Japan’s Nuclear Moment

If Japan wanted to develop nuclear weapons, there would be no better moment than now to start. As the North Korean regime grows desperate to get a more generous ransom against its nuclear program, its threats to Tokyo grew multifold. Last week Shinzo Abe, the Japanese Prime Minister, warned that North Korea is preparing to launch missiles with sarin against Tokyo. The U.S. President, Donald Trump, further added to the turmoil by declaring last week that an “armada” of American military vessels is heading to the Korean peninsula, only to be contradicted by his own military, which broke the news that days later the “armada” was sailing nearby Singapore, over 3,000 miles away from the Korean peninsula, and reportedly has been travelling in the opposite direction. So much for the credibility of the American “extended deterrence”, which should guarantee the security umbrella over Japan, a policy in force since 1975. Now, both South Korea and Japan feel cheated and let down, while the U.S. Administration is caught red-handed bluffing. A truly embarrassing situation, indeed. In the meantime, China’s aggressive assertiveness in the region, its continuing building of artificial islands in South China Sea and unilaterally enforced new Air Defense Identification Zone over the sea, its claims over various islands and archipelago against its neighbors – not just Japan, but also Vietnam, South Korea, and The Philippines – and the apparent inability of now two consecutive U.S. administrations to curb the security dilemma that ensues from the Chinese actions, all contribute to the sense of insecurity and urgent necessity Japan to take its national security in its own hands.

In a growing multipolar and multi-regional “G-Zero” world, to use the title of a popular book, missed opportunities will be costly. Much more so, when the survival of a nation is at stake. Thus, the arguments against a Japanese nuclear program that rely on the high cost – political and financial – for joining the nuclear club, lose persuasiveness vis-a-vis the even bigger threat that China and North Korea pose to Japan’s future, and the growing ambivalence of the United States to its security commitments in the region. In politics in general, and in international relations particularly, talk is cheap, but the cost for being ‘duped’ is steep, especially when survival is at stake.


There are a number of predicaments that Japan will have to face if it were ever to develop nuclear weapons, and they all are serious and valid. Their nature is of political, financial, technological, and social nature.

It will not be easy for Prime Minister Abe to push through the Diet a bill that would open the door for nuclear armament, even though

arguably the Japanese constitution does not prevent the possession of nuclear weapons, per se. Until recently, however, some believed, too that destroying the pillars of pacifism in Japan – the Article 9 of the constitution – and having an army that may be deployed beyond the country’s borders, was also impossible. They now seem to have been proven wrong.
As for the cost, it will certainly not be cheap, either: a few billion dollars just as a starter. But, in light of Trump’s push for Japan to pay more for its security, anyway, it may prove cheaper in the long run for Abe to invest in increasing its own defense capabilities, rather than paying the money towards a U.S. security umbrella that with every single day becomes more and more unreliable.

Developing nuclear weapons, even for one of the technologically most advanced countries in the world, will be not just expensive, but also a challenging task. Japan, being an island, may need to mount a number of missiles on submarines as its best option for nuclear deterrence, and sink them deep near its coasts. The current impressive fleet of submarines at the disposal of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, or JMSDF, is all diesel propelled and has no vessels with nuclear propulsion. This may delay an actual nuclear armament, but it is unlikely to prove insurmountable altogether. In addition, the country actually has the required raw material. Currently, Japan continues to stockpile depleted plutonium from its nuclear power plants, which can be enriched to weapon grade and used in weapons.

And, while the Japanese society is largely against nuclear weapons, not only because of the fact that Japan was the only country that had suffered a nuclear attack, but also due to the general isolationist and pacifist political identity of the majority of the Japanese, this could quickly change and give way to a greater support for nuclear weapons, as a result of the growing threat from North Korea. Kim jong-un is growing desperate to prove his credibility, and like a thug who cuts a finger or an ear from his kidnapped victim to send it to her relatives as a proof of his resolve, he too may launch a missile or two against Japan or South Korea, by mistake or by miscalculation of two, in attempt to win the  current nuclear chicken game.  Either way, not many Japanese will feel suicidal when faced with the choice to support a nuclear program or let be randomly annihilated by North Korean bombs, or for that matter by a Chinese aggression.

President Trump himself inadvertently opened the possibility for a Japanese nuclear program, when on the campaign trail he urged the country to “go nuclear”. Although he corrected his stance since but just a month ago during his first visit to Tokyo the U.S. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, once again hinted that “circumstances could evolve” for a Japanese nuclear arsenal. It seems that Japan, indeed, is in a “nuclear moment”.

A decision for Japan to begin developing nuclear weapons is first and foremost a political one, that would rest on a careful cost-benefits calculation, on an assessment of risks, on a political will, and on the availability of a window of opportunity.

At this moment, the cost still seems to be outweighing the benefits. In an event of Japan becoming a nuclear state, the outcry from its neighbors would be enormous, and that is not limited only to the two Koreas and China. Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia will not be willing to look with an understanding or forgiving eye on a nuclear Japan, either. Russia will be highly alarmed, too. It is possible that the United States may take an action against Japan, such as withdrawing from the security alliance. All this will most likely also result in a series of putative economic measures. China and the United States are currently the two largest commercial partners of Japan, and any retaliatory actions against Tokyo may cause a serious economic shock to the country’s struggling with recession and deflation economy.


 In fact, there are indications that Tokyo is already tacitly considering the current “window of opportunity”. The decision to begin reprocessing spent fuel domestically from mid-2018, in the Rokkashu-mura facility in the northern Aomori prefecture, instead of relying on other countries such as U.K. and France as before, has raised the suspicion of many analysts and watchdog organizations that some circles in Tokyo are already preparing to “go nuclear”. And the episode with the forgotten 640 kg. plutonium that JAEA, the Japanese Atomic Energy Agency, had accidentally omitted from its yearly voluntarily declaration to IAEA in 2014, has added to the speculations that the country is actually planning something murky for the near future. Even high officials begin openly to talk here about a possible nuclear option. Politicians close to Abe, including the Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, who also serves as finance minister, Yusuke Yokobatake, who heads the Cabinet Legislation Bureau, Tomomi Inada, who is the Liberal Democratic Party policy chief and a possible candidate for future prime minister, and even the ever evasive with his skillful diplomatic style Foreign Minister, Fumio Kishida, have all made a number of claims over the past year or so that acquiring nuclear weapons is not actually against the constitution, and is a possible option for the government to pursue.

A decision by the Japanese government to take advantage of this window of opportunity and begin preparation to join the nuclear states would be akin to an investor’s attempt to hedge the risks for his investments in times of apparent market turmoil. When the market has a bubble, the worst long-term strategy would be to keep all investments into that bubble: they may seem to be yielding high returns now, but the bubble could burst at any minute, taking all with it; miscalculate a trend for a bubble, though, and sell too early, then prepare to see the investments reduced significantly, or worse. No investor is protected against the dangers of the market. But, arguably, a good investor should remain vigilant for the trends, and recognize when a window of opportunity opens.

Today, perhaps for a first time since the end of the WWII, such a window of opportunity in front of Japan has opened and has offered it to take the matter of its national security in its own hands. Unlike investment strategies, a failure to act upon an opportunity regarding matters of national security – as history teaches us – usually ends either with the death of a state or with a permanent loss of its ability to remain in control of its own destiny. Until, at least, either another window of opportunity arises. Or the next structural shift of power distribution – usually through a hegemonic war or another major calamity – happens. Unlike financial investments, however, a better approach would be when troubles brew to act with prudence, and not to trust others. As Thomas Hobbes has once observed about a similar in nature dilemma, it pays off to carry an umbrella even on a sunny day.

Originally published in The Diplomat Magazine at http://thediplomat.com/2017/04/japans-nuclear-moment/

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