An advisory panel to Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan is poised to recommend that Japan reevaluate its Three Non-Nuclear Principles, report the Asahi Shimbun, Global Security Newswire, and Bloomberg. The three principles, which comprise some of the most stringent anti-nuclear legislation in the world, have guided Japanese nuclear policy since the 1960s. The principles forbid the possession and production of nuclear weapons by Japan as well as the introduction of foreign nuclear arms into Japanese territory.
Arguing that “it may not necessarily be wise to have as a principle anything that unilaterally limits what the United States can do,” the panel’s report calls for a review of the third principle’s ban on introducing American arms into Japan. This recommendation comes on the heels of government admissions that the third principle had been violated secretly throughout the Cold War. Even given recent revelations about Cold War secret agreements, however, official governmental approval for the introduction of nuclear arms into Japan would carry significant domestic and international political repercussions.
First announced by Prime Minister Eisaku Sato in 1967, the Three Non-Nuclear Principles were enthusiastically endorsed by both the Japanese public and the international community. The Diet adopted the principles as kokuze or “irrevocable policy” in 1971, and the principles earned then-Prime Minister Sato the 1974 Nobel Peace Prize. They have remained Japan’s official nuclear policy through twenty-two Japanese administrations.
Nevertheless, rumors about Japan’s nuclear intentions have swirled for decades. To a large extent, this suspicion stems from Japan’s technical bomb-making capability. While Japan’s redundant legal and rhetorical rejections of nuclear armament are impressive, Japan’s nuclear infrastructure is remarkably extensive for a country so outwardly committed to disarmament. Much of this infrastructure stems from Japan’s civilian nuclear energy program, the third largest in the world. Japan possesses both enrichment and reprocessing facilities, dual-use technologies that can be used to produce fuel for nuclear power plants or fissile material for nuclear weapons. Furthermore, through its determined adherence to reprocessing, Japan has developed what is estimated to be the largest stockpile of weapons-usable plutonium in a non-weapons state.
A signatory of the NPT, Japan is unlikely to pursue the nuclear option in the near future. Japan’s Atomic Energy Basic Law and Three Non-Nuclear Principles forbid nuclear armament; its populace firmly opposes nuclear armament, and its trade-based economy is particularly vulnerable to sanctions. Nevertheless, given Japan’s technical bomb-making capability, amending the principles would raise questions about Japan’s adherence to its anti-nuclear ideals and possibly strain ties with some its neighbors.
The advisory panel’s recommendation likely reflects Japan’s deteriorating security environment. In advocating for a more assertive defensive posture, the panel cites the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear program and China’s increasing naval strength. In the past half decade, North Korea has twice tested nuclear weapons, first in 2006 and again in 2009, and repeatedly fired missiles directly over or in the immediate vicinity of the Japanese home islands. When paired with its hostile rhetoric – the DPRK has publicly threatened to “plunge Japan into a nuclear sea of fire” – North Korea’s growing nuclear capabilities present perhaps the most salient and immediate threat to Japanese security. Meanwhile, China’s growing economic and military might pose a long-term challenge to Japanese influence in Asia.
Despite the regional challenges facing Japan, amending the principles is likely to be a hard sell to the Japanese public. Anti-nuclear sentiment has remained constant since the 1950s, a phenomenon that suggest that the public’s opposition to nuclear armament has become detached from security concerns. For example, in a Yomiuri Shimbun poll taken immediately after the DPRK’s 2006 nuclear test, 80% of respondents held that Japan should continue to abide by the Three Non-Nuclear Principles despite North Korea’s military threat.
It remains to be seen whether Prime Minister Kan will act on the report’s recommendation. Public opposition to nuclear weapons in Japan cannot be overstated, and in a country where recent PMs can’t seem to hold on to power for more than a year, messing with Japan’s long-standing and extremely popular policy of anti-nuclearism would be a pretty brazen move. Also, Japan already enjoys the protection of the U.S. nuclear umbrella, so stationing nuclear weapons on Japanese territory would not further improve Japanese security.
***Update: According to Global Security Newswire, at a ceremony commemorating the 65th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasak on August 9th, Prime Minister Kan announced he “would like to consider enshrining the [three] principles into law.” At the moment, the Three Non-Nuclear Principles function as Japan’s official policy towards nuclear weapons but are not legally binding. The article notes that Kan’s proposal is likely to face significant opposition, even from members of his own cabinet like Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada, but Kan’s announcement evidences continued support for Japan’s policy of anti-nuclearism among the Japanese political elite.