North Korean Atomic Tests Lift Lid on Japan’s Nuclear ‘Taboo’
By Sachiko Sakamaki
May 29 (Bloomberg) -- North Korea’s nuclear test and missile launches have Japan confronting a topic long off-limits: acquiring atomic weapons of its own.
“The threat is elevated and Japan should seek to arm itself with nuclear weapons,” former Japanese air force chief Toshio Tamogami said in one of two recent interviews. “North Korea will keep testing until they develop nuclear missiles that can reach the U.S.”
His nonconformist message, delivered in speeches and a weekly television show that began this month, reflects a reappraisal of how Japan should defend itself against North Korea, as well as China’s growing military might. Ruling party lawmakers now are calling for a more aggressive interpretation of the nation’s pacifist constitution, designed to reassure Asian neighbors that suffered under Japanese wartime oppression.
“Tamogami’s opinion is still a minority view, but it is no longer a taboo, nor seen as an extreme one,” said Yoichi Shimada, an international-politics professor at Fukui Prefectural University in central Japan. “China wouldn’t welcome a Japanese debate on nuclear armament and would feel threatened if Japan were to acquire offensive capabilities.”
North Korea tested its second nuclear device on May 25, defying international condemnation that built up after a ballistic-missile launch in April. Two days ago, Kim Jong-Il’s regime threatened an armed strike against South Korea for agreeing to participate in a U.S.-led program to stop and search ships suspected of carrying weapons of mass destruction.
Shoot Down Missiles?
After Kim’s government warned of an upcoming launch, Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada, 53, in March ordered the military to shoot down any missiles or related debris that entered Japanese territory.
Japan is the only country ever to have suffered a nuclear attack. More than 210,000 people died after the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, bringing an end to World War II.
Under Japan’s constitution, written by the U.S. during its postwar occupation, the country renounced the use of force to resolve international disputes. About 50,000 U.S. troops are still stationed in Japan, providing for its defense. Japan maintains a 230,000-strong Self-Defense Force that courts have ruled is legal, over the objection of pacifist groups.
President Barack Obama, 47, reiterated to Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso on May 26 that the U.S. commitment to the defense of Japan includes the nuclear umbrella, according to the foreign ministry’s Web site. Aso, 68, called North Korea’s nuclear test “completely unacceptable.”
Gen Nakatani, 51, a ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker in the Diet’s lower house, this week said that Japan should have the capability to conduct pre-emptive strikes, possibly including cruise missiles on board navy ships, because “North Korea poses a serious and realistic threat.” That would challenge a policy of only having non-offensive weapons.
“Japan should possess a normal military by doing away with the defense-only policy, and possessing long-range offensive missiles” to deal with North Korea, the 60-year-old Tamogami said. “Without such a system, they won’t listen to us because they know we won’t strike them.”
North Korea and its leader single out Japan for some of the communist regime’s harshest criticism.
“Japan, with the silent approval and instigation of the U.S., has already rearmed itself a long time ago,” Ri Si Hong, North Korea’s acting representative to the Asean Regional Forum, said at a May 19-20 meeting in Phuket, Thailand, according to a text of the speech. Japan “continues to stockpile most sophisticated military hardware in excess amounts, going far beyond what is necessary for self-defense.”
Tamogami, who was forced to resign his post last October for publishing an essay saying China provoked Japan into World War II, has become the country’s most vocal nuclear campaigner. The Asahi newspaper dubbed him the “Tamogami phenomenon.”
“Nobody else says Japan is a good country as he does,” said Masayuki Mori, 34, a cosmetics salesman who traveled from the southwestern city of Fukuoka to hear Tamogami speak in Tokyo last month.
The former air force chief says he gives 30 speeches a month, focusing on patriotism. His first book, “Without Considering Myself,” sold 140,000 copies, qualifying it as a bestseller. He has organized a support group that costs 5,000 yen ($52) to join, and is considering entering politics.
“There’s a social sensation because of his authority as the top officer and his simple message,” said Koji Murata, professor of international relations at Doshisha University in Kyoto, who debated with Tamogami on a TV Asahi talk show in April. “It doesn’t mean Japan is turning right, but shows people’s frustration with the North Korean problem as well as an economic recession.”
Few opinion polls even touch on the nuclear issue.
In a TV Asahi survey conducted after North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006, 10 percent of respondents said Japan should possess nuclear weapons while 82 percent said the government should continue to maintain its non-nuclear stance.
Shingo Nishimura, who resigned in 1999 as a deputy defense minister after calling for a nuclear debate, praised Tamogami for speaking out.
“Japan is shifting from an abnormal situation to a normal one,” said Nishimura, 60, a lower-house lawmaker. “We should make a defense strategy assuming there’s no such thing as a U.S. nuclear umbrella.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Sachiko Sakamaki in Tokyo at Ssakamaki1@bloomberg.net.
Last Updated: May 28, 2009 14:07 EDT