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New Ambitions, Old Obstacles: Japan and Its Search For an Arms Control Strategy

Authors: Michael J. Green, and Katsuhisa Furukawa
July 1, 2000
Arms Control Today


In all of the excitement about the "rise"of China in East Asia, the world has largely forgotten that there are actually two rising powers in the region. Though China's hubris is often more striking, Japan also aspires to play a larger political and security role in international affairs. And while China's current transformation is captivating because it could take several different paths, it should not be forgotten that Japan has also entered its own prolonged period of political, economic, and security transition.

Notable changes in Japanese security policy used to come about once every five or 10 years. But in the past few years there has been a flurry of activity. The Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Forces have used live fire to chase off intruding North Korean spy ships -- the first such action since World War II. Japan is indigenously developing intelligence satellites. After decades of rejecting patriotism as an illegitimate sentiment, the Japanese Diet has approved the national anthem and flag as the official symbols of the state. The Diet has also established two new commissions to begin deliberations on the feasibility of revising the Japanese Constitution, including the "no-war" clause in Article Nine, which rejects the use of force in international relations. Indeed, 60 percent of the public now favors changing the constitution, including Article Nine.

Japan's friends and neighbors are trying to make sense of these changes. There is certainly a degree of nationalism and insecurity behind these moves -- an unsurprising development given that the Japanese economy has been stagnant for almost a decade in the face of impressive growth in the United States and elsewhere in Asia. But there is also a healthy dose of realism in the changes in Japan's security outlook. After years of national complacency about the post-Cold War security environment in Northeast Asia, Japan has woken up to the threat presented by the North Korean Taepo Dong missiles and the uncertainties about China's role in the region. Many Japanese have also begun to focus on the need for coherent strategic priorities at a time of declining relative economic resources. Into this mix of insecurity and realism has been thrown generational change as a new crop of Japanese political leadership emerges that is removed from war guilt and more confident in Japan's potential strategic voice in international affairs.

Some analysts have warned about the potential re-emergence of Japanese nationalism and even militarism, but there are many areas of reassuring continuity in Japan's view of its world role. Polls show that the alliance with the United States retains its broadest support in both countries in 14 years, despite nagging disagreements about bases and other issues. The Japanese have also developed an impressive civil society and have not lost their aversion to the use of force in international relations. And the Japanese remain strongly opposed to nuclear weapons. Or do they?

The Japanese approach to nuclear energy development, global nuclear disarmament, and the extended U.S. nuclear deterrent has always been a jumble of contradictions. The Japanese have forsworn nuclear weapons, yet polls show that their neighbors do not completely believe them because of the large Japanese plutonium-recycling program and ongoing rocket and satellite development. A large majority of Japanese newspapers, academics, and government officials urge total global nuclear disarmament, yet Tokyo is acutely sensitive to the reliability of the U.S. nuclear umbrella on which it depends for its own deterrence and non-nuclear posture. Japan tries to play a leadership role in global non-proliferation policies, yet the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) spends more time and money keeping an eye on Japan's nuclear programs than any other because Japan disposes of massive amounts of nuclear materials each year.

As Japan attempts to establish a larger strategic voice in international affairs, these contradictions are becoming a hindrance. Thus far, none of the pillars of Japan's nuclear policy has shifted in any fundamental way, but the United States should no longer take for granted that Japanese policies on nuclear disarmament or nuclear strategy will remain unchanged. It is highly unlikely that Japan will try to develop its own nuclear deterrent, but the debate about nuclear weapons and disarmament has become far more fluid than in the past, and Japan's search for an independent voice on these issues should not be discounted. The extended U.S. nuclear deterrent will increasingly come under scrutiny in Japan, as will the U.S. commitment to arms control. The United States will soon find itself responding to Japanese initiatives on both strategy and arms control in an unprecedented way. It is therefore important to forge a proactive partnership with Japan in these areas.

Japan's Stance on Nuclear Weapons

The October 1999 issue of Playboy Japan ran an interview with Shingo Nishimura, the new vice minister of the Japan Defense Agency (JDA), in which Nishimura argued that Japan's failure to consider possessing nuclear weapons left the nation open to "rape" in the international system. Nishimura was promptly forced to resign, though he was sent from the JDA headquarters with full military honors.

The Nishimura incident revealed several things about contemporary Japanese nuclear policy. First, there are still a handful of older right-wing politicians who harbor visions of a fully remilitarized Japan-as there always have been. Second, their views on nuclear weapons (and in this case the cavalier discussion of rape) are still unacceptable to the general public. But a third insight was revealed in the debate among politicians in the wake of the Nishimura interview as well: while it is still inappropriate to advocate nuclear weapons for Japan, it is no longer taboo to discuss nuclear strategy and the hypothetical possibility that Japan could require such weapons some day. Younger politicians in particular are more conversant and comfortable with nuclear strategic issues. Indeed, a significant number of second-generation politicians in the Diet are graduates of international studies programs in the United States. They are not looking to change Japan's basic nuclear stance, but they understand concepts like mutually assured destruction, and they are conversant with the logic of nuclear deterrence. And they are paying attention to make certain that the extended U.S. nuclear deterrent is credible.

Traditionally, Japan's nuclear policy has had three institutional pillars. The first pillar has rested on the so-called three non-nuclear principles, which prohibit Japan from manufacturing, possessing, or permitting the entry of nuclear weapons into the country or its air or sea space. These principles were first enunciated by Prime Minister Eisaku Sato in 1968 and were formalized in a 1971 Diet resolution. The second pillar is the 1955 Atomic Energy Basic Law, which specifically limits the use of nuclear energy to peaceful purposes. The third pillar is the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which Japan signed in 1970 and agreed to extend indefinitely in 1995.

However, these legal and policy instruments derive from a more fundamental source: the fact that the United States extends its own nuclear deterrent to Japan. Thus, while government regulations and the so-called nuclear allergy explain why Japan does not have nuclear weapons, it is ultimately the alliance with the United States that makes nuclear weapons unnecessary and means that Japan's ideational and institutional constraints do not have to be tested.

Because the United States is an independent actor, though, Japanese governments in the past have quietly examined the nuclear option at times of fundamental strategic shift in the international system. During the 1965 U.S.-Japan summit, Prime Minister Sato explicitly told President Lyndon Johnson that he felt Japan should acquire nuclear weapons if China had them.1In 1969, he told the U.S. ambassador to Japan that the three non-nuclear principles were nonsense, and he lamented the Japanese public's lack of understanding of national defense issues.2

Nevertheless, when Sato secretly commissioned an advisory study group in 1967 to examine whether it was possible and desirable for Japan to develop its own nuclear forces, the panel concluded that a nuclear weapons program was not desirable because it would be too expensive, fail to engender domestic support, and generate regional security dilemmas.3More recently, in 1995, an internal study group in the Japan Defense Agency prepared a report for internal use entitled, "A Report Concerning the Problems of the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction." It concluded that a nuclear weapons program was undesirable because the costs would be high and the benefits few.4

It would be extremely difficult and risky for Japan to develop an overt program. A covert program seems even less likely because Japan's nuclear power program is so thoroughly monitored by the IAEA that the diversion of fissile material for weapons purposes would almost certainly be discovered.5However, like many industrialized countries, Japan has the technical capability to develop nuclear weapons. Moreover, it has accumulated a wide range of experience and expertise in satellite systems, rockets, and plutonium recycling. These capabilities function already as a "virtual deterrent" against other nuclear powers -- though the Japanese government itself has never hinted at such a strategy.

Changes in the international environment could prompt Japan to move closer to nuclear weapons development. Morton Halperin, director of the policy planning staff at the State Department, has argued that Japan might develop nuclear weapons under three conditions: a consensus in Japan that the United States could no longer be counted on to defend Japan; the development of a Korean nuclear capability; or a lack of progress in nuclear disarmament, coupled with an expansion of the Chinese nuclear capability.6

These conditions would not necessarily lead Japan directly to the development of nuclear weapons. A more likely scenario would be a prolonged series of gestures to make the virtual deterrent increasingly explicit to warn the nuclear states or new proliferators in the region of the need for disarmament or to press the United States to re-establish credibility in its alliance commitments and extended deterrent.

But nor are these conditions purely hypothetical -- in some respects they have already been realized. The prospect of further progress on nuclear disarmament has already been shaken by the failure of the U.S. Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in October 1999 and the obstinacy of the nuclear powers at the 2000 NPT review conference. For many Japanese, the credibility of the U.S. commitment to Japan has been called into question on several occasions. In the wake of the August 1998 North Korean launch of the Taepo Dong missile over Japan, for example, Tokyo responded with sanctions and harsh rhetoric, but Washington's initial response was tepid. Worried about domestic reactions, Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) demanded a formal U.S. statement that the United States would defend Japan against missile attacks from North Korea -- something that should have been self-evident from the Mutual Security Treaty. Then Tokyo decided to embark on an indigenous reconnaissance satellite program, in large part because of concerns that Washington was not sharing full intelligence on the North Korean threat.

Meanwhile, after years of listening to Washington explain the need for bilateral cooperation on theater missile defenses (TMD), Tokyo has agreed to participate in joint research and committed $10 million in fiscal year 1999 for work on the U.S. Navy Theater Wide Defense.7That is good news for U.S.-Japan relations, of course, but it also shows that Japan has bought into the logic of missile defense -- that deterrence alone is insufficient against rogue states and that the nuclear umbrella after the Cold War may in fact have some holes in it. Moreover, in criticizing TMD, Beijing has argued that Japanese participation would undermine China's deterrent, and not a few Japanese observers have logically concluded from this that China must therefore target Japan with nuclear weapons despite Beijing's declared policy of no use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states. This has further raised Japan's sensitivity to nuclear threats in the neighborhood.

TMD has also brought into the nuclear strategy debate a broader group of players than the original cadre in the Foreign Ministry that quietly managed the U.S. nuclear umbrella for so many decades. The Japan Defense Agency, politicians, and the press are now focused on nuclear deterrence and stability questions in a new way because missile defense has given Japan its first tool (albeit a defensive tool) in the game of international nuclear strategy. Indeed, many in MOFA and the JDA speak of the need to continue with TMD as a tool for international arms control vis-à-vis China, Russia, and North Korea. U.S.-Japan joint research on TMD is an excellent idea given the proliferation threat in Japan's neighborhood, but it has broader implications for the Japanese approach to nuclear strategy.

None of these developments is pushing Japan toward nuclear weapons at this point, but they have introduced fluidity and an element of uncertainty that comes at a time of transition in Japanese domestic politics and regional security relations. It therefore behooves the United States to be extremely sensitive to how its own nuclear policies and strategic posture in Asia play in Japan at a time of heightened sensitivity to and insecurity about the external environment.

A New Assertiveness

At the same time that Japan's strategic culture is demonstrating a heightened sensitivity to regional threats and the regional balance of power (particularly vis-à-vis China), Tokyo is also under pressure to demonstrate a larger and more independent strategic voice in international affairs. In "Challenge 21," a March 1999 policy- planning document that outlines Japanese diplomatic strategy, the Foreign Ministry argued that Japan must maintain its "weight" in international relations at a time of economic stagnation by asserting itself in non-economic areas of diplomacy. In particular, "Challenge 21" noted the necessity of tapping into the Japanese public's growing awareness of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and recommended that Japan "redouble its efforts to control and reduce them."8

Picking-up on this theme, the Prime Minister's Commission on Japan's Goals in the 21st Century argued in its January 2000 report:

The world of the twenty-first century cannot necessarily expect a firm order centering on the United States. The world is too broad, too diverse, and too volatile to allow a Pax Americana to extend to every corner of the globe.... Of particular concern is the fact that during the 1990s the United States tended to incline away from strong support for the international "public purpose" and toward action based on simplistic self-interest.9

This U.S. divergence from "public purpose" is apparent to Japanese observers in the U.S. Senate's rejection of the CTBT and Washington's decreasing attention to the United Nations. Many in Tokyo argue that now is the time for Japan to make its mark as an "international global power" committed to arms control and disarmament, even if it causes a gap with the United States. Such a course would not be without its dangers. As Japanese journalist Yoichi Funabashi wrote in 1998:

[A]n unfortunate consequence may be that the United States misconstrues Japan's rejection of the nuclear status quo as equivocation about the alliance itself. Nevertheless, if Japan is to regain an honorable place in the world, protect Asian stability, and further the cause of nonproliferation, it must send a clearer message about nuclear disarmament.10

The outline of this more assertive diplomacy on non-proliferation was expressed in a 1996 speech by then-Foreign Minister Yukihiko Ikeda, when he said Japan would work for the completion of the CTBT; the prohibition of the production of weapons-grade fissionable material; further reductions of nuclear arsenals; further dismantling of nuclear weapons; and the management and disposal of fissile materials derived from dismantled nuclear weapons.11

Japan has pursued these goals in several ways. First, for seven consecutive years Japan has introduced resolutions on nuclear disarmament to the UN General Assembly, which have usually been adopted unanimously. Japan also took the lead in the General Assembly on establishing an international arms registry, which was eventually backed by the United Kingdom and other European nations in 1992. Since 1989, Japan has hosted the UN Conference on Disarmament Issues, and from August 1998 to July 1999, Japan hosted four meetings -- the "Tokyo Forum" -- to discuss international non-proliferation in the wake of the May 1998 South Asian nuclear tests.

Second, Japan has been a reliable party to the Missile Technology Control Regime, the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the Biological Weapons Convention. In addition, Japan has provided financial and technical assistance for the completion of the CTBT, hosting a series of preliminary conferences on completing CTBT negotiations and actively assisting the Preparatory Commission for the CTBT Organization. In order to enhance the effectiveness of the CTBT's verification and implementation mechanism, Japan has also supported improvements in nuclear testing detection techniques and has offered to train experts from developing countries in the field of seismology.12

Third, Japan has used its economic resources and bilateral diplomacy to discourage the development of nuclear weapons and to help with the decommissioning of submarines and the disposal of plutonium in the former Soviet Union. Japan's 1992 Official Development Assistance (ODA) Charter requires reconsideration of assistance to nations developing weapons of mass destruction. Under its "Silk Road" diplomacy, Japan has offered support for the foundation of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in Central Asia and the provision of humanitarian and developmental assistance to the Semipalatinsk region of Kazakhstan, where numerous nuclear tests have been conducted.13Japan has also offered medical assistance programs for those who have suffered from radiation sickness. In addition, Japan has begun assisting Russia's denuclearization efforts. Japan disbursed $100 million between 1994 and 1999 and announced an additional $200 million contribution in June 1999 for submarine decommissioning and plutonium disposition.14Assistance to Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus includes such projects as the establishment of a state system to account for and control nuclear materials.15

These steps are significant, but many Japanese scholars and government officials are frustrated that they do not yet add up to an independent and fully credible voice for Japan on international non-proliferation and arms control issues. The January 2000 report of the prime minister's commission urged Japan to "take a joint initiative for the common global interest together with Australia, Canada, Germany, the Scandinavian nations, and others that have ample technology and capacity to equip themselves with nuclear arms but deliberately refrain from doing so." The commission expressed its frustration over the institutional fragility of the existing NPT regime and called for Japan and the other non-nuclear-weapon states to look for ways to dissuade states from acquiring nuclear weapons and to persuade the nuclear powers to further reduce their arsenals. Even Japan's opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan, has urged that Japan "renew [its] consciousness of the importance of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation" and has called for Japan to play a more independent and proactive role in this arena.16

Based on this consensus that the nation should demonstrate more leadership in non-proliferation and arms control, Tokyo has tried to seize the high ground on two recent occasions: after the South Asian nuclear tests and at the 2000 NPT review conference. The episodes demonstrate both Tokyo's new ambition and the continuing constraints and contradictions that it faces.

 Tokyo saw an opportunity to raise its diplomatic profile on non-proliferation after the South Asian nuclear tests -- a development that appalled the Japanese press and public. After the tests, Tokyo froze new grants and yen loans, consistent with its ODA Charter, which requires a review of aid to recipients pursuing weapons of mass destruction. Japan also introduced and cosponsored a resolution in the United Nations condemning the tests.

But those steps were not enough. Tokyo also wanted to play a "leading role in finding a new framework to keep nuclear arms from spreading," in the words of senior Foreign Ministry officials.17The government of Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto therefore proposed a nuclear non-proliferation forum that would address South Asian security concerns while calling on the permanent members of the UN Security Council to strive for nuclear disarmament. Tokyo's gesture was an attempt to strengthen the case for Japanese participation in a June 4, 1998, meeting of the five permanent members of the Security Council in Geneva on the South Asian tests, but the move backfired. Suspicious of Japanese intentions, the members excluded Japan. As one U.S. official put it, the United States was eager to work with Japan, but "Tokyo's emphasis on Article VI echoed India's rhetoric and created unease in the [State] Department."18Instead, MOFA had to be content with establishing the Track II (or unofficial) Tokyo Forum.

Tokyo's next chance to call attention to its non-proliferation objectives came with this year's review of the implementation of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty at the United Nations. Even before the outset of the conference, Japan had been very active on NPT-related issues. In October 1999, Japan chaired a conference in Vienna on facilitating the CTBT's entry into force, and it took the initiative of sending high-level missions to the countries that had not yet signed or ratified the treaty and helping persuade them to do so. Japan's concerted actions with like-minded countries have contributed to ratification by Lithuania, Turkey, Bangladesh, Macedonia, and Chile. Japan also submitted a working paper with Australia at the beginning of the review conference proposing eight measures to further implementation of the NPT, most of which were adopted in the NPT final document.

The NPT review conference opened with intense confrontation between the nuclear-weapon states and the New Agenda Coalition (NAC), a group of seven states calling for more rapid progress in nuclear disarmament. The conference stuck completely when the NAC demanded inclusion of a statement in the final agreement that states should facilitate negotiations for nuclear disarmament by 2005. Japan found a window of opportunity as a mediator between the two parties, producing compromise language that called on the nuclear-weapon states to pursue an "unequivocal undertaking" to accomplish total nuclear disarmament, without specifying any timeline.19While Japanese diplomats did not figure in the final deal-making between the NAC and the nuclear powers, Japan's early seizure of the middle ground between the two helped point the way to the language that ultimately appeared in the conference's final document. Japan received praise for its more proactive role, though critics at home claimed that the nuclear-weapon states should have been pressed much harder on disarmament.20

Japan's Constraints

Tokyo's arms control diplomacy -- particularly after the South Asian tests and during the NPT review conference -- reveals both the Japanese potential to carve a larger role in international non-proliferation policy and the continuing contradictions and constraints that have hampered that role.

Idealism Versus Realism

At the core of Japan's dilemma on non-proliferation and arms control is the contradiction between the Japanese people's traditional idealism about the abolition of nuclear weapons on the one hand, and their growing realism about the threatening security environment in Northeast Asia on the other. Some Japanese scholars have argued that Tokyo should abandon the U.S. nuclear umbrella in order to establish full credibility in non-proliferation policy, but the mainstream foreign policy community recognizes that this would be a self-defeating and not terribly effective ploy -- renewed suspicion of Japanese nuclear intentions would only further undermine Japan's credibility in non-proliferation.

This tension between idealism and realism has grown as Japan's own neighborhood has become more uncertain. The North Korean Taepo Dong missile launch over Japan in August 1998 brought about radical changes in Japanese perceptions of security. For the first time, Japan came within range of possible missile attack from North Korea. What is worse, the missiles could be armed with WMD payloads. Following the test, the Japanese Diet engaged in unprecedented debates about the constitutionality of preemptive military strikes, and subsequent opinion polls showed over a third of the Japanese public thought war was now probable in Northeast Asia.21

Japan is particularly worried about China. Over the past five years, Japan's thinking on China has shifted from a faith in the powers of economic interdependence to a reluctant realism, prompted by China's nuclear weapons tests in 1995, the Taiwan Strait crisis in 1996, and the dispute over the Senkaku (Diaoyutai) Islands. The Japanese government is concerned with China's deployment of over 200 short-range missiles across the strait from Taiwan, a force size projected to triple within five years.22And, as mentioned, because of Beijing's concerns about a Japanese missile defense system, Tokyo has inferred that China targets Japan with nuclear weapons.

These developments have played against a backdrop of growing bilateral tensions with China over the treatment of wartime history and the future definition of the Asia-Pacific community. Japan still invests heavily in China and provides over $1 billion a year in concessional yen loans. Tokyo clearly wants improved relations with Beijing, if possible. But there is little question in Japan that the U.S. alliance and extended nuclear deterrent will be necessary for years to come to deal with lingering uncertainties about Chinese power and ambition.

Japan therefore faces a real bind. The popular sentiment in Japan is that the nation's status as the only victim of nuclear weapons should give some leverage and moral high ground to Japanese efforts in non-proliferation and arms control. But the reality is that this tragic history counts less in the eyes of China and the Koreas than the persecution those states suffered under Japan's wartime rule. In many respects, Japanese officials can be blind to this fact and are often surprised by the degree of suspicion created by Japanese policy on non-proliferation and nuclear issues.

This was certainly the case with Japan's approach to the NPT in the 1970s and the indefinite extension in 1995. During the negotiations over the indefinite extension in 1993, for example, the Miyazawa government dragged its feet on signing and forced other G-7 members to water down a June 1993 G-7 summit communiqué endorsing quick adoption of indefinite extension. This was not motivated by a desire for nuclear weapons so much as the aim of maintaining maximum diplomatic leverage on North Korea not to withdraw from the NPT and to resume compliance with IAEA inspections. It was also aimed at pushing the United States and the other nuclear-weapon states to reduce their arsenals in accordance with Article VI. Certainly, some Japanese wished to keep the nuclear option open, but Japan's strategy was more a matter of asserting diplomatic leverage. Nevertheless, this idealistic agenda was lost on many outside observers and Japan came under intense international criticism for dangerously hinting at its own nuclear option.

Suspicions About the Plutonium Program

Japan's single-minded focus on energy security also creates a drag on potential Japanese leadership in arms control and non-proliferation and raises suspicion in the region regarding the country's long-term intentions. Because Japan is using nuclear power technologies that most consider inefficient or dangerous, some countries fear that Japan's nuclear energy program might actually be the seed of a nuclear weapons program.

For example, Japan has been building a plant to reprocess the large amounts of surplus plutonium it has accumulated in spent fuel as part of its quest for greater energy independence and commensurate security. It is also currently developing a fast-breeder reactor -- a reactor that produces more fissionable material than it consumes -- to be fueled by mixed uranium-plutonium oxide (MOX). In the interim, Japan is fueling ordinary light-water reactors with MOX. The Japanese government argues that irradiating plutonium as MOX fuel in power reactors will reduce uranium consumption by 25 percent, thereby decreasing Japan's dependence on imported fuel and benefiting Japan's own energy security.23The government also maintains that burning plutonium as MOX will reduce the vulnerability of the potentially weapons-usable material, currently contained in spent fuel that is stored in reservoirs.

However, neither of these assertions is accepted by other countries, which view MOX as both too expensive and too risky.24Japan is also one of the few countries still planning to extract plutonium from spent fuel for civilian purposes. Critics charge that far from guaranteeing energy security and safety, MOX is actually creating new dangers because of the possibility of terrorist attack and diversion -- both during sea transportation from reprocessing plants in Europe to Japan, as well as in Japan, once Japan's reprocessing plant becomes operational. In addition, most countries have already abandoned fast-breeder reactor programs, largely because of the technical difficulties they pose. Combining MOX with fast-breeder reactors, the path chosen by Japan, is considered by most to be the least desirable option for generating nuclear power.

Though the future of Japan's plutonium-reprocessing and MOX-fuel programs is uncertain at best -- in particular because of the recent accident at the Tokaimura uranium processing plant -- Japan's unconventional pursuit of nuclear power continues to raise questions in the region regarding its ultimate intentions.

Shifting U.S. Priorities

Meanwhile, the tension between Japan's reliance on the U.S. nuclear umbrella and its desire for a proactive arms control role has been further exacerbated by the general decline in U.S. political support for Cold War-era arms control agreements. Angered at the U.S. move on the CTBT, Japan dispatched Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Ichita Yamamoto to complain to his former Georgetown University professor, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Tokyo was concerned that the Senate decision represented a deliberate move away from Article VI of the NPT and threatened to undermine Russian ratification of START II and future nuclear diplomacy with China. Worst of all, the Senate rejection of the CTBT widened the gap between the Japanese government's dual pledges to help maintain a robust extended U.S. nuclear deterrent and to work for total nuclear disarmament.

Japan has been more muted than Europe on the question of national missile defense (NMD), but leading Japanese figures have nevertheless voiced opposition. As Yoichi Funabashi wrote recently: "Japan must accept the hard reality that the current U.S. NMD debate warrants a serious domestic Japanese discussion of its implications for the U.S.-Japan alliance management process, as the United States could pursue a NMD policy that would be adverse to Japanese interests."25Official Japan quietly worries that an early NMD deployment decision might increase pressure on Japan from China and Russia not to participate in the parallel TMD system, but it weighs this factor against the need to maintain alliance solidarity with the United States and to defend against the clear and present danger of North Korean -- and ultimately Chinese and Russian -- ballistic missiles. After all, TMD is NMD for Japan, and Tokyo cannot officially criticize U.S. NMD without undermining domestic support for its own program.

Institutional Weaknesses

Finally, Japan's nuclear non-proliferation policy is also constrained by institutional weakness, both domestic and international. The small Arms Control and Disarmament Division of MOFA, in cooperation with the Science and Nuclear Energy Division, mainly handles these issues, but its expertise is limited. Moreover, MOFA suffers from poor interagency coordination on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation with the JDA, the Science and Technology Agency, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, and even MOFA's own North American Affairs Bureau. The larger arms control community is also shallow in expertise. Even at the university level, education focuses exclusively on anti-nuclear or total disarmament, with almost no courses on arms control. The lack of Japanese arms control professionals undermines the degree to which MOFA's small staff can call on outside help or expertise.

New Directions in Policy?

Given the desire for a more assertive voice in international affairs and the constraints listed above, where might Japan push for new initiatives in international arms control and non-proliferation or in its own nuclear-related strategy? The Scylla and Charybdis of desires for denuclearization on the one hand and dependence on extended deterrence on the other do not leave Japan much room. But the internal pressure for independent credibility on non-proliferation matters is building nonetheless.

One area to watch is Japan's approach to "no first use" (NFU). The United States maintains its policy of not renouncing the first use of nuclear weapons in order to deter other WMD or conventional aggression against it or its allies in Europe and Asia. Experts in Tokyo recognize that an official Japanese call for a U.S. policy of no first use would therefore have to be taken seriously in Washington. For those advocating a more assertive Japanese non-proliferation and arms control posture, NFU appears to offer leverage that could be used to force U.S. and even Chinese moves toward greater arms control (since Beijing has argued that the United States should drop first use).

The orthodox managers of the alliance in Tokyo are vociferously opposed to NFU, fearing that it would degrade the extended deterrent on which Japan relies. For example, in the spring of 1994, Ambassador Robert Gallucci was making a list of potential negotiating concessions with North Korea and urged that Washington drop all threats of first use once North Korea was in compliance with the NPT. However, as Leon Sigal has written, "When Gallucci broached the subject during a visit to Tokyo in March, Shunji Yanai, director of politico-military affairs in the Foreign Office, objected strenuously on the grounds that it punched a hole in the American nuclear umbrella."26

This MOFA battle over NFU replayed itself in the July 1999 Tokyo Forum. Before the opening of the final conference, Harvard Professor Joseph Nye proposed that the forum recommend universal adoption of a policy of no first use of weapons of mass destruction in the final report -- as opposed to simply no first use of nuclear weapons.27With this proposal, Nye meant to leave open the option of first use of nuclear weapons in retaliation to attacks with biological and chemical weapons. Japanese staff members, on loan from the Foreign Ministry, were at a loss as to what to do with this proposal because it would have compromised the Japanese official line formalized earlier that year by then-Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura. Specifically, Komura had stated, "Japan will secure safety by the deterrent capabilities of the U.S.-Japan security treaty. The Japanese government does not intend to endorse immediately no first use of nuclear weapons."28

Of course, because the Tokyo Forum is not a governmental organization, its recommendation does not necessarily reflect the official line of the Japanese government. Even so, the government considered suggestion of no first use of weapons of mass destruction undesirable because such a final recommendation could create momentum to oppose Japan's official policy, thus weakening the U.S. nuclear umbrella over Japan.

 Eventually, the Nye proposal was dropped. But the issue of no first use of nuclear weapons has since been championed by a number of nongovernmental security experts in Japan and could find new life if the Liberal Democratic Party falls out of power or is replaced by the Democratic Party of Japan, which adopted a platform this spring in support of nuclear NFU.29Already leading scholars in two Japanese study groups on nuclear arms control are debating the advantage of nuclear NFU.30

With changes in Japan's increasingly volatile, though centrist, politics, a new government might overrule the bureaucracy and press the United States to adopt a no-first-use policy in order to jump-start nuclear arms control talks with China and Russia. MOFA has no intention of doing so, but rumblings are increasing in academic and political circles that Japan should take more control of its nuclear arms control policy.31This trend will become more dominant if U.S. unilateralism continues or if the nuclear-weapon states fail to move toward implementing Article VI of the NPT.

Some might be tempted to dismiss the dangers even if Japan does diverge from the United States on an issue like NFU. Certainly, Japan's options for independent nuclear arms control strategy are limited by the contradictions and impediments discussed earlier. However, if Tokyo did openly break with the United States over NFU, a host of problems would emerge. First, regional confidence in the credibility of the extended U.S. deterrent and Japan's own self-restraint on nuclear weapons might come into question. Second, the atmosphere for overall U.S.-Japan security cooperation would be poisoned, pushing Japan in unilateral directions in other security areas that might undermine U.S. interests. Finally, joint U.S. and Japanese leverage on other nuclear-weapon and potential nuclear-weapon states would be significantly undermined.

It is possible that the United States might move on its own to a variation of NFU in the future (beyond the negative security assurances it has already issued). But whatever U.S. doctrine emerges on extended deterrence, it should reflect a careful dialogue between the United States and Japan and not a tug-of-war between Tokyo and Washington that undermines the credibility of the alliance vis-à-vis allies and potential adversaries in East Asia.


To date, the growing Japanese assertiveness on nuclear disarmament issues has not undermined U.S.-Japan security relations. Nevertheless, it is critical that U.S. policy treat Japan as an independent player that has other options (albeit bad options) for both nuclear strategy and nuclear arms control policy. At the same time, the United States can and should support Japanese diplomacy when it strengthens international regimes. Indeed, the United States should be actively building a partnership with Tokyo to encourage such a role for Japan.

In March, U.S. Senior Adviser on Arms Control and International Security John Holum and MOFA Director-General for Arms Control and Scientific Affairs Norio Hattori announced the establishment of the new U.S.-Japan Commission on Arms Control, Disarmament, Non-Proliferation and Verification. This commission will take what was an ad hoc style of policy coordination between Tokyo and Washington on these issues and raise it to the status and institutionalization of consultations like those held with NATO allies. This is an important first step. Of course, the work of shoring-up Japanese confidence in the U.S. nuclear umbrella and building a better bilateral agenda for arms control and non-proliferation should go well beyond the arms control community itself. In addition to the activities of the new commission, the United States should:

  • Elevate U.S.-Japan coordination and dialogue on the interoperability and strategic implications of TMD, including the ramifications of a Taiwanese TMD. Current collaboration focuses almost entirely on joint technical cooperation.

  • Strengthen U.S.-Japan information exchange and coordination in support of Russian denuclearization. Leading up to the July G-8 summit, Japan had been calling for G-8 financial support to dispose of surplus plutonium from Russian decommissioned nuclear weapons, which will cost about $2 billion.32Washington should strongly encourage Japan's initiative in this arena.

  • Deepen coordination of U.S. dialogue with China on arms control issues so that Japan's concerns are met and so that there are no surprises in either U.S. or Japanese diplomacy with Beijing on issues of mutual interest, such as TMD and NFU.

  • Take opportunities to reassure Tokyo that the U.S. nuclear umbrella is intact and that U.S. forces will remain in Japan. The United States should also hold regular updates of its nuclear strategy and views of extended deterrence in the formal U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee, possibly paralleled by a Track II or working-level discussion of the role of extended deterrence in the current East Asian security environment (including issues like NFU).

  • Coordinate with Japan on implementation of the Agreed Framework with North Korea (for which Japan is providing about $1 billion in funding) and continue trilateral coordination with Seoul and Tokyo on negotiations with Pyongyang.

  • Improve U.S. planning and coordination for a Japanese role in non-proliferation policy toward South Asia, including joint U.S.-Japan Track II diplomacy.

The Japanese elite is striving harder than ever to strike the best balance between its own idealism and a realism about national security interests. As Japan raises its head, the United States should be there to support a more proactive and responsible security policy in Japan. It is imperative that the United States actively support Japanese diplomatic initiatives that serve broad U.S. strategic interests. A strong and active Japan should be considered central to U.S. strategy. Policy coordination on nuclear non-proliferation and arms control should serve as a centerpiece for a larger global partnership that encourages Japan to utilize all of its diplomatic tools to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction that threaten both states.


The authors would like to thank Ogawa Shinichi of the National Institute for Defense Studies (Japan) and Benjamin Self of the Henry L. Stimson Center for their comments on an earlier draft of this article.

1. "Sato Hinted at Japan Nuclear Option in '65," Japan Times, May 25, 1998.

2. "Hikaku 3 Gensoku ha Nansensu" (The Three Non-Nuclear Principles Are Nonsense), Kyodo Washington D.C., June 10, 2000.

3. Interview with Royama Michio, Asahi Shimbun, November 13, 1994.

4. "Hikaku Power: Haibokushugi Tsuranuki Ginen Harae" (Non-Nuclear Power: Sustain ŒDefeatism' and Expel Skepticism of Other Countries), Asahi Shimbun, August 4, 1999.

5. John E. Endicott, commentary on Morton H. Halperin's, "The Nuclear Dimension of the U.S.-Japan Alliance," presented to the Nautilus Institute, July 9, 1999.

6. Morton H. Halperin, "The Nuclear Dimension of the U.S.-Japan Alliance," presented to the Nautilus Institute, July 9, 1999.

7. Heisei 11 nendo Boei Hakusho (Defense of Japan '99), Japan Defense Agency, 1999, p. 138.

8. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Challenge 21:  Japan's Foreign Policy Toward the 21st Century, January 4, 2000.

9. Japan's Goals in the 21st Century: The Frontier Within: Individual Empowerment and Better Governance in the New Millennium, January 2000, Chapter 6, p. 12.

10. Yoichi Funabashi, "Tokyo's Depression Diplomacy," Foreign Affairs, November/December 1998, p. 35.

11. Statement by Foreign Minister Ikeda Yukihiko at the Seminar on Nuclear Disarmament after the Indefinite Extension of the NPT, December 2, 1996, Kyoto, Japan.

12. Ibid.

13. "Ajia Hikakuka he Shitaji" (Paving a Way for Denuclearization in Asia), Asahi Shimbun, August 11, 1999.

14. Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Arms Control and Disarmament Division, Japanese Cooperation for the Dismantling Nuclear Weapons in the former Soviet Union, OUTLINE, February 1, 2000.

15. Ibid.

16. The Democratic Party of Japan, Nuclear Policy, April 18, 2000.

17. Interview with senior MOFA official, Washington, D.C., June 19, 2000.

18. Interview with U.S. official, Washington, D.C.,  July 23, 1998.

19. NPT/CONF.2000/WP.1 (NPT conference document), April 24, 2000, and interviews with senior U.S. and Japanese officials.

20. See, for example, "NPT Taisei Ayausa mo Rotei" (NPT Regime Exposes Its Fragility), Yomiuri Shimbun, May 22, 2000.

21. "More Japanese See Danger of War, Support Alliance With U.S.," Japan Digest, May 16, 2000.

22. Bates Gill and Michael O'Hanlon, "China's Hollow Military," The National Interest, Summer 1999, p. 60.

23. "Japanese Nuclear Game," The Economist, October 9, 1999, p. 101.

24. David Albright, et al., Plutonium and Highly Enriched Uranium 1996 (New York: Oxford University Press), 1997, pp. 24-25.

25. Yoichi Funabashi, "Tokyo's Temperance," The Washington Quarterly, Summer 2000, p. 135.

26. Leon V. Sigal, Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy With North Korea (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press), 1998, p. 112.

27. Interview with Joseph S. Nye, February 25, 2000.

28. Cited in "Kaku Haizetsu no Michi he Seisaku Susumeru Toki" (Now is the Time to Promote Policy of Total Abolition of Nuclear Weapons), Asahi Shimbun, August 4, 1999.

29. "Minshu ga Kaku Seisakuan" (Democratic Party Announces Its Nuclear Policy), Asahi Shimbun, April 14, 2000.

30. The Tokyo Foundation Study Group on U.S.-Japan Alliance and Nuclear Disarmament, and a group organized by the National Institute for Research Advancement.

31. See, for example, the policy recommendation by the Japan Forum on International Relations, Inc., "Examining Together with the U.S. the Feasibility of a No-First-Use Declaration on Nuclear Weapons" in Japan's Initiatives towards US, China and Russia, April 19, 1999.

32. Asahi Shimbun, June 29, 2000.

Michael J. Green is senior fellow for Asian security at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C., and Katsuhisa Furukawa is a research associate for Asian security at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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