue is couched in cautious language, reflective of public sensibilities in a nation that lost 210,000 people in two U.S. atomic bomb attacks at the end of World War II.
Opposition to nuclear energy and armament has ebbed, however, as threats to Japan rise.
"To tell you the truth, the anti-nuclear campaign in Japan is not so strong," said Hideyuki Ban, the co-director of the Citizens' Nuclear Information Center, an anti-nuclear group.
Under its long-standing "three non-nuclear principles," Japan has renounced the right to own or produce nuclear weapons or allow them on its territory. But Ban said the principles never were codified into law, and legislators act as if they are irrelevant.
"At least three times in legislative sessions, there's been discussion whether having nuclear weapons would violate the constitution. The Liberal Democratic Party always asserts that it would not be a violation," Ban said.
Washington opposes Japan's acquisition of nuclear weapons, saying it would destabilize East Asia. Yet Vice President Dick Cheney and the U.S. ambassador to Tokyo, Thomas Schieffer, have suggested in recent years that North Korea's push to build a nuclear arsenal may pressure Japan and South Korea to go nuclear in response.
Japanese scholars who study the nuclear calculus say moving to build such weapons would unsettle the United States and speed a military buildup in China.
"In the foreseeable future, the nuclear option is not an option for the Japanese security strategy," said Nobumasa Akiyama of the Japan Institute for International Affairs.
Japanese security policy, however, has been evolving. Under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who leaves office Sept. 26, Japan has stretched the constitutional limits on the activities of the nation's Self-Defense Forces.
Japan deployed air and sea forces in support of the Afghanistan war, sent about 1,000 noncombat troops to Iraq and the Persian Gulf region until this past July, claimed a right to regional pre-emptive attack and pledged to help the United States deploy a missile-defense system. About two weeks ago, Japan launched its third spy satellite.
Abe, the likely next prime minister, pledges to alter pacifist Article Nine of the constitution and create a normal military and to upgrade the Defense Agency.
South Korea, once colonized by Japan, finds Japan's increased military profile distressing and bristles at the more open discussion of nuclear weapons.
"Given the determination of Abe's faction, Japan's nuclear armament is only a matter of time," South Korea's largest daily newspaper, Chosun Ilbo, said earlier this month in an editorial, adding that a nuclear-armed Japan would "upset the power balance worldwide."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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