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Japan ponders nuclear weapons

N. Korean threat may end nation's pacifism

July 11, 2003


TOKYO -- The Japanese are talking about the bomb. Not the one that incinerated Hiroshima 58 years ago, ushering in the Atomic Age, but the one they might consider building if the threat of missiles and nuclear weapons from North Korea gets out of hand.

Only a few people openly advocate going nuclear right now, but a lively debate on this once-taboo question is a sign that the public is shedding its commitment to unconditional pacifism and getting pragmatic about national security for the first time since being defeated by the Allies in World War II.

Some Japanese warn that extremist views associated with the nation's militaristic past are insinuating their way into mainstream society. But others say the debate over inflammatory issues such as nuclear weapons -- involving security hawks, government leaders and feisty news media -- is a normal expression of national pride.

"Japan should have clout, and to have clout, we have to have military power," said Takeshi Fukushima, a soft-spoken, 43-year-old investment banker, during a lunchtime interview in Tokyo. "Without clout, North Korea won't take us seriously. We could take a hard line if we had nuclear weapons."

Japan has the technological capability to build nuclear weapons. But as the world's first and only victim of atomic warfare, it has used its singular pulpit to advocate global peace and nuclear nonproliferation. About 300,000 Japanese civilians died from the two 1945 atomic blasts and radiation injuries.

Japan announced its Three Non-Nuclear Principles policy, which prohibits making or using nuclear weapons, or introducing them into Japan, in 1967.

Protected by a so-called nuclear umbrella in Japan's Cold War security alliance with the United States, the public had seen few reasons to develop an independent nuclear deterrent. But a wake-up call came Aug. 31, 1998, when North Korea test-launched its Taepodong long-range missile over Japan.

"The Taepodong shot is comparable to Sputnik in terms of its impact on Japanese society," said Matake Kamiya, an analyst at Japan's National Defense Academy. "It was the first time in postwar history that Japan really felt threatened with harm by an external hostile power."

New realpolitik

Kamiya rejects the idea that Japan could go nuclear in the foreseeable future. The nuclear allergy still runs deep, he said, and exercising the option would probably trigger a regional arms race and do more harm than good to the nation's strategic interests.

Kamiya said, however, that the nuclear question is a symbol of shifting views.

"Japanese attitudes on defense are becoming much more realistic. Political leaders are trying to reposition the policy of military restraint," Kamiya said. Indeed, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has been pushing the boundaries of Japan's postwar Peace Constitution since he took office in April 2001.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Japan deployed a noncombatant naval mission to the Indian Ocean to provide refueling support to U.S.-led military operations in Afghanistan -- a bold forward deployment for Japan's constitutionally limited Self-Defense Forces.

Later that year, Japanese coast guard and navy ships chased an intruding North Korean spy boat, returning hostile fire and sinking it. In December 2002, the navy sent Aegis-class destroyers equipped with sophisticated radar to the Indian Ocean. This March, Japan launched two military intelligence satellites into orbit over North Korea.

Japan has a $50-billion defense budget, making it the third-richest in the world, and commands 240,000 active military personnel. But it is only now acquiring the equipment for midair-refueling capability that would enable its warplanes to return home from North Korea, suggesting that the rigid strictures banning hardware for offensive missions are gradually fading. Japan is now asking the Pentagon for missile-defense technology.

"We're overcoming the reflex aversion to anything military," said Koji Tomita, a senior Foreign Ministry official.

A package of legislation spelling out the rules of engagement for Japanese troops in combat, Tomita noted, was held up for some 25 years by fierce opposition.

Parliament finally approved the war contingency bills in mid-May.

Topic of debate

Nervousness persists, however, about Japan's militaristic past. Yasunori Matogawa, director of external affairs at the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, said he is upset by the government's use of a civilian HIIA rocket, developed for commercial use by a rival space agency, to launch military payloads.

His research institute has developed a solid-fuel rocket, the MU5, which is smaller than the liquid-fuel HIIA used by Japan's primary space agency. Liquid-fuel rockets take hours to prepare for launch, but solid-fuel rockets can be launched more rapidly, making them better suited for military use.

Matogawa is made fearful by national security arguments raised by lawmakers for keeping Japan's solid-fuel rocket technology alive after the two space agencies merge in October.

"It seems the hard-line national security proponents in parliament are increasing their influence, and they aren't getting much criticism," Matogawa said. "I think we're moving into a very dangerous period -- it reminds me of the 1930s. When you consider the current environment and the threat from North Korea, it's scary."

After the first nuclear crisis in North Korea in the early 1990s, the Defense Agency commissioned a secret study on the risks and benefits of developing nuclear weapons. A 1996 report on the findings, disclosed last year, concluded unequivocally that nuclear weapons would harm Japan far more than protect it, partly because Japan's population is so dense and vulnerable to a nuclear attack.

Yet Japan's hypothetical nuclear weapons survive as a rhetorical deterrent, putting pressure on North Korea -- and China, Japan's long-term strategic rival in Asia.

Last year, two high-ranking government officials caused a furor with casual remarks about the nuclear option. Shinzo Abe, a Koizumi lieutenant, cited an official 1958 interpretation of the constitution that Japan could have nuclear weapons if they were small and defensive in nature.

Japan's chief cabinet secretary, Yasuo Fukuda, threw gasoline on the fire in a private conversation with reporters, saying circumstances "could require Japan to possess nuclear weapons."

Abe and Fukuda said their remarks were misunderstood and that they don't favor the nuclear option.

Pundits and politicians in Washington have floated the idea that Japan might go nuclear.

In a March 16 interview on NBC's "Meet the Press," Vice President Dick Cheney said it is "important that our friends in the region deal effectively" with North Korea's nuclear belligerence.

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