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Japan's shift in the nuclear debate explained

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The Hiroshima Peace Memorial, often called the Atomic Bomb Dome, is part of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima. CISAC fellow Sayuri Romei's research explains how nationalism and post-war identity are key factors in Japan's evolving public debate on nuclear weapons.
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Getty Images/Nigel Killeen

Japan is an increasingly divided country between elites and the public as it grapples with whether it should acquire nuclear weapons itself and not rely on America’s protection, a Stanford scholar found.

Sayuri Romei, a political scientist and predoctoral fellow at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), has a new working paper that describes how Japanese society is grappling with its nuclear future. Romei researches the U.S.-Japan relationship, nuclear security, nationalism and identity in East Asia.

“The shift in the Japanese nuclear debate at the turn of the 21st century did not stem directly from a willingness to deter the new and urgent looming military threats, but was rather the result of a very limited security role that collapsed after the end of the Cold War, and took the shape of a disoriented and shaky Japanese identity,” she wrote.

Japan, a country that suffered two nuclear bombs in WWII, has a well-justified historical “nuclear allergy” that long restrained nuclear weapons ambitions, Romei said. But today, internal questions about Japan’s national sense of identity is causing elites to reconsider the nuclear military option.

She said it’s true that the tone in that debate has been changing in recent years as Japan’s security landscape changes – North Korea and China are building up their nuclear and conventional military programs. On top of this, when the Cold War ended in 1991, the “nuclear umbrella” that the U.S. afforded Japan became “theoretically less justified in an evolving security context,” as Romei describes it. Japan, in turn, sought reassurance from the U.S. that it would not abandon her.

Rethinking Japan's security

Yet the turn of the 21st century is hardly the first time that Japanese elites have discussed a nuclear option, or that they have felt a sense of mistrust towards their ally, she said. Rather than a break from the past, Japanese elites’ behavior suggests a continuity in their thinking:

“It would therefore be more correct to talk of a renaissance of the nuclear debate, rather than an erosion of the nuclear taboo,” Romei said.

What is new in today’s nuclear statements, however, is the increasing intertwining between rethinking security identity issues, a rising nationalism, and a more challenging regional environment, she said.

Along with the necessity to rethink Japan’s security arrangement, pre-WWII nostalgia and nationalism have been growing in Japan as Prime Minister Shinzō Abe's constitutional reforms are being enacted, Romei said. And so, some top officials are reevaluating Japan's nuclear policy in favor of a more self-sufficient approach that fits their increasingly nationalist mood.

“The line between the rethinking of a Japanese security identity and pushing a nationalist agenda into the current nuclear policy is very thin,” wrote Romei.

No longer do Japanese nationalists wish to be perceived as the “faithful dog” in the U.S-Japan alliance, as they resent the “lack of a healthy postwar nationalism,” she said. Restarting some of the country’s nuclear power plants after the Fukushima Daiichi accident was even described by one leading Japanese politician as the first step toward the country acquiring nuclear weapons of its own, she added.

Though some Japanese scholars argue that Japan has been preparing for the acquisition of nuclear weapons since the end of WWII, Romei said that the link between the two sides of the nuclear coin was never really visible in Japan: indeed, the government has historically succeeded in making a sharp distinction between nuclear power for peaceful vs. military purposes.

‘Still very sensitive’

One well-known trait of Japan’s nuclear history is that Japan has a strong popular peace and anti-nuclear movement with public opinion polls set against acquiring nuclear weapons, Romei said. Peace, security, and nuclear matters are in fact deeply linked in postwar Japanese history.

“The constant and consistent work of peace associations and the massive organized demonstrations against Prime Minister Abe’s security reform plans that took place across Japan during the entire summer in 2015 are a relevant sign that public opinion is still very sensitive to a change of pace,” she wrote.

But public opinion and elite opinion “do not speak the same language and are heading in different directions,” she wrote. Elites – political  and  thought leaders, for example – continue to allude to a nuclear option for Japan to defend itself unilaterally, with or without the American nuclear umbrella.

“This sudden proliferation of nuclear statements among Japanese elites  in 2002 has been directly linked by Japan watchers to the break out of the second North Korean nuclear crisis and the rapid buildup of China’s military capabilities,” Romei said.

Trusting America?

But those external threats, she said, are actually used as a “pretext to solve a more deep-rooted and long-standing anxiety that stems from Japan’s own unsuccessful quest for a less reactive, and more proactive post-Cold War identity,” Romei noted.

The level of trust that Japanese elites feel towards their American ally is an important leitmotiv in the country’s nuclear debate, she said.

While during the Cold War U.S. credibility was mainly linked to Japan’s limited role as an ally in a bipolar era, after the collapse of this system Japanese elites slowly began their quest for a new identity, thus questioning and changing the meaning of the U.S.-Japan alliance, Roemi said. Furthermore, the first decade of the 21st century brought about a new nationalist layer that complicates the issue of trust in the ally by adding a populist tone to the domestic nuclear debate.

Romei believes that if the gap in elite-public opinion continues to widen, Japan’s longstanding “nuclear allergy” could be overwhelmed as the government – not necessarily by design – gradually creates the political and cultural conditions that seemingly justify building nuclear weapons, Romei said.

“The turn of the century brought a new strategic environment in which Japan was forced to question its own post-Cold War identity, without eventually succeeding in an actual change,” she wrote.

Romei urges a careful monitoring of Japan’s nuclear debate moving forward – the major political shift in the U.S. caused by the November 2016 presidential elections is a key reason. America’s future political direction will ultimately affect Japan’s sense of identity by easing the questioning of the U.S.-Japan security arrangement.

While the study of the Japanese nuclear debate cannot necessarily offer a prediction of the country’s future nuclear policy choices, it can serve as an important tool to gauge the evolution of Japan’s own perception of its role in the current world order, she said.

Romei is a nuclear security predoctoral fellow at CISAC for 2016-2017 and a doctoral candidate in international relations at Roma Tre University in Rome, Italy. Her dissertation focuses on the relationship between Japan’s nuclear mentality and its identity evolution in the post-WWII era. 

MEDIA CONTACTS:

Sayuri Romei, Center for International Security and Cooperation: (650) 725-5364, sromei@stanford.edu

Clifton B. Parker, Center for International Security and Cooperation: (650) 725-6488, cbparker@stanford.edu