Japan has been bound by three cardinal non-nuclear principles since the 1960s – not to manufacture or possess nuclear weapons nor permit their introduction into Japanese territory. Right before the upcoming election to the Japanese House of Representatives however, suspicions which could pose a grave challenge to these principles, surfaced. Ryohei Murata, retired administrative vice-minister of foreign affairs, alleged that there is a secret paper which is an agreement between the United States and Japan allowing the former to introduce its nuclear weapons into the latter’s territory without advance permission. While the US has already admitted to the existence of such an agreement, successive Japanese governments, led by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), have consistently denied the fact. However, now, with the possibility that the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), the biggest opposition party, might win the election, there is a good chance that the truth of the matter might come to light, especially with the DPJ committing itself to investigating the secret agreement.
Since the Second World War, the Japanese government has been confronted with a dilemma. While it has been on a mission to promote global nuclear disarmament, it also faces the threat from the nuclear weapons of its neighbors. Additionally, the three principles also present an important paradox. The principles have formed gradually, over time, starting from the 1950s and became ‘Kokuze’ (national promise) during the Sato administration in 1967. However, since the Cold War era, Japan has served as among the most important bases for the US. Moreover, the Japanese government realized the importance of the US nuclear umbrella after the Chinese nuclear test. On the important question of whether or not American naval ships carry nuclear weapons, the US answered in the affirmative in the 1970s itself, especially since the meaning of ‘introduction’ according to the US was different from the understanding shared by the Japanese. To the former, it meant deploying nuclear weapons ‘on land’ and thus, carrying these weapons on American naval ships did not seem problematic.
On the contrary, for a long time, successive Japanese governments have answered in the negative because its citizens have been opposed to the introduction of nuclear weapons not only on land, but also in Japanese ports and territorial waters. Successive Japanese governments have maintained the pretext that ’Washington and Tokyo have an agreement that requires the US to consult Japan in case it wishes to introduce a nuclear weapon into Japan’s territory. And since Washington has never consulted Tokyo, it means that the US navy never introduced such weapons’. If Japan were to admit to the fact, Tokyo would need to either change the three principles or reject US attempts to introduce nuclear weapons. Thus, the policy of successive governments has been to ‘neither confirm nor deny’.
This question has surfaced yet again before Japan’s general election scheduled for August-end. While Ryohei Murata’s allegation has been dismissed by the LDP, the DPJ’s leader, Yukio Hatoyama, is reported to have said that ’if [the DPJ] wins the election, [it] will disclose the [secret] paper’. He added that there was a ‘need to conclude this problem with an open debate’.
However, Hatoyama’s commitment to the three non-nuclear principles appears to be wavering. On 14 July he emphasized the importance of the US nuclear umbrella for Japan to protect itself against North Korea. However, as soon as he realized that his remark had been taken to mean that he intended to change the non-nuclear principles, he was quick to deny the previous remark and said, “the principles are/will be maintained in the near future”. He further stated, “there is no need for the US to introduce its nuclear weapons to Japan”. On 4 August he told reporters, “the non-nuclear principles were like Kokuze. If it was a law, it could be amended easily”. Again, on 9 August, in front of a gathering of the victims of US’ nuclear bombing, he said, “there is a way to change the principles to law”. Such an unclear policy has, of course, been criticized by the LDP and media.
Although there is widespread speculation that the DPJ is likely to win this election, there seems little possibility of a change in Japan’s nuclear stance since the DPJ’s nuclear policy is almost the same as LDP’s. The DPJ remains unequivocally opposed to the possession of nuclear weapons. Further, its 2009 manifesto states that its nuclear policy will be geared to “take the lead to eradicate nuclear weapons” and establish a nuclear-free zone in Northeast Asia. Even if the DPJ were to investigate whether the US has introduced the weapons, and change the three non-nuclear principles to two non-nuclear principles, nothing will change. That will only be a linguistic change, not factual. Irrespective of who wins the election, the new Japanese government will not refuse the US nuclear umbrella. Moreover, it is possible that the new government would be dissolved before it can fully implement its manifesto, since short-lived governments have become a feature of Japanese politics.