To be or not to be nuclear: a case-study of Japan

Ekaterina Poryadina, Ksenia Mineeva, Sergey Zaryansky
December 13, 2021

Halcyon days are not a thing, and the era we live in is far from tranquility. Various unexpected and predicted crises struck our everyday life with new challenges and provide us with new opportunities. «What if» is a good question the one concerned with overcoming those crises may pose*.

One of such contemporary worldwide issues is the possibility of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons, which may be obtained through absolutely peaceful programs with a goal to eliminate energy production problems but may be turned to the development of WMDs, which in turn follow the objective of solving some international disputes
(e. g. territorial ones).

Superficially, a decision to obtain nuclear weapons seems easy to make, but after a relatively thorough investigation, various difficult questions and peculiar obstacles arise. Those issues not only make the possible acquisition of nuclear WMDs unlikely but might even doom it into an oblivion. We believe that in most cases the decision to achieve nuclear weapons will be stopped by those impassible hindrances, and to illustrate that notion we suggest looking on the Land of the Rising Sun.

Japan is one of the few countries which has all the material prerequisites of acquisition of nuclear weapons. However, it has been almost 80 years that Japan followed peaceful existence. Without further ado – let us understand the reasons why would or wouldn’t and should or shouldn’t Japan run to get nuclear.

For our analysis to be easy-to-understand we decided to divide the arguments into 2 main categories – internal and external to Japan. Both of them engulf economic, political and social reasons important for our undertaking. Let us begin with the “pro-nuclear” arguments.

First of all, the reason behind possible strive to acquire the A-bomb is the external, international situation. Japan cannot rely on the U.S. extended deterrence in the contemporary security environment any longer. Not only it is surrounded by three nuclear states – People’s Republic of China, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Russian Federation – two of which threaten Japan’s very existence, but also the nuclear umbrella cannot be seen viable to provide the security of Japan anymore, due to the U.S. hesitation and doubts regarding the need to defend their “unsinkable carrier”, regardless of what the Presidents of the U.S. say in public.

The possibility of being abandoned by the U.S. and the loss of confidence in the American interest and will to defend Japan has been gradually growing in the political discourse of Japan. In the face of growing threat of the DPRK’s nuclear and missile programs and fear of increasing Chinese political, social, economic, and military presence in the region, Japan’s policy of not allowing the introduction of nuclear weapons in its territory can be revised.

The political reasoning behind such a notion is that the acquisition of the ultimate deterrent is a much more effective and reliable way to provide security of Japan. No regional or global power will try to seize or hold the territory of Japan. Nuclear weapons will spike fear of possible retaliation into DPRK, PRC or even Russian Federation, which – from the official point of view of Japan – holds the lands which do not belong to her and might be returned to its’ lawful – from the official Japanese point of view – owners. More than that any claims regarding Japanese territory (e. g. the Senkaku islands, Liancour or Takeshima Issue, etc.) might be revised if not withdrawn by foreign countries, which is a favorable development for political elite of Japan.

The next thing behind the plausible decision to achieve nuclear weapons is industrial capabilities, which Japan holds for a long time now. Accumulated plutonium stockpiles and nuclear energy technologies’ development only support the possibility of Japan to go nuclear. It already has 45 tons of plutonium in stock while only 8 kg of it is required to create one device. Also, the long-standing technological exchange between the U.S. and Japan provides the latter with knowledge in the field of peaceful nuclear energy, crucial to the development of nuclear WMDs.

However, the relative decrease in the U.S. military strength in the region, especially compared with China’s burgeoning power, is forcing Japan to become a leading military power in the Asia-Pacific. Political elite of Japan only encourages the revision of the Article 9 of the Heiwa Constitution, and this revisionist discourse gains more and more public support every decade.

The most powerful argument for the development of nuclear weapons we try to prove unlikely if possible is the immense transformation of the “spirit of nation” or what was once called “kokutai” of Japan, which happened from the end of the WWII and has provided the ground to popular support of the nuclear arms acquisition. Mishima Yukio – the sun of the Japanese literature of 20th century, Nakasone Yasuhiro –one of the greatest reformers of Japanese inner and foreign policy – and Abe Shinzo –one of the architects of Constitutional Revision – stand in line of those who believe that Japan must take its place among the great powers of the world. They are a manifest to the specter of national pride that haunts the politics of contemporary Japan.

The reason why we consider it the most influential thing is that (fortunately or unfortunately) often it is ideas that rule the mind of homo sapiens, not reality or material life. Partially, it is the ideas which led to the previous World War and many of conflicts after it, especially in case of Japan and Japanese people who often deem spiritual as more important than material, with their dedication to such concepts as honor, duty and, for example, “Hakkō ichiu” (“All the world under one roof”) slogan/model, which led to terrifying results (e. g. the Nanjing Massacre).

However, when material life of a person gets worse the economic reasons get the crown and rule over many decisions of such a person. A state which is constructed by the people is no different. Thus, an unusual argument for the acquisition of nuclear weapons comes up.

The development of nuclear military technologies might lead to breakthroughs in science and, in turn, provide solutions for contemporary issues in the field of energy, ecology and economy. Recently, former Prime Minister of Japan Suga Yoshihide declared, that by 2050 the country would aim to realize a carbon-neutral society, and in December of 2020, the Cabinet adopted an industrial policy, which is going to rely on nuclear energy – up to 30 – 40% of energy-production are prescribed to the nuclear energy. Energy security is a much more important thing not only for Japan as an international actor, but also for the wellbeing of its’ inhabitants and its existence.

Oddly enough, it is the economy and prosperity of the nation that is vital to such a decision, or rather, to the lack thereof. We believe that it is what will stop Japan, its political elite or anyone concerned from the acquisition of nuclear weapons, because they are not required for the country to pursue its national interests.

The existence of the industrial base is a tenuous argument for the development of nuclear weapons. The launch of this process will lead to UN sanctions, which in turn will shrink the economy of Japan, which didn’t recover from the crises of the 1990s. Interestingly, those economic issues at first led to the idea of the “Lost Decade” (“Ushinawaretajyunen”), which has transformed into “Lost 30 years” nowadays.

Unlike largely autarkic DPRK that manages to survive under sanctions, Japan is heavily embedded into the international economy and will not endure such an “experience”. Since ancient times, people from throughout Asia have brought to Japan their knowledge and talents, helping to lay the basis for Japan’s existence as a country. That is still true for today.

Then, the weaponization of the atomic energy will not protect Japan from regional threats. Even conventional DPRK’s and PRC’s missiles can easily reach the territory of Japan – a relatively narrow chain of islands. Furthermore, the weaponization of the Japanese nuclear industry might provoke a preventive strike from DPRK (or even PRC). It can be a full-scale missile bombardment, which will be comparable (if not more devastating) to the Allied bombings during the Second World War – approx. 8.5 million of people were rendered homeless, not to mention the dead and the injured.

Also, returning to “geographical” factor of the issue, building nuclear missile silos might be problematic due to the terrain of Japan. Conventional Chinese or Korean missile systems will easily cripple the military communication networks, thus making it hardly possible for Japan to ensure its second-strike capability. Because of that, the idea of nuclear weapons as the ultimate deterrent and protection works not for Japan.

In addition, the possible retaliation to the violation of the NPT – economic sanctions – will damage the energy security of Japan. Up to 90% of its energy consumption needs are met by foreign coal, gas, petroleum, and – surprisingly – uranium supplies. All of that may vanish in an instant after the establishment of an UN sanctions regime, which, in turn, will destabilize manufacturing, transportation and digital network systems, thus crippling the economy of Japan.

More than that, sanctions might damage the food security of Japan. The food industry relies heavily on the import of soybeans (92%), corn (100%), wheat (88%), fish (38%) and livestock (36%). The Japanese people will starve to death faster, than a nuclear bomb will fall upon them or any foreign aggressor land on their soil, if the sanctions are imposed.

Next thing on the list of “negative” arguments is the unwavering adherence of Japan to the peaceful and trade-oriented existence. And it cannot be easily overcome. Yoshida and Fukuda doctrines were a manifestation of that in the past and still lie in the foundation of the foreign and internal policy of Japan.

The Japanese constitution is an unavoidable obstacle on the way of the acquisition of nuclear weapons. The peculiarities of the political process of Japan make the decision-making process of acquisition of nuclear WMDs unlikely, because any issued policy comes out as a result of the consensus among various political elite groups, which cannot be achieved fast and easily if at all.

Japanese politicians won’t simply ignore half a million living hibakusha – the people who suffered the atomic fire and now actively participate in anti-nuclear struggle both within and outside of Japan. The abandonment of them might lead to civic demonstrations against the government leading to its collapse, thus such a decision is a tremendous risk to the political elite of Japan and will not be taken easily (if at all).

Last, but not least – the majority of Japanese people stand against the very idea of the existence of nuclear weapons. According to various agencies of the government of Japan, and the media – NHK and Yomiuri Shimbun – up to 70% of the Japanese people strongly agree with the ideas of TPNW – the Treaty of Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. It will be impossible to “sell” the decision on the development of nuclear weapons to public, without a full demolition of democracy, which, in turn, will lead to great civil unrest or worse.

To sum it all up, we believe that internal factors overweight the external ones making the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Japan highly unlikely, if possible, at all. The economic, social and political costs of any movement to the development of such devastating devices cannot be balanced by relative gains from it and that precisely stops Japanese politicians and public from radical changes.

From our point of view, that situation is common for all non-nuclear weapon states. It is not the international obligations, threats or alliances that lead a state to turning “hawkish”, but the will of those who comprise this nation and the idea of a better future, which can be achieved by this transformation. After all what is more important – to live in peace or die in the blaze of glory? The nation like the one of the Land of the Rising Sun will certainly choose living, because it is what they were doing for eons in spite of all challenges surrounding them. Although, it was them who fought fiercely and valiantly bearing some specific ideas in their hearts and minds.

Nevertheless, we can only try to analyze what will happen and predict that with some certainty, while in the end it will be the objects of our analysis – Japan and its people – who shall make any decisions, proving or denying our assumptions. To be or not to be nuclear –that’s still a question.

The article was prepared under the auspices of III International Timerbaev Nuclear Debates. UrFU team was a Negative team in case of Japanese nuclear program. The reviewer of the article is the team’s mentor Dmitry Pobedash, Associate Professor, Ural Federal University.