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Ukraine war ignites debate on nuclear weapons in Japan

Tokyo Letter: Former leader Shinzo Abe warns against treating discussion as ‘taboo’

Does Russia's invasion of Ukraine mean that more countries should possess nuclear weapons? Some politicians have reached that grim conclusion, though few as notable as Shinzo Abe, former leader of the only country where they have been deployed in war.

Last weekend Abe urged Japan to consider a Nato-style arrangement, which allows the United States to keep its nuclear warheads in Europe. "Japan should not treat as a taboo discussions on the reality of how the world is kept safe," he said on national television.

Abe, Japan’s longest serving prime minister until he quit in 2020, is still considered a major force in conservative politics and controls the largest faction of the country’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

His successor Fumio Kishida quickly dismissed Abe's suggestion, saying it would be "unacceptable" given our country's stance of maintaining the three non-nuclear principles".

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The principles, formally adopted in 1971 and one of the core pillars of Japan’s long-standing pacificism, state that the nation shall neither possess nor produce nuclear weapons, or permit their introduction into Japanese territory.

Accepting the 1974 Nobel Peace Prize for signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, then prime minister Eisaku Sato (Abe's great-uncle) said the 1945 US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had "left an indelible mark on the hearts of our people, making them passionately determined to renounce all wars".

The real concern, however, is China, particularly its designs on Taiwan. For decades Japanese politicians mostly avoided discussing this potential tinderbox

Those noble sentiments were not safe, however, from the cold war calculations needed to maintain the facade of pacifism in a heavily nuclearised neighbourhood, when Soviet Russia and then China acquired their own deterrents against what they saw as US aggression.

Japan sheltered for decades under the US nuclear umbrella. A secret deal struck with Washington permitted nuclear-armed American ships and aircraft to traffic through or over Japanese territory. Nuclear weapons were also secretly deployed to the island of Okinawa, in Japan’s southwest.

China

As the cold war eased following the fall of Soviet communism in 1991, America’s nuclear stockpile was dramatically scaled down and tactical nukes were withdrawn from ships and submarines across Asia.

Abe has long represented a strain of conservatism that considers such moves premature. China's growing economic and military heft and, since 2006, the entry of North Korea into the club of nuclear powers has helped harden that sentiment.

In 2016, shortly after standing beside then US president Barack Obama on his historic visit to Hiroshima, Abe reportedly expressed "concern" that the US was weighing whether or not to end its policy of no first use of nuclear weapons.

Abe warned Adm Harry Harris jnr, head of the US Pacific Command, that deterrence against North Korea would suffer as a result, according to reports that were not denied.

The real concern, however, is China, particularly its designs on Taiwan. For decades Japanese politicians mostly avoided discussing this potential tinderbox but the last year has seen a shift, suggesting that if China invades, Japan might join any US retaliation.

‘Wild comments’

Japan's deputy defence minister, Yasuhide Nakayama, made an unusually forthright statement last year when he said: "We have to protect Taiwan, as a democratic country."

Speaking last weekend Abe also urged Washington to end what he called its strategic ambiguity on Taiwan and say clearly it would intervene militarily if China attacks. “The people of Taiwan share our universal values, so I think the US should firmly abandon its ambiguity,” he said.

Atomic weapons are arms of the devil and will lead humankind to destruction

Abe noted that Japanese territory (the uninhabited island of Yonaguni) is just 110km from Taiwan, so “a Taiwan contingency is a Japan contingency”.

China's reaction to Abe's comments was predictable. "Japanese politicians recently made...wild comments that openly violate its Three Non-Nuclear Principles," said foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin. "By raising nuclear sharing with the US, Japan has fully exposed its lingering militarism."

Equally predictable was the fury of Japanese survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “Atomic weapons are arms of the devil and will lead humankind to destruction,” said Shigemitsu Tanaka, co-chair of the Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organisations.

But some conservative politicians, including the chair of the LDP’s General Council, backed Abe’s call for “realism” in the face of growing threats. Public opinion remains overwhelmingly opposed to Abe’s call, but the contradictions of Japan’s position – hollow gestures toward domestic sentiment on nuclear weapons while supporting the United States’s right to deploy and use them – are likely to become more glaring as tensions in East Asia grow.