Japan, one of the postwar era's strongest anti-nuclear voices, missed an opportunity at the nuclear summit that ended here on Tuesday to translate its commitment to disarmament into a premier spot on an emerging global agenda. Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama was overshadowed by those who came to Washington with specific ideas about how to shore up the global commitment to nonproliferation.
The Japanese media have portrayed Mr. Hatoyama's low profile as a reflection of the difficult state of U.S.-Japan relations. Although the issue of nuclear nonproliferation was identified early on as a priority after Japan's new government took office in September, Mr. Hatoyama, who was seated next to President Obama over dinner, used his one-on-one time to discuss the relocation of the Futenma Marine Air Station on Okinawa, a thorn in the bilateral relationship.
Another issue complicating relations stems from the deep divisions within Japan over the role U.S. nuclear weapons should play in defending the country. Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada wrote a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in December unequivocally stating that Tokyo no longer feels the need for theater nuclear weapons, and is comfortable with the broader strategic arsenal available to Washington for deterring aggression.
The change in government last September made obvious Japan's inability to reconcile itself to today's proliferation dynamics. On the one hand, Tokyo relied on U.S. nuclear superiority while publicly rejecting the use of these weapons on Japan's behalf. A recent Japanese government investigation into the existence of “secret agreements” between Tokyo and Washington on the transit of nuclear weaponry brought this deep postwar controversy back into the headlines. After months of government deliberation, Mr. Okada was confronted in Parliament by a fundamental question--what would the government do if Japan was threatened? He pointed out that Japan's three nonnuclear principles--not to possess, manufacture or allow the introduction of nuclear weapons--were designed to keep its citizens safe from the threat of nuclear use. But he had to acknowledge that the government would have to make its best judgment should Japan be threatened based on the need to protect its citizens.
Continuing nuclear proliferation now poses an added risk. Fear that fissile material and nuclear technology could be acquired by terrorist groups was what motivated the nuclear summit here. New commitments to action now make it imperative that Japan confront its postwar ambivalence over its security choices while making clear that it will translate its anti-nuclear principles into policy practice.
Up to now, Japan has sought to lead by example. Nuclear disarmament has been a consistent goal for the Japanese since their country suffered two atomic attacks in 1945. Japan forswore its own nuclear option in the mid-1970s, and joined the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty regime. Japan's own sophisticated scientific expertise in nuclear energy production demonstrates the benefits of this technology for peaceful purpose.
But the world now demands a more active effort to contain nuclear proliferation, particularly because of the threat from non-state actors. Deciding not to pursue nuclear weapons is not in and of itself a compelling diplomatic tool for persuading others to abandon their use. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty presents a collective and voluntary effort to police those who would be policed. Japan has played a key role in allowing full access to its own nuclear facilities, and in generating the technical expertise that will be valuable as the inspection and verification mechanisms for the International Atomic Energy Agency develop.
Today, a Japanese expert, Amano Yukiya, heads the I.A.E.A. His leadership has already helped to dissipate the political fog surrounding the U.N. Security Council's role. And, next month, the NTP Review will mark the next step in an effort to confront systematically those who seek to proliferate.
Japan must leave its ambivalence at home. The country has deep convictions and a singular voice in the global effort to prevent the use of nuclear weapons. Tokyo must translate these convictions into policy innovation and actively seek to be a catalyst for collective action.
Sheila A. Smith is a senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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