17 May 2022
The Russian invasion to Ukraine raised, perhaps more than any other time, the question as to whether Japan should or should not go nuclear. On March 25, former prime minster Shinzo Abe shocked Japan, and the surrounding region, when he said in an interview with Sankei Shimbun that Japan should consider nuclear weapons and “start discussing whether to seek a nuclear sharing arrangement similar to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s nuclear deterrence policy”.
Of course, Abe knows that acquiring nuclear weapons in Japan would be crossing the line, if not unthinkable; but he is also aware that threats to his country are real. As he explained, “Japan’s geopolitical situation shares points in common with Ukraine’s… If Ukraine were a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation [NATO]… Russia would not have invaded.” Indeed, what happened to Ukraine came as a shock, not only to Japan, but also to other countries, particularly those dependent on others to meet their security needs. Abe is also aware of the Japanese public’s concerns about the ongoing North Korea threat and China’s increasing aggression in East Asia and the South China Sea region. Of course, Japan has all the capabilities to be a nuclear power and already is in possession of 45.5 tonnes of reparated Plutonium, enough to produce 6,ooo nuclear bombs. Japan could go nuclear within six to 12 months; nevertheless, Japan will not acquire nuclear weapons for several reasons. First, as is well known, Japan is the only country to have suffered from nuclear attacks. This was the main reason for its surrender in the Second World War. After the war, Japan adopted the Three Non-Nuclear Principles, which stipulate non-possession, non-production, and non-introduction of nuclear weapons in its territories. Japan is still politically firmly stuck to these principles in accordance with its Peace Constitution. Former prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, vowed not only to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, but also to free the world of all nuclear arms. This Japanese sensitivity to nuclear technology was further reinforced after the Fukushima disaster in 2011. Second, The anti-nuclear sentiment is strong among Japanese people. Indeed, the Japanese are strikingly opposed to nuclear weapons. According to a prevous public opinion poll, 82 per cent of Japanese people are against nuclear weapons, while 69 per cent are also opposed to having these weapons brought into their country’s territories. Third, it is not only the Japanese public that is opposed to nuclear weapons. Indeed, there many internal players who reject these nuclear arms. The nuclear energy industry in Japan is advanced and thriving, but this only gained acceptance on account of the ‘nuclear energy, not nuclear weapons’ deal of the 1950s. Thus ministries, regulatory bodies, industrial groups, and local governments have the right of veto against any political decision in this regard. These entities rely on strong public opposition, of course. Another important point here is that the nuclear facilities in Japan operate in compliance with several multilateral agreements and treaties. It is also noteworthy that all Japanese nuclear activities are under the regulatory control of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Forth, Japan is still, and will remain, under the American nuclear umbrella. All American administrations, including Trump’s, have reaffirmed their commitment to Japan’s security. Therefore, US nuclear capacities together with its conventional military capabilities in the region are sufficient to deter any North Korean security threat to Japan, including a nuclear attack. However, US withdrawal from the Pacific, though not yet expected, could invoke Japan to conclude that the “nuclear option” might be the best choice. Indeed, if the US withdraws its security commitment to Japan, which includes the nuclear umbrella, Japan could seriously consider becoming a nuclear power. But this is not expected, at least not in the near future. Fifth, despite Japan’s potential to develop a nuclear capacity, it still faces significant challenges in the acquisition of nuclear weapons. The issue is not limited to making an atomic bomb. Developing a nuclear deterrent will be no easy matter for Japan. It will need to conduct a series of nuclear tests, over a period of years, to achieve reliable nuclear capabilities. This also raises another significant question: How will Japan deploy such weapons? Japan does not have nuclear-capable aircraft, nor does it have specialised bombers or strike planes. The Japan Air Self-Defence Force does have several US warplanes, such as the F-15, which can be modified to carry nuclear bombs. However, deploying these would require US approval to access the “black boxes” on the plane, that is the electronic codes. It is hard to imagine that the US would consent to this. Despite the ongoing debates as to whether Japan should change its long-standing policy of nuclear abstention, given the profound changes in the regional and international security environment, it is not expected that Japan will opt for nuclearisation, at least not in the foreseeable future. However, the debate on sharing nuclear power with the US will remain active from some time. Mohammad Abu Ghazleh is a senior researcher at TRENDS Research & Advisory, and an adjunct professor at the United Arab Emirates University, Abu Dhabi