Leaving its comfort zone: Japan’s special role in creating a world free of nuclear weapons

By Masako Toki | August 17, 2011

Who could have imagined a year ago that the ceremonies of the 66th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be so poignant? Who could have imagined that Japan would have to endure another disaster derived from the energy source used to kill hundreds of thousands of people in 1945?

“As the people of a nation that experienced nuclear devastation, we continued the plea of ‘No More Hibakusha!’ [The Japanese word for atomic bomb survivors.] How has it come that we are threatened once again by the fear of radiation?” Nagasaki Mayor Tomihisa Taue said in what he called a “peace declaration.” This represents the sentiments of most Japanese people.

The peace declaration — drafted in consultation with a committee of scholars and survivors of the atomic attacks — urged the Japanese government to reduce its reliance on nuclear energy and called for the development of renewable energy sources. Prime Minister Naoto Kan also vowed to aim for a society that does not rely on nuclear power generation in his remarks in both cities. The prime minister’s statement demonstrates a significant shift in thinking, but the government has yet to thoroughly review the country’s nuclear energy policy.

Until the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, the majority of Japanese people believed in the myth of the complete safety of nuclear power plants. Moving away from reliance on nuclear energy had been inconceivable in mainstream thought and politics. The release of radioactive materials in this unprecedented nuclear disaster, however, has kindled fear and concern in Japan and around the world and forced the Japanese government to reconsider its policy.

Another perennial, controversial and related issue is Japan’s reliance on the extended deterrence of the US nuclear umbrella. Here, too, a policy shift needs to be considered. Isn’t it a good time for all of us to seriously start asking ourselves if the world is safer with nuclear weapons? Particularly, is Japan safer because of the extended deterrence that the US nuclear arsenal affords?

As the only country that has experienced nuclear attacks, Japan has repeatedly pledged to work for a world without nuclear weapons. And indeed, in recent years Tokyo has significantly enhanced its efforts to strengthen nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament regimes, taking every opportunity, domestic and international, to restate its commitments to nuclear disarmament.

There has been no change at all, however, in Japan’s reliance on the extended nuclear deterrence provided by the United States. Even in an international security environment that shows growing movement — at least by some states — toward support of a world free of nuclear weapons, the most recent Japanese National Defense Program Guidelines did not clearly reflect international efforts to reduce the role of nuclear weapons. Instead, the guidelines adopted the same line on extended nuclear deterrence as all the past versions, stating that, “[a]s long as nuclear weapons exist, the extended deterrence provided by the United States with nuclear deterrent as a vital element, will be indispensable.”

Some characteristics of Japan’s “moderate” nuclear disarmament policy actually do not go very far toward disarmament: no official support for nuclear disarmament within a specific time frame; no concrete support for the idea of a convention that outlaws nuclear weapons; and no definite support for a US declaration that it would not use nuclear weapons first. Most non-aligned movement countries and several non-nuclear European countries support more direct disarmament efforts. In recent years, in fact, the idea of a nuclear weapons convention aimed at achieving a world without nuclear weapons has gained momentum, with the final document for the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference making reference to such a convention. Also, this year’s United Nations Conference on Disarmament Issues also dedicated one session — titled “from aspiration to negotiation” — entirely to discussing a nuclear weapons convention.

The mayors of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki advocate a nuclear weapons convention. If Japan seriously wants to tackle the challenges that hinder the world from moving toward zero nuclear weapons, it must consider supporting a nuclear weapons convention outlawing those weapons. By expressing its official endorsement for such an initiative, Japan could take a first step outside the comfort zone of its long-held, “moderate” nuclear disarmament policy.

Changing a status quo that has existed for decades is never easy, but sometimes an unwanted and unexpected external shock can help change begin. The Fukushima accident is an unprecedented disaster, and far too costly to be considered merely an external shock. Nevertheless, Fukushima has taught one painful lesson: Human beings are prone to believe in safety myths.

After steadfastly relying on nuclear power for decades, Japan is changing. The myth that nuclear power plants are entirely safe has been disproven. The myth of extended deterrence should also be challenged.

The people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki know well the horrific and indiscriminate effects of nuclear weapons. The Fukushima disaster gives us a chance to rethink and debunk the myth that nuclear weapons will never be used and that nuclear deterrence will continue to work. Beyond the possibility of nuclear warfare between states, there is no guarantee against accidents involving stored nuclear weapons. Public health and the environment are threatened by nuclear weapons production. Moreover, terrorists could acquire nuclear weapons or nuclear material.

The government and the public need to have serious, practical discussions on achieving a world without nuclear weapons. Civil-society organizations also have an essential role to play: They must work toward creating a critical mass of public opinion that holds nuclear weapons to be ethically unacceptable and detrimental to peace and security.

In his address in Nagasaki, Prime Minister Kan said the Japanese government needs to put “principle into practice” and work toward a Japan that relies less and less on nuclear energy. If the government is serious about this effort, it is time to challenge the myth of nuclear deterrence and start working to create an international environment in which world leaders can negotiate a new agreement that outlaws the world’s most dangerous and inhumane weapon.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are purely personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the organization to which the author belongs.

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