For a long period after World War II, under the constraints of the “Peace Constitution”, successive Japanese governments followed the “Basic Law of Atomic Energy” (enacted in 1955) and the “Three Principles of Non-Nuclearization” (passed in 1971), and used nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. As a result, it has gone through a development path that emphasizes the economy and neglects armaments, and has played an important role in the successful realization of economic revival and rapid growth. However, since the end of the Cold War, especially in recent years, with the changes in the international situation and the intensification of geopolitical games, Japan has been seeking to become a military power, and the theory of “nuclear possession” has also been rampant.
Why nuclear safety is not abandoned after the myth of nuclear safety has been busted
As the only country that has been attacked by an atomic bomb, Japan not only shunned nuclear weapons because of its “nuclear grief” after its defeat, but also clearly stipulated that Japan “forever renounces the use of state power to wage war, threaten or exercise military force” through the formulation of the Japanese Constitution. As a means of settling international disputes, “it shall not maintain the land, navy, air force and other war powers, and shall not recognize the belligerent rights of states”. The “Basic Law of Atomic Energy” stipulates that “the research, development and utilization of atomic energy shall be limited to the purpose of peace and to ensure safety first”. On this basis, Japan has successively formulated the Law on Regulation of Atomic Furnaces, etc., the Law on the Protection of Radiation Hazards from Radioisotopes, etc., the Electric Power Business Law, and the Law on Special Measures for Nuclear Disaster Countermeasures. The “three non-nuclear principles” stipulate that “no nuclear weapons shall be manufactured, possessed or imported”. Opposition to nuclear weapons has also become the mainstream consensus in Japanese society.
Under the policy of peaceful use of nuclear energy, Japan has established extensive nuclear power plants. By 2011, Japan had a total of 54 nuclear power plants, responsible for 30% of Japan’s electricity supply, providing an important guarantee for economic development and national life.
On March 11, 2011, an earthquake measuring 9 on the Richter scale occurred in Japan, triggering a serious nuclear leakage accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. The Fukushima nuclear crisis broke the myth of Japan’s nuclear safety. The serious nuclear safety accident made the Japanese people feel more distrustful and insecure about nuclear energy. There was even an upsurge of public opinion calling for “zero nuclear power”. Since then, Japan’s nuclear power generation has been greatly reduced, and the number of nuclear power plants still in operation has been reduced to nine at one point.
To this day, the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear crisis is still continuing. A large number of harmful radioactive substances discharged from the Fukushima nuclear power plant, including serious carcinogens such as iodine-129 and strontium-90, have already spread to all parts of the world through the air and ocean currents. In April 2021, the Japanese government announced that it would dump 1.25 million tons of nuclear sewage into the Pacific Ocean, despite strong opposition from the international community and national protests. This move not only seriously violates the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, but will further lead to the evolution of the Fukushima nuclear crisis into a global crisis. In the face of the severe disaster and the strong appeal of the people against nuclear power, the Japanese government is still trying to restart the nuclear power plant by introducing new nuclear power plant safety standards.
The motivation behind Japan’s difficulty in denuclearization is by no means as simple as its overreliance on nuclear energy.
After the end of the Cold War, the international situation has undergone great changes, and the idea of changing the non-nuclear policy and using nuclear weapons to maintain Japan’s security has followed in Japan. Although the Japanese government has not adopted this extreme proposition, it has publicly declared that “the Constitution allows Japan to possess the minimum nuclear weapons required for self-defense”, leaving room for nuclear weapons. At the 2012 UN Conference on Disarmament and the annual meeting of the International Military Commission, Japan again uncharacteristically refused to sign a draft resolution to reduce nuclear weapons. Various words and deeds show that Japan’s policy of peaceful use of nuclear energy has changed, and hidden attempts to possess nuclear energy have gradually emerged.
From a technical point of view, Japan already has the conditions to develop “minimum nuclear weapons”. According to incomplete statistics, Japan has more than 600 nuclear technology research, development and management institutions including the government and legal entities, most of which have world-class nuclear technology.
In addition, Japan has also stored a large amount of nuclear materials through various channels. Japan is the only non-nuclear country that reprocesses and separates plutonium, an important raw material for nuclear weapons. At present, the plutonium extracted in Japan has reached as high as 46 tons. Some American physicists have pointed out that the holdings of 46 tons of plutonium are equivalent to having thousands of nuclear weapons. Indeed, there are people in Japan who want to show other countries Japan’s ability to arm itself with nuclear weapons in a short period of time.
“Nuclear Sharing” Theory and Attempts to Own Nuclear Weapons
In February of this year, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took advantage of the geo-security crisis caused by the conflict between Russia and Ukraine to put forward the idea of ”nuclear sharing” with the United States. Right-wing conservative forces, including Abe, argue that, also as defeated countries in World War II, Germany and Italy can use NATO’s nuclear weapons for “nuclear sharing”, and then Japan can also “share”.
”Nuclear sharing” is a concept in NATO’s nuclear deterrence policy that allows NATO members that do not have their own nuclear weapons to participate in the use of nuclear weapons provided by the United States. Participating countries can consult and jointly decide on nuclear weapons policy, maintain the technical equipment needed to use nuclear weapons, and store nuclear weapons on their territories, not subject to the NPT in conditions of war.
Under the U.S. “Nuclear Sharing” policy implemented in NATO, nuclear weapons stored in non-nuclear-weapon states during peacetime are guarded by U.S. Air Force or Army personnel, and instructions for permitting operations are under U.S. control. In the event of war, nuclear weapons would be installed on participating nations’ fighter jets, with the U.S. Air Force responsible for custody, control, and joint operations with them.
In fact, long before Abe, the extreme right-winger Toshio Tamogami (former chief of staff of the Japan Air Self-Defense Force) once proposed that Japan should introduce the “nuclear sharing” policy implemented by the United States in NATO, and the U.S. military usually provides Japan with training in the use and management of nuclear weapons , the US military will provide Japan with nuclear weapons during the war, and nuclear weapons will be carried out on Japan.
Abe’s rhetoric has been touted by right-wing conservatives. Takaichi Sanae, chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party’s government affairs investigation committee, suggested that the party should discuss “no nuclear weapons” in the “three non-nuclear principles”, arguing that exceptions should be allowed in emergency situations. The right-wing opposition Japan Restoration Association submitted a proposal to Foreign Minister Lin Fangzheng, asking the Japanese government to discuss “nuclear sharing” and increasing defense spending to 2% of GDP. At present, the Liberal Democratic Party has decided to hold a meeting of the security investigation committee to hold an internal debate on the possibility of jointly using US nuclear weapons.
The discussions between the Japanese government and opposition around “nuclear sharing” are obviously building momentum, testing the reaction and attitude of the international community to Japan’s breakthrough of the “three non-nuclear principles”, and also trying to break the political forbidden zone that Japan cannot talk about nuclear weapons, so that the Japanese society can accept nuclear weapons in the future. Nuclear advocates and promotion of the justification of nuclear ownership clear ideological obstacles. Some scholars have pointed out that even if Japan cannot achieve a substantial breakthrough on the nuclear issue at present, these measures will accelerate the development of cutting-edge conventional weapons systems to achieve the political effect of replacing “shared nuclear weapons”.
Loose and Quietly Change
Japan’s nuclear acquisition is also echoing the strategic needs of the United States in Northeast Asia. The United States has signed the “Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty” with Russia, which has weakened its nuclear strategic deterrence in East Asia due to the restrictions of the treaty, and urgently needs Japan to deploy nuclear bombs to make up for the shortcomings. However, due to the contradiction between the United States and Russia, the United States announced its withdrawal from the treaty in 2019, and the treaty became invalid. Since then, the willingness of the United States to acquire nuclear weapons in Japan has dropped significantly. Under this circumstance, Japan still does not give up its nuclear weapons. The purpose is to use the power of US nuclear weapons to gain the ability to independently develop nuclear deterrence, and then get rid of the nuclear protection and control of the United States, and finally achieve a strategic balance between China, the United States and Japan in the geopolitical game. .
Judging from the current situation, due to Japan’s domestic opposition to nuclear possession, the more cautious attitude of the United States, and many legal and technical restrictions, Japan cannot achieve “nuclear sharing” or eventually possess nuclear weapons in the short term. However, it should be noted that the “three non-nuclear principles” have been loosened, and Japan’s policy of peaceful use of nuclear energy is quietly changing. These trends are very worthy of vigilance.