Tokyo Notes

Japan’s Nuclear Dilemma

65 years after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan wrestles with its nuclear posture.

The anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima is always front page news in Japan, but yesterday’s ceremony marking its 65th anniversary was making headlines around the world, too.

For the first time, a US representative attended the ceremony, suggesting that the Obama administration is indeed serious about its call to work toward a world without nuclear weapons. In addition to US Ambassador to Japan John Roos, the attendance of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, and representatives from nuclear powers Britain and France strengthened the impression that some measure of global momentum is building up in favour of a move away from nuclear weapons.

While foreign media reported on the historic attendance of Roos, local media went much further, lauding the US move as a step toward a nuclear-free world, even if it didn’t come with a US apology for the bombing—a reminder of the stark differences of opinion on whether use of the A-bomb was necessary.

The main dailies saw the US move as a possible prelude to a visit by President Obama to Hiroshima when he visits Japan in November, which would further fuel the anti-nuke cause. In editorials on Friday, they called on Japan to take advantage of this momentum and take the lead in moves to scrap nuclear weapons.

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But don't expect that to happen anytime soon. The problem is that while many in Japan want to get rid of nuclear weapons, the nation also wants to remain under the nuclear umbrella of the United States, especially with China rapidly bulking up its military capabilities, and North Korea, with its nuclear programme, as unpredictable as ever.

The same day, Prime Minister Naoto Kan was espousing the three holier-than-thou non-nuclear principles of not making, possessing or allowing the entry into Japan of nuclear weapons, while at the same time describing the nuclear deterrence the US provides Japan as ‘necessary.’ When in the past a choice had to be made about sticking to these principles or turning a convenient blind eye to US vessels with nuclear weapons entering Japan’s waters, the Japan-US alliance came first, as the government finally acknowledged earlier this year.

Taking up the theme of deterrence and the non-nuclear principles, the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun described Japan’s place under the US nuclear umbrella as ‘indispensable’ and said it was time to consider officially dropping the principle of no entry in its editorial today. At the same time it said it was hard to describe as grounded in reality the call by Hiroshima Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba for the three principles to be enshrined in law and for Japan to walk away from the US nuclear umbrella. 

The ‘deep dilemma’ for Japan it argued, was how to effectively appeal for the abolition of nuclear weapons while relying upon their protection, a theme echoed by Japan’s biggest business daily, the Nikkei, in its editorial the same day.