Is Japan About to Hit Its Nuclear Tipping Point?
Tokyo almost built a bomb in 1945 and now has enough plutonium stockpiled for 5,000 nukes. North Korea may give its hawkish government an excuse to build them.
TOKYO—“Don’t be fooled by North Korea’s smiley-face diplomacy,” Japan’s foreign minister, Taro Kono, warned last week in the middle of the Winter Olympics’ warm fuzzy photo ops with Hermit Kingdom emissaries.
Kono’s skepticism was quite serious, as is the confrontation he sees looming. Earlier this month he shocked Japan by broaching the idea that the Japanese should gain access to “usable” nuclear weapons, and he lavished praise on U.S. President Donald Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review.
While much of the rest of the world was entranced by North Korean cheerleaders and Kim Jong Un’s baby sister, Japan was quietly considering if and when to build its own nuclear missiles to discourage North Korea from so much as contemplating a missile strike.
The hawkish government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his ruling coalition are exploiting real and unreal fears of a North Korean nuclear attack to drum up support for a Japan that can wage war, and possibly as a prelude to pushing harder for nuclear weapons development.
At a minimum, it should be apparent to the world that this administration has no interest in nuclear disarmament, and is preparing for a possible showdown.
This week, The Ministry of Culture, Education and Science announced that in the Risk Management manual distributed to schools nationwide, it would be urging teachers to conduct missile evacuation drills. That should ratchet up the paranoia a few notches.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced last year that his country’s nuclear program is now complete, after the “successful” launch of a new missile that threatens all of the continental United States. But Japan has been in the crosshairs of the hermit kingdom for some time, and the storm over Kim’s atomic posturing has reignited a simmering, almost taboo, debate about nuclear weapons here.
The question isn’t whether Japan could become a nuclear weapons power. There’s really no doubt about that. But should it? And when? And if so, politically, how?
Japan As A Nuclear Power
Japan’s consumer nuclear energy industry has generated enough plutonium to make an estimated 5,000 nuclear warheads, this has long stood as an implicit threat. As former Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto once declared, Japan’s commercial nuclear power reactors have “very great defensive deterrent functions.” He was implying that the plants Japan has built to make reactor fuel could be used to make fuel for nuclear arms, if Japan ever decides to do so.
In case anyone missed the point, in the spring of 2016, the Abe government explicitly stated that there is nothing in the nation’s Constitution that forbids pacifist Japan from possessing or using nuclear weapons.
Later in 2016, then-Vice President Joe Biden reminded Chinese President Xi Jinping that Japan has the capacity to acquire nuclear weapons “virtually overnight.” And that wasn’t a gaffe. Japan has the technology. It has the materials. Biden then suggested that Xi Jinping should put a leash on North Korea and its nuclear program. That suggestion does not seem to have been heeded.
Japan’s Nuclear Allergy Wasn’t Always So Strong
Japan is the only nation to have endured a nuclear attack. It is not surprising that after the devastation of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the people of Japan have a strong loathing for such truly infernal devices. Japan’s nuclear weapons policy, formulated in 1967, prohibits the possession, manufacture, and introduction of nuclear weapons into Japanese territory.
But there was a time when Japan itself was rushing to produce an atomic bomb—before the Americans.
While it is not well-known, Japan had a top-secret nuclear weapons program during World War II that may have been more highly developed than many people thought. Robert K. Wilcox, the author of Japan’s Secret War: Japan’s Race Against Time to Build Its Own Atomic Bomb, noted that Japan had the technology to create an atomic bomb but lacked the raw materials, particularly uranium. That did not stop them from trying.
On May 19, 1945, a Nazi U-boat was caught by the Allies as it attempted to deliver 1,200 pounds of uranium oxide to the Japanese military. Two Japanese officers were on board and killed themselves before being captured. Ironically, the uranium seized from the German submarine was used in the American atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, according to John Lansdale Jr., head of security for the Manhattan Project. As recently as the summer of 2015, researchers found evidence that a centrifuge, which is one means of enriching uranium for atomic weapons, was scheduled to be completed by a Japanese engineering company, Tokyo Keiki, on Aug. 19, 1945. Japan announced that it was surrendering on Aug. 15.
V-J Day the United States dismantled what was left of Japan’s nuclear weapons program, but over the decades, the U.S. has considered entrusting Japan with modern versions of the weapon that ended the war.
The United States and Japan may have discussed holding nuclear weapons in Japan as early as the 1960s. Kyodo news last year reported that the U.S. drafted a request to deploy nuclear weapons on Japan’s main island in June of 1969.
Nuclear Japan: A Good Idea?
In the November 2017 edition of the monthly Chuokoron Magazine, Japan’s former minister of defense, Shigeru Ishiba, wrote that Japan needs to discuss all methods and means of nuclear armament. He refers to the belligerent actions of North Korea and discusses his understanding of Japan’s reluctance to use nuclear weapons but concludes, “We need to reevaluate whether being under the U.S.’s nuclear umbrella is now and in the future working sufficiently to protect Japan.” His solution: Japan and the United States share nuclear weapons.
“The system could work like this, under ‘nuclear sharing’ America would strategically place nuclear weapons inside Japan. In peacetime, the ownership would rest with the USA but if there were a serious crisis, Japan would have a limited right to use those weapons.”
By some lights, this sounds imminently sensible. After all, North Korea is a belligerent totalitarian state run by an unpredictable sociopath.
But for precisely that reason, Bernard F.W. Loo, at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies (Singapore), writes that arming Japan or South Korea with nuclear weapons would be very dangerous. In his paper “Managing a Nuclear North Korea: More Is Not Better,” he notes, “Warning times of a pre-emptive first strike will be virtually non-existent. In November 1979, a computer glitch led U.S. defense officials to believe that the Soviet Union had launched 250 land-based ballistic missiles. In this instance, the U.S. president had between five and seven minutes to make a decision to launch retaliatory forces…. Given the significantly shorter distances separating the states of Northeast Asia, such time to ascertain and verify will be virtually non-existent.”
Arming Japan or Korea or both nations with nuclear weapons would create a situation in which policymakers in Pyongyang, Seoul, and Tokyo would find the idea of a preemptive strike increasingly attractive, Loo warns.
A Japanese Ministry of Defense official speaking to The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity, also suggested, somewhat surprisingly, that a nuclear armed Japan might not be any safer. “The leaders of North Korea are not always making rational decisions. And the idea of Japan with nuclear weapons might stoke their paranoia to the point where they are willing to destroy themselves rather than lose face.”
“Sadly,” the official said, “a great deal of Japanese technology was stolen by North Korea to build the weapons they have now. We know how to make a better one, but will we? Should we?”
The official went on: “The Japanese military has always had civilians in control after the end of the war to prevent another de facto coup by the military commanders, but Prime Minister Abe has tried to dismantle that system. The former head of our air force has made waves by openly saying Japan should have had nuclear weapons [in World War II] and should have used them on the Allied Forces during the war, if they had possessed them. Our current government leaders believe that, even if they don’t say it explicitly. Once Japan is a nuclear power, it won’t need to kowtow to the United States. We hear rumors that because Trump is saying Japan should have nuclear weapons, Abe is showing gratitude by buying U.S. weapons by the billions. Everybody gets what they want. The seeds are in place.”
What does he think it would take for Japan to make its own nuclear weapons?
“If a North Korean missile, even one with no nuclear component, hits Japanese soil, I think the process will begin. That’s all that’s needed. If someone is actually hurt or killed by North Korean missiles, the wheels will turn quickly. I can’t say this will be good for the safety of our nation. Perhaps, having nuclear weapons could be a deterrent. It could also go very wrong.”
Other experts are concerned that a nuclear Japan would revive tension and conflict in the region. Tim Kelly, a veteran correspondent who covers Japan’s defense industry for Reuters, thinks it unlikely the Japanese will build a nuclear arsenal. In an email, he explained:
“The most reasonable estimates are a couple of years [to make one]. Japan pretty much has all the components for such an ICBM in the shape of the Epsilon rocket and re-entry technology from its space program including the Hayabusa. It obviously has plenty of plutonium and building a hydrogen bomb is well within the means of Japanese engineers, so throw enough money at it and it is just a matter of bringing all things together. What Japan has now is often referred to as a recessed deterrence.”
But Kelly makes the point that Japan faces a huge obstacle in developing a nuclear weapon: testing it.
“Can’t imagine anyone in Japan would allow a nuclear test in their neighborhood and Japan doesn’t have access to an expanse of thinly populated desert or steppe. And if you can’t test it to show other countries then it makes it less of a deterrent. Also how long [to develop such an arsenal] depends on what kind of force you want to field. A submarine based missile force might better suit Japan, like the U.K. has, but that would be more complicated and would take longer.”
So Kelly still sees the odds of Japan developing its own nuclear arsenal as a slim possibility.
“As long the U.S. extends its nuclear umbrella over Japan then there is no need. Plus any decision by Japan to build the bomb would kill non-proliferation efforts and damage Japan’s international standing.”
Yet in that regard it is not clear Japan really cares about its international standing anymore. The government of Shinzo Abe has effectively given up the pretense of supporting non-proliferation efforts. That is evident in the foreign minister’s remarks supporting the development of tactical nuclear weapons and also in Prime Minister Abe’s snubbing of the leader of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, when she came to visit Japan–after ICAN won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Can We Trust Shinzo Abe With the Nuclear Football?
Looking at the region as a whole, one can certainly understand why the nations invaded and ravaged by Japan in WWII would be uneasy about the country having nuclear weapons. And that brings us back to another little bit of that suggests the most convincing argument against Japan having nuclear weapons right now is the leadership of Shinzo Abe.
Remember when Japan was trying to conquer the world and racing to build its own nuclear weapons back in the 1940s? That didn’t work out very well. But Abe exults in that history. He has not only failed to learn from its consequences, he denies their causes, and he seems to want to repeat the past. In a culture that reveres ancestors, it is no small thing that Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, served as Japan’s Minister of Munitions and was arrested as a war criminal in 1945. After Kishi was let go, he returned to power, eventually becoming prime minister, and did his best to take apart the post-war constitution which gave Japan democracy, pacifism, and equal rights for men and women. Abe has vowed to fulfil his grandfather’s dreams.
Abe is an active member of the right-wing lobby and Shinto cult, Nippon Kaigi, which seeks to undo Japan’s democratic constitution, revise history, and restore Imperial rule. In his time in office, he has pushed through several laws that emulate what Japan’s wartime leaders did to take control of Japan and destroy the Taisho Democracy, including a press muzzling State Secrets Law and an Orwellian conspiracy law.
The Emergency Powers clause in Abe’s party’s proposed constitution would enable the prime minister to seize control during a crisis, write and revise laws at will, and endow him with the same kind of power Hitler gained in 1933 with the The Enabling Act (German: Ermächtigungsgesetz), a Weimar Constitution amendment. Indeed, Japan’s Vice Prime Minister Taro Aso has said Japan should conduct its constitutional reform just as the Nazis did.
Prime Minister Abe is a demonstrably short-tempered, belligerent, monomaniacal individual with a poor sense of humor about himself.
The question is this: Do we want to a have Japanese prime minister who dreams of restoring Imperial Glory, who is mildly delusional and who raves about his admiration for the kamikaze, having control over nuclear weapons?
If he’s in power when Japan finally has its nuclear weapons—all it may take is a capriciously declared “state of emergency” to give him the right to launch those weapons. It wouldn’t be a rational thing to do, but a man who believes that the Shinto religion is literally true, who seems at times unable to tell history from fantasy, who is prone to outbursts, can’t be counted on to make a rational decision.
Kim Jong Un isn’t the most rational leader either, nor is Donald Trump; does anyone want to be in the middle of these three in a game of nuclear chicken?