President Trump’s rhetoric and a highly threatening North Korea are chipping away at Japan’s nuclear neuralgia.
It is often argued that Japan suffers from a “nuclear allergy” — an intense reaction to all nuclear issues, stemming from the United States’ nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Indeed, after the Fukushima disaster in 2011, radiation-affected individuals faced stimatization and popular trust in the use of nuclear energy, let alone the acquisition of nuclear arms, dropped massively. Yet there are other forces pushing Japan in different directions. U.S. President Donald Trump has pressed Japan to get its own nuclear weapons, while North Korean missiles flew over Hokkaido in August and September. Earlier this week, another North Korean projectile that landed in the Japanese exclusive economic zone. Experts worry that the latest North Korean missile can be tipped with nuclear material.
What does Japan’s nuclear allergy look like in the context of these changing circumstances?
The ‘Nuclear Allergy’ in Action
Almost 20 years after the two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the metaphor of Japan’s “nuclear weapons allergy” appeared for the first time. It was mentioned by Asahi Shimbun’s U.S. correspondent, who was reporting on the Japanese public’s reluctance to accept the first port call of a U.S. nuclear-powered submarine. Subsequently, the phrase started to be used to describe those who opposed “the nuclearization of Japan” (both regarding arms and energy), although these opponents also used it to describe themselves. The allergy metaphor implies risk and, more importantly, that the Japanese people’s hypersensitivity to nuclear weapons or a pro-nuclear discourse is unhealthy and must be treated.
For pro-nuclear politicians or activists, the nuclear allergy analogy thus serves as a handy metaphorical device to frame those opposed to nuclearization as anomalous. At least until the end of the first decade of this century, this approach seems not to have worked. There has been no political will to deviate from the current trajectory of U.S. extended deterrence and nuclear hedging has not been implemented as a national strategy.
Indeed, the Fukushima disaster shows that the Japanese still react to nuclear issues in a very specific way. This phenomenon dates back to the years after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Until a decade after the war ended, hibakusha –– or radiation-affected individuals — most significantly those with external skin disfigurements, were seen as “untouchables.” This caused their social lives to be restricted; for example, they had a harder time finding employment or a partner due to fears of contamination or not being able to have healthy children.
Other incidents of stigmatization and discrimination flared up every once in a while, as crew members of Lucky Dragon No. 5 experienced. This fishing trawler was covered in nuclear fallout after a U.S. H-bomb test in the Pacific. As a result, one of these unfortunate individuals was shunned by his family, while the planned marriage of another was canceled. More recently, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster following the 9.0 earthquake of March 2011 sparked discrimination against people from the area, and numerous marriages ended in “nuclear divorce.”
A more important aspect of Japan’s nuclear allergy is its increasingly ambiguous relationship to pacifism. Since the end of WWII, the country has gained a reputation for its normative commitment to peace and non-proliferation. For instance, the country has stipulated three non-nuclear principles: it shall not possess, produce, or bring into the country any nuclear weapons.
However, despite Japan’s commitment to non-proliferation, the country recognizes that nuclear weapons have a role in international relations. In 1976, the “National Defense Program Outline” stated, “Against the threat of nuclear weapons, [we will] rely on the U.S. nuclear deterrent, while working actively on international efforts for realistic and steady nuclear disarmament aiming at a world free from nuclear weapons.”
The way Japan’s pacifist identity intersects with a reliance upon U.S. extended deterrence constitutes a paradox that is hard for Japan to escape from. This was exemplified more recently when Japan did not participate in a new UN-broad effort to decrease the amount of nuclear weapons, despite pressure from hibakusha organizations. Adding to this is the new direction of the Japanese leadership to reinterpret the constitution in a more assertive way, arguing that Japan’s peace has to be defended actively. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent re-election is a strong indication that his administration will stay committed to this path.
A Cure for the Allergy?
Japan’s nuclear allergy arguably has a bad side and an arguably good side. It is negative in the sense that even more than 70 years after World War II, individuals said to be affected by radiation are stigmatized when nuclear incidents occur. For many, though, the “allergy” is beneficial because it is the most important impediment to Japan acquiring nuclear weapons, and thereby potentially escalating the nuclear arms race in East Asia. One can compare it to being allergic to grass; it gives you a runny nose and red eyes, but it clears you from having to mow the lawn yourself.
The allergy’s aforementioned ambiguity seems to be increasing due to new “allergens.” Sure, there were port calls by nuclear-powered submarines in the post-war period, but in today’s world, Japan’s nuclear allergy is being influenced from many different directions. When he was running for U.S. president, Trump famously argued that the United States should allow or even encourage Japan to get nuclear weapons to defend itself against North Korea. The Japanese government immediately downplayed this, insisting it will stick to the three non-nuclear principles. These comments by Trump, however, can be placed into a broader discussion on his aversion to free riding in the United States’ alliance system. Adding to this is the move by the Trump administration to consider lifting arms restrictions vis-à-vis Japan, allowing it to buy “highly sophisticated military equipment.”
It must be noted that Trump is not alone in making these kinds of comments. Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has openly argued that nuclear arms “must spread ” in East Asia, should North Korea continue to increase its arsenal. Similar voices can be heard from within the U.S. military. From the Japanese side, former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba argued that Japan should consider stationing nuclear weapons in the country. Earlier, Abe’s government responded to Diet questions on the issue by saying that Article 9 does not prohibit the presence of nuclear weapons in Japan, although this is a stance that has been brought forward in the past as well.
Underlying many of these allergens is the Japanese perception of an increased North Korean threat, exemplified by Pyongyang’s missile tests in August and September and their launch of a missile that landed in Japan’s economic zone earlier this week. The latter is thought to be able to reach the American mainland, even with a heavy nuclear tip. This, together with Trump’s seemingly reckless verbal behavior, and his and others’ pressure on Japan to show more muscle, has transformed the region. Most importantly, it has led to a security environment in which it is not unthinkable that an East Asian nuclear arms race will start to emerge. In South Korea, for example, polls suggest that more than two-thirds of the population is in favor of acquiring nuclear weapons, although politicians are still somewhat reluctant to take these steps.
Thus, this ongoing rhetoric is exacerbating Japan’s nuclear allergy and will continue to do so; but in the long term the situation may also serve as an antidote that has the potential to ease or even eliminate it entirely. The negative aspect of the allergy, namely resurfacing stigmatization of nuclear-affected individuals, is still there, while the arguably more positive side of the allergy — a strong opposition to the introduction of nuclear arms and thereby an East Asian arms race — has come under pressure.
Aron Woonink is a research associate at the Swedish Defence University in Stockholm