A Japanese Nuke: No Longer Unthinkable

China's military push has at least one Tokyo leader speaking openly of entering an arms race, perhaps even developing nuclear capability

By Brian Bremner

Something surreal happened over the weekend on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu. During an Apr. 6 speech, a leading Japanese opposition leader warned Beijing -- publicly -- that if it keeps up its over-the-top defense buildup, Japan would have no choice but to launch a nuclear-weapons program of its own. And then came this in-your-face kicker: Japan "will never be beaten in terms of military power."

This didn't come from some fringe right-winger. The words were spoken by former Liberal Democratic Party heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa, who now runs the tiny opposition Liberal Party, which is big on promoting economic reform and stronger national security. A decade ago, if someone of Ozawa's prominence had uttered the "N" word in such a cavalier way, all hell would have broken loose. First, the apologies, then unending calls to recant or resign.

The most extraordinary thing that happened since Ozawa let it rip: not very much. Sure, he isn't the force he used to be and, like any pol, he knows that making headlines once in a while is vital to staying in the public's consciousness. But Ozawa isn't a flame-thrower by nature. He's a pretty serious thinker about the future of Japan.


  His 1994 political manifesto, Blueprint For A New Japan, called for a more proactive foreign policy that would enable Japan to break out of its post-war passivity. This was bold stuff at the time. Even the CIA thought it worthy of translation before the English version was published. And foreign-policy bigwigs such as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger sang its praises.

That was eight years ago. The Japanese Establishment has always been loath to openly question its post-war pacifism, enshrined in the country's war-renouncing constitution. And I have to think the China specialists at Japan's Foreign Ministry winced when they read Ozawa's latest muscular quotes about checking any Chinese military threat in the region.

The fact the Japanese public didn't wince says a lot about the mood in Japan in this post-September 11 era. Not that there's an overwhelming movement afoot in Japan to go nuclear. Ozawa knows that. My guess is that he was simply laying down a marker for Beijing. Message: Japan won't stand idly by should China decide to try to build up an undisputed military position in the region.


  More broadly, Japanese leaders and the public at large are increasingly cognizant that they live in a far more dangerous world than that of the last decade. China is an ascendant power in the region, and its motives on the military front aren't entirely clear. Tokyo claims that North Korean agents have kidnapped Japanese citizens over the years, spy ships have infiltrated Japan's territorial waters, and Pyongyang has the long-range missile capability, possibly nuclear, to launch an attack on the archipelago.

It's not just Ozawa who is speaking out. Take Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who quickly responded to Washington's call to dispatch three Maritime Self-Defense Force ships to the Indian Ocean to provide logistical support for U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Koizumi has also called for a national debate about revising the occupation-era constitution to give Japan the clear right to wage war to defend its interests. A recent poll by the Daily Yomiuri newspaper revealed that some 57% of those canvassed favor revamping the constitution to make this clear. Polls going back seven years show more than 50% of Japanese have consistently backed the idea.


  Already, Japan has a formidable navy and a defense budget of about $37 billion. It's investing in spy satellites and has the kind of high-tech finesse to jointly research missile-defense systems with the U.S. It surely has the capability of defending itself fully, should it chose to follow that route.

If Japan beefs up its security, it would probably become much harder for Tokyo to justify having 45,000-odd American troops based on Japanese soil. The hassles of hosting such a contingent of soldiers and equipment make the U.S. presence highly unpopular with the Japanese public, especially after a string of criminal allegations against U.S. soldiers involving local civilians. A stronger Japan would also likely oblige the Pentagon to find other bases, perhaps fall back to Guam, for its forward deployment in Asia.

Will the day come when Japan decides to join the nuclear club? That would be a historic step for a nation that suffered two nuclear attacks from the U.S. during World War II. I think the odds of Japan developing a nuclear weapon are pretty low. It would require a very serious threat before the country took such a fateful step. Anything short of that, rightly or wrongly, would cause an international uproar.


  This is unpleasant stuff to contemplate. But it's refreshing to hear a Japanese leader speak in very stark terms about the country's national-security interests. Coming from a small opposition party, Ozawa probably will never be Prime Minister. But give him this much: He's publicly airing a very sensitive subject.

The reality is that Japan lives in an increasingly dangerous neighborhood, and confronting that reality is far healthier than ignoring it.

Bremner, Tokyo bureau chief for BusinessWeek, offers his views every week in Eye on Japan, only for BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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