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Japan and nuclear weapons

August 15, 2012


Japan playing nuclear roulette





Special to The Japan Times

HONG KONG — J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the prominent fathers of the atomic bomb, had read the Bhagavad Gita, and when he saw the first test of the weapon, he quoted the terrifying line from the Hindu scripture: "Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds." It is hard to imagine the horror of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima 67 years ago. It seared the sky and instantaneously wiped much of the city and tens of thousands of people, and left a trail of misery that continues today, but which should not be forgotten.

Sadly, leading Japanese politicians today seem to have forgotten the lessons of the war and its savage end. Powerful politicians are hard at work trying to scrap Article 9 of the Constitution — which renounces war — and some of them want to go all-out to build a Japanese nuclear weapon.

What are they thinking about? It beggars belief that a country that has suffered so much, first from being the only victim of nuclear war, and then from bungling over the use of nuclear energy, should be contemplating building nuclear weapons.

It is almost a game of Chinese roulette. Japan does not know how to cope with the rise and rise of an increasingly assertive and muscular China. It is also obviously concerned about nuclear-armed North Korea that is wont to making bellicose threats in spite of its small size and its impoverished economy. But Chinese roulette is more suicidal than the Russian version: If Japan built nuclear weapons for first-strike capability against an overbearing China, it would be committing national suicide; second-strike, or retaliatory, capacity might be too late if China had done its job properly. Using nuclear weapons against North Korea, whatever the provocation, seems unthinkable.

That is without considering the suicidal economic costs. France and the United Kingdom have discovered that keeping up with the latest nuclear weapons technology is prohibitively expensive. For already heavily indebted Japan, it could be the final straw to economic ruin.

Any decision to build nuclear weapons would be a red rag to China, far more serious than the Tokyo government or Japan buying the Senkaku Islands. Even so, hawkish Japanese politicians claim that flaunting the bomb option will give Japan greater diplomatic clout.

The nuclear option is very much part of shadow politics, going on outside the public arena, but linked to the obvious reluctance of the government and bureaucrats to give up nuclear energy. Japan has years of expertise in production of nuclear energy, but, even so, it is questionable, especially in the light of the lessons of the Fukushima disaster, whether any part of a country sitting on so many earthquake fault lines is safe to host a nuclear plant.

However, the ability to produce nuclear power gives obvious material and technological advances toward weapons production. Former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, from the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, said, "Having nuclear plants shows to other nations that Japan can make nuclear weapons."

"Fukushima Project," a book by anti-nuclear experts, claims that, "A group is starting to take a stand to assert the significance of nuclear plants as military technology, a view that had been submerged below the surface until now." In June, without fanfare, Japan's Diet changed the 1955 Atomic Energy Basic Law to add "national security" as a reason for using nuclear technology along with people's health and wealth.

The debate on Article 9 of Japan's Constitution has also been going on largely behind closed doors. The LDP sees itself as poised to sweep Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's fractious government from power. It is demanding early elections as the price for supporting Noda's controversial doubling of the consumption tax.

The party has been busy designing a nationalist campaign that, according to The Economist, "looks likely to border on emperor-worship." In April the LDP published proposals for a constitutional amendment, which would eviscerate Article 9, the key to Japan's peace Constitution. Article 9 famously renounces war and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.

Its second paragraph pledges that Japan will not maintain land, sea or air forces or other war potential. Some supporters of the peace clauses agree that the time has come to revise Article 9, especially given that Japan's Self-Defense Forces are armed forces in all but name and defense spending of $61 billion makes Japan the world's fifth or sixth largest in the global league, vying with France. The Self-Defense Forces have also contributed, controversially, to international peacekeeping efforts.

So there is a plausible case that the new realities be recognized and careful limitations and strict rules and conditions be set. Professor Craig Martin set out the arguments for updating Article 9 without destroying it in The Japan Times recently. The essential core of the first paragraph of Article 9 should be preserved as Japan's contribution to humanity.

The danger is that Japan's rightwing will set the terms of the debate and provide a fait accompli of a changed constitution and a new more militaristic agenda. You can see how the approach will be made. China is growing daily more assertive, undoubtedly true. Japan is highly vulnerable, also true. But a bright guy facing a bully needs to use brains, not to slug it out and get mashed up. Japan should be making friends, especially in the Asian region. It should also try to disarm the bully by friendship and point out — also undoubtedly true — that no one wins in a fight, least of all in the 21st century when the miseries of war would threaten the whole world's existence.

The bigger danger, ultimately for Japan itself, is that this small island country, highly dependent on the outside world for essential imports and for exports that provide jobs and economic growth, seems unable to see itself as the rest of the world does — largely irrelevant — and lives in its own bubble world. It should be a matter of concern, for example, that South Koreans hate Japan more than they hate the North Korean regime, that there is visceral hatred in China toward Japan.

Small island nations often have an undue pride in their own insular superiority. The U.K. is similar. But the U.K. recognizes that there is an alien world out there and you have to be active in knowing what goes on and sometimes to make concessions and occasionally sacrifice cherished interests for the greater good. The U.K.'s failure to engage Europe wisely, pretending to be aloof and not part of the eurozone problems, is costing its economy dearly.

But Japan, apart from exporters at the sharp economic end, who are increasingly taking their factories abroad, seems to wish the world outside does not exist. You can see this tragically any day on the state broadcaster NHK, which seems totally ignorant of the rest of the world.

As a small example, the main morning news of NHK on Aug. 9 devoted its first 19 minutes to the Olympics, with seven minutes for Japan's judo golds, a minute about Usain Bolt, before celebrating Japan's javelin thrower who failed to qualify for the finals, its decathlon competitor in 26th place and the vital women's field hockey match between Japan and South Africa to decide who comes ninth. Then there was a preview of the Japan-U.S. women's soccer final. There was no mention of the achievements of China or the United States, or of the world outside the Olympics.

The BBC on the same day started with the medal battle between China and the U.S., went to Jamaica to ask about the culture that produced Bolt, celebrated Japan's judo golds and found time to report on mayhem in Syria.

At 20 minutes after the hour, NHK went on to the intense political fight over the consumption tax and, very briefly, after 30 minutes, to the people of Nagasaki waiting to commemorate the dropping of the second atomic bomb on Aug. 9. Lest Japan forget: War in the 21st century would be tantamount to national suicide.

Kevin Rafferty is author of "Inside Japan's Powerhouses", a study of Japan Inc and internationalization.

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