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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 65, July - August 2002

Controversy over Remarks on Japan Nuclear Option

On May 31, an unnamed senior Japanese government official was quoted by the Kyodo news agency as observing that the country's 'Three Fundamental Non-Nuclear Principles', enshrining the country's commitment never to develop, acquire or use nuclear weapons, may not stand the test of time: "The principles are just like the Constitution. But in the face of calls to amend the Constitution, the amendment of the principles is also likely." The official was quickly identified, and officially confirmed, as Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda, provoking a domestic outcry and international cries of concern, most vociferously from Russia, China and North Korea.

The controversy was exacerbated, and made more embarrassing to the government of Junichiro Koizumi, by on-the-record remarks by Fukuda, also made on May 31, apparently arguing that, despite the three principles and Japan's membership of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the country would be entitled - though it did not intend - to acquire nuclear weapons. Fukuda was quoted as observing: "According to my personal way of way of thinking, we should [hypothetically] be able to have [nuclear weapons]". Fukuda also reportedly implied that Japan would be entitled, under the mandate of the strict self-defence requirement of its constitution, to acquire intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). According to media accounts, after consultations with officials Fukuda then retracted any such claim: "Japan will not possess ICBMs because they exceed the defence-only policy."

Prime Minister Koizumi immediately moved to downplay the story and resolve any confusion, insisting on May 31: "My Cabinet will keep the non-nuclear weapon principles. Japan will not possess a nuclear arsenal because we have these principles. This is not even worthy of serious discussion..." Koizumi, however, did not distance himself from Fukuda's reported remark that Japan would be entitled to acquire nuclear weapons; indeed, the Prime Minister stated, "it is significant that although we could have them, we don't".

On June 2, Alexander Yakovenko, official spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry made clear the Kremlin was taking the comments lightly: "Proclaimed by the Japanese Parliament, the 'three non-nuclear principles' over the course of many years were positively regarded in the world as evidence of the realistic character of the foreign policy of Japan. The current statement of the official spokesman of the government of Japan about a possible review in the future of these principles arouses an understandable concern. Japan - a large world power, the only victim of atomic bombings - was always in the front ranks of the supporters of atomic disarmament. Now that this problem has assumed special relevance, and leading nuclear powers are taking steps in the direction of reducing their nuclear capabilities, such statements...do not contribute to the strengthening of the non-proliferation regime and look an obvious anachronism."

On June 3, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Kong Quan stated: "At the present time, when peace and development have become the main themes of the times, and continued progress is being made in international nuclear disarmament, it is shocking to hear remarks like this from a senior Japanese official."

On June 4, a statement delivered on North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) railed: "An endless string of remarks made by the Japanese authorities about having access to nukes clearly suggest that the Japanese reactionary forces are becoming more undisguised in their moves to turn Japan into a military power and go nuclear".

Despite such criticism and expressions of unease, Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi told reporters on June 3: "We explained the meaning of the comments [to other governments] and received their understanding. There has been no diplomatic fall-out."

Rallying to his own defence, Fukuda insisted (June 3): "I only said there is a chance the government could take another look at the three non-nuclear principles in the future. There is absolutely no chance that this Cabinet will discuss revising these principles. Why are they [media and politicians] making waves when I have said we are not going to revise [the principles]?"

Among the 'waves' being made domestically, Nobutaka Machimura, Deputy Secretary General of the ruling Liberal Democratic party (LDP) stated (June 2): "It was a careless statement we must not forgive. ... No one in the LDP believes Japan should possess nuclear weapons." The mayor of Hiroshima, Tadatoshi Akiba, noted with dismay (June 1): "I am concerned that the ultimate goal for the government is to become a country with nuclear weapons. The remarks will create a sense of mistrust about Japan abroad and lead to increased risk of nuclear proliferation." Naoto Kan, Secretary General of the main opposition Democratic Party, argued (June 2): "Japan should argue for the abolition of nuclear weapons at the time when India and Pakistan, both of which have nuclear weapons, are in a dangerous situation. But to the contrary, he mentioned the possibility of possessing nuclear weapons. I can't believe it." On June 4, a senior member of the Democratic Party, Hiroshi Kumagai, told a press conference: "Commentators are saying that the remarks by this most pivotal figure were ill-timed. But this is not a joke. This is not a matter of timing. This is a very fundamental matter... How can the Prime Minister say this is no big deal?"

On June 10, Koizumi and Fukuda defiantly faced a barrage of criticism in Parliament. Fukuda again insisted: "It was reported that I hinted at a change of policy. This is absolutely different from what my beliefs are." Koizumi maintained: "Our nation has been aggressively pursuing a diplomacy to promote nuclear non-proliferation and end nuclear tests. We are working hard to create a world where nuclear weapons don't exist."

Reports: Koizumi denies change in non-nuclear policy amid reports of officials suggesting a switch, Associated Press, May 31; Japan official challenges taboo on nuclear arms, Reuters, June 1; Russia alarmed by reports Japan ready to build nuclear weapons, Associated Press, June 2; Remarks by Foreign Ministry official spokesman Alexander Yakovenko, June 2, 2002, Russian Foreign Ministry transcript; Japan eyes damage control over nuclear remarks, Reuters, June 2; Japan PM scrambles to contain nuke remark fallout, Reuters, June 3; Japan PM under fire after aide's nuclear faux pas, Reuters, June 4; Following flap, Japan explains position on nuclear weapons to neighbors, Associated Press, June 4; Nuclear arms taboo is challenged in Japan, New York Times, June 8; Japan playing down comments by top official suggesting shift in nuclear stance, Associated Press, June 10.

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© 2002 The Acronym Institute.