Tokyo Report | Security | East Asia

What is the Future of Japan’s Nuclear Diplomacy?

It’s time for Tokyo to sign and ratify the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty.

By Daisuke Akimoto for
What is the Future of Japan’s Nuclear Diplomacy?
Credit: Unsplash

On July 7, 2017, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was adopted with the support of 122 countries in the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). The TPNW is supposed to enter into force 90 days after ratification by 50 countries. So far, 81 countries have signed, and 36 have ratified the treaty. The Japanese government, however, has not signed or ratified the TPNW, despite the fact that Japan is the only country that has suffered from the use of nuclear weapons in war. 

Why does Japan, the sole “nuclear-bombed state” in history, oppose the treaty? How should Japan make a greater diplomatic contribution toward a world without nuclear weapons? In order to answer to the questions regarding the seemingly paradoxical nature of Japanese nuclear diplomacy, it is essential to comprehend the multiple aspects of Japan’s nuclear identity: a “nuclear bombed state”, a “nuclear disarmament state,” a “nuclear threatened state,” and a “nuclear umbrella state.”

Although the Japanese government has opposed the TPNW, Japan as a “nuclear disarmament state” has made continuous commitments to global nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation initiatives. Internationally, the Japanese government signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in 1970 and ratified it in 1976. The government also signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996 and ratified it in 1997. Moreover, Japan has submitted its own original resolution plans for the abolition of nuclear weapons to the UNGA since 1994. For instance, Japan’s draft resolution entitled, “Joint Courses of Action and Future-oriented Dialogue towards a World without Nuclear Weapons,” was adopted in the UNGA with support of 148 countries on November 2, 2019. The draft resolution aimed to strengthen the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime based on the NPT.

Tokyo has also enhanced nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regimes by hosting the Tokyo Forum for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament as a unilateral initiative (1998-1999), establishing the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND) as a bilateral initiative with Australia (2008-2020), and by facilitating the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI) as a multilateral initiative (2010-ongoing). Thus, it is clear that Japan has made significant diplomatic contributions to creating a world without nuclear weapons at the unilateral, bilateral, and global levels.

Domestically, Japanese parliamentarians have submitted draft resolutions regarding the abolition of nuclear weapons to the Diet, which were adopted five times in the past. In November 1971, a draft resolution on non-nuclear weapons and reduction of U.S. bases in Okinawa defining the so-called “Three Non-Nuclear Principles” (non-possession, non-production, and non-introduction of nuclear weapons) was adopted. In May 1978, a draft resolution regarding the United Nations Special Session on Disarmament was adopted. In May 1982, a draft resolution concerning the Second UN Special Session on Disarmament for the purpose of calling on the Japanese government to ban producing, testing, stockpiling, and using nuclear weapons was adopted.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

In the post-Cold War period, the Diet in August 2005 adopted a draft resolution on a pledge for contribution to building further international peace in the event of the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the United Nations, the war’s end and the nuclear bombings of Japan. In June 2009, a draft resolution demanding the Japanese government strengthen its actions toward abolition of nuclear weapons was adopted. The 2009 resolution, inspired by the Prague speech of U.S. President Barack Obama, noted that Japan has a responsibility to take actions and spearhead global nuclear abolition as the sole country that has ever suffered from nuclear bombings in war. However, a draft resolution in 2015, the 70th anniversary of the war’s end, was not adopted due to confrontation between the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and opposition parties over the term “act of aggression” by the Imperial Japan during the Asia Pacific War.

In 2020, opposition parties drafted a resolution plan that mentions the TPNW, but the LDP would prefer not to refer to the treaty because of the priority over the nuclear shield provided by Washington. This is because LDP politicians believe that Japan as a “nuclear-threatened state” needs the nuclear deterrence of the United States, and fear that if Tokyo signs and ratifies the TPNW, it would move Japan out of the U.S. nuclear umbrella. This is a dilemma for any “nuclear umbrella state,” having to choose between the UN supported TPNW and the U.S. nuclear shield.

Nonetheless, it is important for Japanese parliamentarians to discuss and consider Japan’s national and international interests in case the TPNW comes into effect. It is desirable for Japanese Diet members from both the ruling and opposition parties to create an all-party parliamentarian study group to consider the role of the TPNW and the NPT. As a bridge between the LDP and opposition parties, Komeito as another ruling party which has consistently advocated abolition of nuclear weapons since its inception, should play an important role as a bridge in the parliament. In order to adopt a draft resolution, a bipartisan parliamentary support is necessary, hence, an idea of establishing the all-party parliamentary group is of tremendous significance to invigorate Japan’s nuclear disarmament diplomacy.

In order to strengthen Japan’s nuclear disarmament diplomacy, it is also necessary for Tokyo to pursue and achieve further reconciliation with China and the two Koreas. This is because Tokyo’s endeavors and commitments as a “nuclear-bombed state” to nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation can be seen as a self-righteous attitude as a “victim” in the war. From the perspectives of Beijing, Seoul and Pyongyang, nuclear bombings were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a punishment for Japan’s wartime atrocities. In this respect, it is important for Japanese lawmakers to include the term “aggression” in a draft resolution. Without a doubt, Japan as a nuclear disarmament state needs Beijing’s support to make a greater contribution to the nuclear abolition process.

Needless to say, Japan as a “nuclear-threatened state” is expected to ameliorate the diplomatic relationships with Pyongyang, Beijing, and Moscow. More critically, Japan as a “nuclear umbrella state” might need to consider the effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear shield in the event of military emergencies. Will the United States really use nuclear weapons against an aggressor to save Tokyo, if the aggressor has capabilities to counterattack New York and Washington with nuclear weapons? Moreover, even if Japan signs and ratifies the TPNW, Tokyo does not need to abrogate the Japan-U.S. military alliance system. Legally, it is possible for Japan to join the TPNW without violating existing alliance obligations under the bilateral security treaty. In retrospect, Washington decided to halt its defense obligation for New Zealand in 1986, when Wellington initiated a nuclear-free zone and refused visit of U.S. military vessels equipped with nuclear weapons. But it is highly unlikely that Washington suspend its defense obligation for Japan even if Tokyo supports the TPNW, given the strategic importance of the key U.S. ally.

Whether or not the future Japanese government signs and ratifies the TPNW might depend upon the content of a draft resolution to be adopted at the Diet. For this reason, it is strategic for Japanese Diet members of the both ruling and opposition parties who have supported the TPNW to establish an all-party parliamentarian group to consider Japan’s national and international interests and feasible policy alternatives in both the TPNW and the NPT. This can be a first step for the future of Japanese diplomacy for nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation.

In conclusion, Japan as a nuclear bombed state has a moral responsibility to sign and ratify the TPNW, while creating conditions for a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in Northeast Asia and for alternatives to the U.S. nuclear umbrella arrangement. These policy options and alternatives in Japanese nuclear diplomacy may be seen naïve on the surface, but achievable and desirable for Japan to make more positive contributions to creating a world without nuclear weapons.

Daisuke Akimoto, Ph.D. is an associated research fellow of the Institute for Security & Development Policy (ISDP), Stockholm Japan Center, Sweden. He is a former assistant professor at the Soka University Peace Research Institute and former Rotary International Ambassadorial Scholar at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPACS) in the University of Sydney. His most recent publication is “Japan’s Nuclear Identity and Its Implications for Nuclear Abolition” (Palgrave Macmillan 2020).