By Hideki Kan
Cabinet ministers and influential lawmakers of Japan's Liberal Democratic Party have made comments calling for debate on whether Japan should possess nuclear weapons. The move was triggered by the recent nuclear test by North Korea.
The comments have three consequences. The first is that they overshadow the problem of recognizing past history. This is apparent in the way North Korea's announcement and implementation of the nuclear test kept the issue of "historical friction" from coming to the fore in Japan-China and Japan-South Korea summit talks.
The second aspect is that the comments serve as a diplomatic card that can be played to spur China to increase pressure on North Korea. US President George W. Bush has said that he is aware that China is worried about this development.
The third point is that by making such comments, politicians can gauge public reaction. Because Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said Japan would abide by its three non-nuclear principles, it is not a matter that the government is prepared to discuss internally.
Still, an examination of the comments in a historical context is warranted.
Japanese politicians have referred to "nuclear weapons" at various junctures in the past.
The US National Archives has a record of the Japan-US summit in Washington in January 1965. According to the declassified document, then Prime Minister Eisaku Sato personally said that if China had nuclear weapons, the Japanese should also have them. Apparently, the comment was made in response to China's nuclear test in October the previous year.
In 1968 and 1970, the Japanese Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office secretly commissioned a project titled "A Basic Study Concerning Japan's Nuclear Policy". The report advised against nuclear armament. But some Foreign Ministry officials expressed the view that the nuclear armament option be kept open.
Prime Minister Sato's comment was made when the United States was pressing Japan to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). In that sense, the comment was used as a "diplomatic card".
At the same time, the card provided the grounds for Japan to realize the return of Okinawa, which had been under US control, "without nuclear weapons and on a par with the Japanese mainland".
Sato maintained that the signing of the NPT meant Japan must be nuclear-free and any nuclear weapons on Okinawa would contradict that position.
Not just textiles
At the time, Japan's rising exports of textile products to the United States was creating trade friction. With the United States linking the textile issue with Okinawa's reversion that Japan was eager to advance, observers called the negotiations "Okinawa in exchange for textiles". In fact, the negotiations also concerned the removal of nuclear weapons from the island.
One important point should be noted. By using the argument for nuclear armament as a diplomatic card, Japan risks causing distrust to develop with the United States and neighboring countries.
Furthermore, influential US newspapers reported their concern over a "nuclear domino effect" in East Asia.
Washington shares the concern. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said that no one thinks the change in the regional nuclear balance caused by Japan's nuclear armament would improve security.
Successive US administrations have feared that if Japan were to acquire nuclear weapons, it could distance itself from the United States. If Japan causes the United States to harbor such anxiety again, it would greatly undermine bilateral relations.
Sato's comment was kept confidential for many years. Furthermore, he said that his view differed from Japan's domestic public sentiment. It shows that the public's strong anti-nuclear sentiment served as a control brake on the argument for nuclear armament.
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Taro Aso and Shoichi Nakagawa, chairman of the LDP Policy Research Council, are making reference to the subject in public. Once again, public opinion is being tested.
Hideki Kan is professor of Japan-US diplomatic history at Seinan Jo Gakuin University and professor emeritus at Kyushu University.
(China Daily via agencies January 11, 2007)