Japan’s nuclear ambitions

July 5, 2012

Chris Kim reports on the Japanese government's plans for reactivating nuclear power plants after last year's disaster--and a discussion in favor of nuclear weapons.

MAY 5 marked a historic day for Japan when its last working nuclear reactors were shut down--making it the first day without electricity from nuclear power in four decades. But the celebration was short-lived after Democratic Party of Japan Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda approved restarting two nuclear reactors at the Oi power plant in the Fukui Prefecture.

This will be the first plant to be reactivated since the tragic earthquakes and tsunami that led to the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant last year. According to the British Guardian newspaper, "Noda has pushed hard for the Oi restart under pressure from the powerful business lobby, which feared disruption to manufacturers."

Noda initially called for restarting the nuclear reactors in September 2011, as the newly elected prime minister shifted government policy away from the anti-nuclear stance of previous prime minister Naoto Kan. By characterizing it as "the very 'blood' of our economy and society," Noda embraced nuclear reactivation as means of "rebuilding the Japanese economy."

Workers struggle to cool Reactor Number 4 at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant
Workers struggle to cool Reactor Number 4 at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant (Tokyo Electric Power Co.)

Noda has shown clearly what side he is on, as he encouraged cooperation among political leaders and business sectors while supporting a proposal to raise the sales tax to 10 percent by October 2015.

"We hear screams from exporters and from the small and mid-sized companies that have led our country's industries," says Noda, but his ears seem shut from cries of children who live in Minamisoma a little north of the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Radioactive cesium has been detected in one out of two children in Minamisoma, while the government dropped free medical care coverage for children this January.

Noda's economic rhetoric about defending the nuclear industry isn't new. Nuclear power became the crucial alternative to maintain economic growth and international status since Japan's overdependence of Middle Eastern oil was exposed during the 1973 oil crisis. Nuclear power was also defended as means of circulating Japan's local economy through development of various local infrastructures.

Martin Dusinberre, a lecturer on modern Japanese history at Newcastle University, pointed out:

By the late 1970s, thousands of rural towns across Japan were beginning to suffer from the twin problems of a shrinking and ageing population, as young people moved to the cities to seek work. Pro-nuclear campaigners at a local level generally argued that hosting a power station would be one way of encouraging young people to return to their hometowns.

BUT THE claim that energy is the only reason behind Japanese leaders' interests in nuclear power was put into doubt after the government enacted a new Atomic Energy Basic Law on June 20 with a provision that also mentioned, among others, a "contribute to Japan's national security."

And while those who participated in passing this amendment deny the link with military purposes, an editorial in the Japanese newspaper, The Asahi Shimbun, recommended that the clause "should be deleted in next Diet session." The newspaper also wrote, "In both Japanese and English, the term 'national security' also means 'national defense.' Furthermore, technology of nuclear power generation is closely related to military capability."

An editorial in another Japanese newspaper, The Mainichi, reported, "National security has been traditionally interpreted as 'national defense mainly through military force.' There are fears that the development of atomic energy could lead to the development and production of nuclear arms."

The progressive South Korean newspaper, The Hankyoreh, criticized Japan's lack of functioning democracy in relation to the amendment:

Another problem was such amendment was passed stealthily without scrutiny from the Japanese public. The bill went through the House of Representative and House of Councilors within five days of its presentation. The House of Representative also did not post the amendment on its website.

The newspaper also admitted that "the amendment does mark the first institutional step toward nuclear armament, and with the observers predicting efforts from the LDP [Liberal Democratic Party] and others in Japan to push the country toward the far right, the ember of controversy appear unlikely to die out any time soon."

History shows several examples in which Japan's nuclear agenda is linked to international competition for nuclear weapons. Such competition was sparked with China's first successful nuclear test in October 1964.

Although then-Prime Minister Eisaku Sato campaigned as an anti-nuclear advocate with his "Three Non-Nuclear Principles" for non-production, non-possession and non-introduction of nuclear weapons, declassified documents also show that Sato spoke favorably about nuclear weapons when he visited then-President Lyndon Johnson in January 1965.

Then-U.S. Ambassador to Japan Edwin Reischauer privately recorded that Sato "considers it only common sense for Japan to have nuclear weapon" even though "Japanese public opinion will not permit this at present."

Sato also commissioned a secret study of Japanese nuclear policy, and his officials made secret concessions to U.S. concerning the entry of nuclear-armed warships into Japanese ports. A Japanese internal Foreign Ministry document from 1969 stated, "For the time being, we will maintain the policy of not possessing nuclear weapons. However...we will keep the economic and technical potential for the production of nuclear weapons, while seeing to it that Japan will not be interfered with in this regard."

Historian Kenneth Pyle also noted in his book Japan Rising, "Japanese conservative leaders nursed painful heartburn over the forfeiture of the prestige that possession of nuclear weapons will confer. They regarded possession of nuclear weapons as an attribute of international prestige and of rank in the international hierarchy."

AFTER SEPTEMBER 11 drastically changed the face of global politics and then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi began actively supporting the Bush administration's "war on terror," the Japanese government had the momentum to change the discussion of nuclear armament from secret talk to the subject of parliamentary discussions.

Seven months after 9/11, Japanese politician Ichiro Ozawa warned Chinese officials in response to China's nuclear power, "It would be so easy for us to produce nuclear warheads. We have enough plutonium at nuclear power plants in Japan to make several thousand such warheads."

Shoichi Nakagawa, then-chair of LDP's Policy Research Council, also called for debate on Japan's nuclear option, using North Korea's nuclear threats in 2006 as a pretext. He echoed the same mantra three years later when he said, "It is common sense in the worldwide that in a purely military sense it is nuclear that can counteract nuclear."

Just a few days before the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster, the Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara said in an interview, that Japan could develop nuclear weapons within a year.

Japan's post-9/11 politics marked a significant shift from 1999 when then-Deputy Vice Minister of Defense Shingo Nishimura was fired from his post for suggesting that Japan should armed with nuclear weapons.

For Japanese conservatives, supporting "war on terror" represented a huge opening in their decades-long attempt to revise Japan's post-war "Peace Constitution," which is famous for its war-renouncing Article 9. Japan's economic bubbles in the late 1980s and the '90s gave Japanese leaders the momentum to propagandize for Japan's rearmament and the revision of the Peace Constitution.

Politicians tried to inspire nationalist nostalgia among portions of the already demoralized Japanese working class, using events like the 1996-97 Japanese hostage crisis at the embassy in Lima, Peru, and North Korea's Taepodong missile test in 1998 and abduction of Japanese citizens.

This atmosphere reached to a new level with symbols of old Japanese imperialism and militarism. The Hinomaru flag and Kimigayo anthem were officially recognized as Japan's new national flag and new national anthem through the parliamentary vote in 1999 before they finally embraced "war on terror" and spread their military wings.

Japanese socialist Kenji Kunitomi noted:

Unconditionally supporting Bush's war, the Koizumi administration dispatched the Japanese 'Self Defense Force' (JSDF) to the Indian Ocean and Iraq in support of the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. This was the first case of overseas military operations for the JSDF since the Second World War...

On the other hand, the Koizumi administration followed the global U.S. military strategy, facilitated the relocation of U.S. bases in Japan, and provided JSDF forces as an auxiliary force for the U.S. in Asia-Pacific-wide military operations, including the Korean peninsula, Taiwan, the Philippines and elsewhere.

Japan's potential for militarism reached its peak when Shinzo Abe, well-known for his far-right nationalist position of defending Japan's past and traditions of Japan's emperor system, became the new prime minister in 2006. Abe promised the revision of the Peace Constitution and Japan's "departure from the post-war regime" as he vowed to strengthen Japan's co-operation with NATO and proclaimed for his unhesitant will to send Japanese troops abroad to "contribute to international peace and stability."

And by April 2007, a referendum bill that opened up the discussion for revising the Peace Constitution and focused on Japan's rearmament was finally passed.

WHILE JAPAN'S military agenda is undeniable, the U.S.'s role in pushing for the expansion of Japan's military role shouldn't be understated. Although it was the U.S. that imposed the Peace Constitution that resulted Japan's disarmament after the Second World War in the first place, the U.S. quickly shifted in favor of Japan's rearmament to counterbalance Stalinist blocs in the Far East Asia when the Cold War was crystallized with Korean War in June 1950.

U.S. leaders weren't fully satisfied when then-Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida skillfully prioritized for the U.S. support of Japan's post-war economic recovery to establish Japan's role as economic counterforce for the U.S. in the Cold War, rather than pushing for rearmament. Even in 1953, then-Vice President Richard Nixon publicly admitted that U.S. leaders came to feel that imposing Article 9 of Peace Constitution and Japan's disarmament were "mistakes."

In his book Blowback, political analyst Chalmers Johnson noted about the U.S.'s role:

In addition, administration and Pentagon officials urged their Japanese equivalents to be strategically bolder in deploying Japanese defense force in Asia--far bolder, in fact, than most Japanese would like their country to be. The Pentagon is today the most important political force inside or outside Japan calling for a greatly expanded Japanese military role in the world affairs.

But it must be noted that while Japan may rely on their military capacity to attract greater support from the U.S., Japan's potential for nuclear armament also contradicts some U.S. interests. Some political pundits in the U.S. have favored Japan's nuclear armament as "the real pressure point" on China to squeeze North Korea's potential nuclear development, or as conservative Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer concluded, "If our nightmare is nuclear North Korea, China's is a nuclear Japan. It's time to share the nightmares."

However, the real reason why North Korea's potential nuclear development is U.S.'s "nightmare" is because of the possible domino-effect, in which Japan obtains arms and then Taiwan and South Korea follow the same path. Tokyo-based journalist Hisane Masaki revealed such concerns in 2006:

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Tokyo shortly after North Korea tested a nuclear bomb to assuage fears--and thereby indirectly urge Japan not to react to the North Korean test by pursuing development of its own nuclear weapons...Rice reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to safeguard Japan under its nuclear umbrella, saying emphatically that it would use the "full range" of its power to defend Japan.

And today, the old economic rhetoric of defending nuclear power that was common before 9/11 is making its comeback, because Japanese political leaders are being forced to take more "practical" lines in the face of a rising anti-nuclear movement after Japan's devastating nuclear crisis last year.

Despite Noda's economic justification for nuclear reactivation, nearly 80 percent of Japanese people want their country to relinquish nuclear energy, according to Japan's Public Opinion Research.

But there are other reasons why relinquishing nuclear energy isn't desirable for Japanese leaders. This is connected to Japan expending its military force in the Far East Asia after North Korea's supposed attack on the South Korean Cheonan warship in March 2010 and their attack of South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island as retaliation against the U.S.-South Korea joint military exercise eight months later.

Then-U.S. Admiral Mike Mullen also called for a bigger role for Japan in the Korean peninsula, while Japan's chances of militarization has increased in the region as both Japan and South Korea agreed for the closer military cooperation in January 2011. And as the U.S. government's tension with China increases, with the U.S. building a new naval base in Jeju Island of South Korea, it's crucial for Japan to preserve its potential for nuclear armament while maintaining its role as U.S. ally.

MEANWHILE, TENSIONS are rising in Japan once again. Weekly protests in front of Noda's residence in opposition to nuclear reactivation are attracting more participants, with some 45,000 people gathering at a protest on June 22.

This is part of the ongoing struggle of Japan's new anti-nuclear resistance, which was inspired by the Arab Spring last year, as years of increasing anger toward the role of government and corporations have finally erupted. Criticism of the mainstream media has also developed through this movement, as Japanese citizens became increasingly skeptical of government information after the nuclear crisis last year.

Japanese activists were also inspired by last year's Occupy Wall Street movement in the U.S., as they face rising unemployment and underemployment in their country. And with his approval rating sagging below the 30 percent, Noda's decision to restart nuclear reactors is also facing international criticism. Activists from the U.S. to Australia, in Europe and Asia, are signing petitions and organizing rallies outside their countries' Japanese embassies and consulates in solidarity with Japan's anti-nuclear resistance.

"I believe this is the current global wave," said anti-nuclear activist Keiko Ochiai. "We must once again take democracy into our own hands if we want to shift away from the miserable reality to more hopeful direction."

While the movement still may have more room to grow, broaden and radicalize after the decades-long fragmentation of Japanese left, the combination of desperation and determination with dynamics of broader international struggles and solidarity shows the movement's potential. This will be long and hard fight, but a fight that must be won.

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