September 6, 1976 – In the darkest hours of the Cold War, following America’s disgraced exit from Vietnam and the subsequent onslaught by the Viet Cong through the perfidy of Congress, during a time when Soviet proxies were enjoying success throughout Africa and South America, a single Soviet pilot took a MiG-25 “Foxbat” and flew it to the island of Hokkaido, and asked for sanctuary. In the following days, the Soviet government put intense pressure on Japan to turn over the plane and the defector to the tender mercies of the KGB, but Japan stood fast, telling the Soviets in uncharacteristic bluntness where they could go. In many ways this incident proved Japan’s friendship to the United States, as the Land of the Rising Sun showed honor and resolve in a time when it was hardly fashionable to be a friend to America. Yet it also started a new train of thought in Japanese international politics – shouldn’t Japan enjoy greater respect and position? Over the next three decades, this thinking resulted in new initiatives, both economically and politically, benefiting the Nikkei, MITI, and Japanese position relative to the rest of Asia. More than a few people began to say that Japan seemed to enjoy a Pacific version of the “Special Relationship” between the United States and the United Kingdom. From that perspective, it is hardly surprising to hear many people suggest that in the light of North Korea’s attempts to create a nuclear weapon, as well as concerns about the People’s Republic of China with regard to their own nuclear arsenal, that Japan should not only be allowed, but encouraged to develop its own nuclear weapon. Yet this would be a very risky course for the United States to pursue, and one which long-term consequences could prove expensive, and bring about conditions the United States would never knowingly wish to bring about.
Japan, regardless of the Constitution under which it now exists, still considers itself an Empire. The military, now officially designated a ‘Self-Defense Force’, is top-of-the-line in equipment; the air forces include various sub-types of F-15s and AWAC Boeing 767s, and the naval force includes Aegis cruisers. The Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) has a history of imposing conditions and personally-advantageous interpretations of treaties and agreements on trading partners such as would make used-car salesmen blush. And the Japanese official version of World War 2 still remains singularly distant from Reality, and which refusal to accept responsibility for specific (and documented) atrocities offends many nations and earns complaints from historians and the families of victims demanding acknowledgment of responsibility and meaningful reparations. In short, Japan is far from a mature or accountable democratic republic, and future loyalty to America or her interests is anything but certain. Remember “A Japan That Can Say No”, by Sony Chairman Akio Morita and politician Shintaro Ishihara?
It should be understood that the path to nuclear weapons is actually a series of decision points; choices made which determine not only the course in a specific situation, but which also direct the color and direction of future decisions. As an example, the United States found itself in large part compelled to use the Atom Bomb on Japan in 1945. Here’s how that chain played out:
The first major step in the nuclear bomb chain is deciding whether it can be done. That was proven mathematically in 1931.
The second decision point is deciding whether a specific nation can make a nuclear weapon. Einstein (and other scientists) wrote a letter to President Roosevelt in 1939 which confirmed that the United States could build such a bomb.
The third decision point is deciding whether a specific nation should attempt to make a nuclear weapon. That same 1939 letter from Dr. Einstein warned Roosevelt that if the United States did not make such a bomb, they would be at the negligible mercy of the Nazis, who certainly were trying to make one.
The fourth decision point is deciding whether to deny progress on a nuclear weapon to another nation. This was an obvious choice for the United States against Germany in 1942-5, but later a much more difficult decision in “peacetime” against the Soviet Union, China, and so on.
The fifth decision point is testing the weapon. Conditions in World War 2 made that choice obvious, as well.
The remaining decision point in 1945 rested on actual use of the bomb. Bearing in mind that the Soviet Union was already sending signals that they intended to take full advantage of this unique opportunity to grab territory, as well as the anticipated cost of invading the Japanese homelands, which would be largely an American cost in lives and material, using the atom bomb to end the war and send a clear message against Soviet ambition was obvious.
The significance of this chain, is that at each decision point there was a strong or compelling need for the United States to continue on that path. With that in mind, here is the situation for Japan:
1. Can Japan do it? Japan faces two significant obstacles to creating its own nuclear weapon; its Constitution and the lack of a Nuclear Forces framework. In both cases the changes necessary to allow for development of a nuclear weapon would be in conflict with all known and recognized legitimate Japanese goals and ideals, and so would inevitably create political chaos, legal fights, and a vacuum in control of the military as its role and duties were redefined. By all existing measures, the foreseeable benefits are outweighed by the known costs.
2. What would Japan do with a nuclear arsenal? The sole argument presented in favor of Japan obtaining nuclear weapons is the notion that this would counter North Korea and possibly also China, perhaps serving to calm the governments in South Korea and other Asian governments. This notion is less than thought-through all the way. For one thing, nations which already have nuclear weapons have never yet abandoned them because a potential opponent acquired them. Also, because of Japan’s unwillingness to resolve issues surrounding Japanese aggression in World War 2, many Asian nations are unwilling to accept Japan as a regional leader, much less consider Tokyo as an appropriate guarantor of their sovereignty. Again, there seems to be no real reason to encourage Japan to obtain a nuclear weapon, and strong reasons to demur.
3. What would the United States do, if at some future time Japan was once again an enemy? If North Korea is a concern now, how much more would Japan be, given its obvious economic and military strength? There is no way to take back nuclear capability, and Japan has never rejected its desire to become an hegemony. They simply have used the available tools of economic and political pressure to gain as much as possible. A nuclear capability could easily tempt Japan into making military overtures, given their history, perceived threats, and resource needs.
In summation, a nuclear Japan would be far worse than a nuclear North Korea. Put away this foolish notion, please.