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Japan - a Leader or an Obstacle in Nuclear Disarmament?


Appeal from the Union of Concerned Scientists


Articles in the Media


On July 17, 2009 the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) held a meeting in Tokyo to inform the Japanese public of the way in which the Japanese Government was obstructing progress on nuclear disarmament. The USC's Gregory Kulacki appealed to the Japanese people to take action during the vital period before the United States Government finalized its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR).

After much delay, the NPR was finally published in April 2010. A key cause of the delay was disagreement within the Obama Administration over whether and how to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in its national security strategy. The Japanese Government's position on this issue was a key factor in the debate. See the statements below on YouTube by Gregory Kulacki of UCS and Frank von Hippen of the International Panel on Fissile Materials. More details and updates can be found in the Background section below

Statement on YouTube by UCS's Gregory Kulacki

See also a statement by Professor Frank vonHippel, co-Director of Princeton University's Program on Science and Global Security and Co-Chair of the International Panel on Fissile Materials.


1. Japan and the Nuclear Umbrella

In his Prague speech on April 5, 2009 President Obama said, "we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy and urge others to do the same". In the same paragraph he went on to say, "we will begin the work of reducing our arsenal." But in between these two landmark pledges he made the following qualifying statement: "as long as these weapons exist, we will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies."

The way Japan views US extended nuclear deterrence (otherwise referred to as the "nuclear umbrella") has been a key sticking point. It has the potential to block progress on nuclear disarmament.

Unless the role of nuclear weapons in US national security strategy is reduced, it will be difficult to drastically reduce the number of nuclear weapons in its nuclear arsenal. There are too many targets to cover. It will also be difficult to lower the dangerous hair-trigger alert status of these weapons. But the former Japanese government (led by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)) was concerned that reducing the role of nuclear weapons would reduce Japan's national security. Regardless of the validity of the concern, there is strong evidence that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) and the Ministry of Defense (MoD) lobbied the US Government not to make such a change in its nuclear weapons policy.

2. US Nuclear Posture Review

The key test for the vision spelt out by President Obama in Prague was the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). It is expected that the NPR will determine the direction of US nuclear weapons policy for the duration of the Obama Administration. The NPR was scheduled to be completed by the end of 2009, but it was delayed until April 2010.

A reduction in the role of nuclear weapons in national security strategy was a major topic debated in the context of the NPR. Unfortunately, not all people involved in the process supported such a change. A major argument used by the opponents was that the Japanese government would not accept it. This is probably surprising for people who take for granted that Japan is one of the strongest advocates for nuclear disarmament, but the fact is that Japan has been used as an excuse to prevent the US making the single most important policy change necessary to enable a drastic reduction in the size of its nuclear arsenal.

The specific nature of the reduction in the role of nuclear weapons that was suggested was that they would be retained for only one purpose. Their sole purpose would be to deter the use of nuclear weapons by others. A "sole purpose" declaration is essentially the same as saying that the country making this declaration will not be the first to use nuclear weapons (a "no first use" declaration). However, Japanese governments have taken the view that the US nuclear umbrella should also cover threats from biological weapons, chemical weapons and even conventional weapons. To maintain this expanded role in the context of the US nuclear umbrella, the Japanese government was willing to jeopardize progress on nuclear disarmament.

In the end, the NPT adopted a weak compromise. The final wording was as follows:

...there remains a narrow range of contingencies in which U.S. nuclear weapons may still play a role in deterring a conventional or CBW attack against the United States or its allies and partners. The United States is therefore not prepared at the present time to adopt a universal policy that deterring nuclear attack is the sole purpose of nuclear weapons, but will work to establish conditions under which such a policy could be safely adopted.
Nuclear Posture Review, Department of Defense, April 2010, (Executive Summary, page viii).

3. Change of Government in Japan

Everyone wondered how the government led by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which came into office on September 16, 2009, would respond. The DPJ officially supported "no first use" in a 2000 policy statement. However, this was not included in its pre election Manifestoi and DPJ's response to an NGO questionnaire on the issue was vague.

Despite encouraging comments by Foreign Minister Okada, and former Prime Minister Hatoyama, no official policy change has been made.

At his first press conference as foreign minister, Mr Okada said,

"My line of argument has been to question whether countries which declare their willingness to make first use of nuclear weapons have any right to speak about nuclear disarmament, or nuclear non-proliferation, in particular non-proliferation. From that standpoint, what I have said is that the first use of nuclear weapons should not be accepted. I am aware that there is a range of views within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I hope to debate the issue with the Ministry's staff. However, as far as I am concerned, no matter who you are, I can't see that you can reach any other conclusion. I do not believe that deterrence would be weakened as a result." (October 16, 2009 - in fact the ealy hours of October 17 Japan time).

He followed up strongly in a speech in Kyoto on October 18, 2009. The following is a translation of an extract from NHK's web site.

Foreign Minister Okada gave a speech in Kyoto today in which he indicated his wish to call on the United States to [adopt a policy of] no first use, taking into account the report to be completed this year by the International Commission on Non-proliferation and Nuclear Disarmament, which is meeting in Hiroshima from the 18th.
Foreign Minister Okada criticized the response of previous governments saying, "Hitherto, the Japanese Government has said to the US, 'We don't want you to support no first use because it will weaken nuclear deterrence.' However, it cannot be said to be consistent to call for nuclear abolition, while requesting the first use of nuclear weapons for your own benefit."

Subsequently, in a major speech to the Japanese Diet Mr Okada said,

"I find worthy of attention such ideas as prohibiting the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states, or making deterring others from using such weapons as a sole purpose of retaining nuclear weapons, as the concrete means to take a first step toward the "world without nuclear weapons." This government will deepen discussions with countries such as Australia and the United States on these and other issues."
Record of Foreign Policy Speech by Minister for Foreign Affairs Katsuya Okada to the 174th Session of the Diet (January 29, 2010) on the web site of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

During questioning in the Diet on February 4, former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama expressed his support for Foreign Minister Okada's January 29 Foreign Policy speech and said that he believed the notions of "sole purpose" and "negative security assurances" (guarantees not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states) are very important. However, he acknowledged that there were "all sorts of opinions" within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This acknowledgement was an allusion to the fact that it is widely believed that the bureaucracy is the main obstacle to an official policy change.

The nuclear disarmement movement was encouraged by a joint statement issued on February 21, 2010 by the foreign ministers of Australia and Japan. They signaled their intention to take up a key recommendation of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament in the context of the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference (May 2010).

"The Ministers found worthy of consideration such ideas as enhancing the effectiveness of security assurances not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states, or retaining nuclear weapons solely for the purpose of deterring others from using such weapons, as a first step toward a world without nuclear weapons, and decided to deepen discussions on these issues."

However, we were deeply disappointed when even this vague reference to "sole purpose" was omitted from the joint Japan-Australia package submitted to the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference held in New York in May 2010. (Submission by the Governments of Japan and Australia of a "New Package of Practical Nuclear Disarmament and Non-proliferation Measures for the 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)", March 23, 2010)

Even in the February 21 joint statement, the restraining hand of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs could be seen:

"The Ministers engaged in intense discussion on practical steps that should be taken by the international community immediately and in the future with a view to reducing the role of nuclear weapons in national security strategy and ultimately reaching the goal of a peaceful and safe world without nuclear weapons, while recognising the role of nuclear deterrence in the real world where weapons of mass destruction including nuclear weapons exist." (bold type added)

Perhaps most readers will not immediately recognize the deviousness of these words. They are more than just a general acknowledgment of deterrence theory. The text could have been worded "while recognising the role of nuclear deterrence in the real world where nuclear weapons exist." By choosing to say "weapons of mass destruction", the statement effectively says that it is still Japan's policy that the US nuclear umbrella is there to deter biological and chemical weapons as well as nuclear weapons.

One might ask, then, whether the change in government had any positive influence at all on Japan's nuclear disarmament policy. It would be unwise to draw simplistic conclusions from the above debate regarding "no first use", "sole purpose" and related issues alone, but certainly the new government has been a great disappointment. Nevertheless, the contribution of Foreign Minister Okada can be said to have played a positive role in reducing the credibility of the argument that Japan would oppose a reduction in the role of nuclear weapons. In particular, we understand that a letter dated December 24, 2009 sent by Foreign Minister Okada to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had a significant impact on the NPR debate. Okada wrote (unofficial translation):

"It has been reported in some parts of the Japanese media that, during the drafting stages of the Report by the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States published in May, Japanese diplomatic authorities had requested to the US side that the number of nuclear weapons not be decreased, or more specifically, expressed its opposition to the retirement of TLAM/N, or suggested that the US should possess RNEP...

Okada refuted these media reports. That is problematic, because the reports were highly credible. However, the most important thing was that he clearly stated, "Even if such a statement had in fact been made, that would clearly differ with my view to strive for nuclear disarmament." The letter continued as follows:

...As you may already be aware, the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament, which was established as a joint initiative of Japan and Australia, published its report on December 15. The report includes recommendations such as the following; all nuclear-armed states should retain nuclear weapons solely for purposes of deterring others from using such weapons; the use of nuclear weapons towards non-nuclear weapon states which are parties to the NPT should be prohibited. I have a keen interest in these recommendations as a first step toward "a world without nuclear weapons". While it may not be possible to realize these immediately, I would like to have, between the two governments, further discussion on the possibility of adopting such measures in present or future policy."

4. Diet Members' Letter to President Obama

While the Japanese Government continues to hedge its bets, some Diet Members decided to take the initiative themselves by sending a letter to President Obama. The cross-party letter was signed by 204 Diet Members and handed to US Ambassador Roos on February 19, 2010. In addition to raising several standard issues, the letter made the following points:

"We strongly desire that the United States immediately adopt a declaratory policy stating that the 'sole purpose' of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter others from using such weapons against the United States or U.S. allies, in accordance with the recommendation of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND) Report.
We are firmly convinced that Japan will not seek the road toward possession of nuclear weapons if the U.S. adopts a 'sole purpose' policy."

Click here for the full text of the letter (pdf 100 kb).

5. The Role of Japanese Civil Society

At first glance, reducing the role of nuclear weapons without discarding the doctrine of deterrence entirely might not seem to represent very significant progress. Those of us campaigning for the elimination of nuclear weapons believe that the doctrine of deterrence is one of the biggest barriers to achieving this goal. However, the reality is that the US is not going to discard this doctrine in a single step. Reducing the role of nuclear weapons to the sole purpose of deterring other people's nuclear weapons would be a major step towards reducing the relevance of nuclear deterrence doctrine. It would also make it much easier to reduce nuclear weapon stockpiles and the alert status of the existing arsenal. This step should, therefore, be supported by all people working for nuclear disarmament.

It is a great irony that one of the greatest obstacles to taking this key step towards nuclear disarmament has been Japan, the only country to have been attacked with nuclear weapons. As a first step towards the total elimination of nuclear weapons, the new government should go beyond the informal statements made so far by the Minister of Foreign Affairs. The nuclear disarmament movement must continue to demand that the government oficially adopt a "no first use" policy and request the US to do the same.

Citizens' Nuclear Information Center (CNIC)
Update June 14, 2010

Articles in the Media

22 February 2010
Japan, Australia bond on nukes but not whales
The Japan Times

19 January 2010
EDITORIAL: Easing the role of nukes
The Asahi Shimbun

24 November 2009
Japan eager for U.S. to keep nuke deterrence
The Japan Times

7 November 2009
Japan in call to U.S. to retain nukes
The Asahi Shimbun

19 October 2009
International commission weighs no-first use of nukes
The Asahi Shimbun

15 September 2009
Japan balks at limits on U.S. nukes
The Japan Times

14 September 2009
EDITORIAL: Nuclear disarmament
The Asahi Shimbun

13 September 2009
Japan reluctant to accept proposal for US to reduce its N-role

4 September 2009
Australia, Japan in nuclear rift
The Age

25 August 2009
Japan ready for 'no nukes'
The Japan Times
This article was also signed by Hiroshi Takakusaki (Gensuikyo), Akira Kawasaki (Peace Boat) and Hideyuki Ban (CNIC), but for the purposes of publication it was submitted in just two names.

14 August 2009
LDP, opposition parties differ on policy over U.S. nuclear umbrella
Japan Today

10 August 2009
The Pentagon's Nuclear Posture Landmine
By Joe Cirincione, President of Ploughshares Fund
The Huffington Post

7 August 2009
EDITORIAL: 64 years and counting
The Asahi Shimbun

6 August 2009
Hiroshima Bombing Anniversary Brings Surge of Hope in Obama
Environment News Service

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