As the only country ever to be attacked by atomic weapons – first in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 – Japan may be reluctant to become a nuclear-weapons power itself. Photo: iStock
The A-Bomb Dome Hiroshima Peace Memorial. Photo: iStock

Despite murmurings of a nuclear armed Japan nobody quite believes it will happen. A longstanding tenet for Japan watchers is that Japan is allergic to having nuclear weapons, owing to having been bombed with them twice – in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

However, as is often the case with commonly accepted wisdom, maybe this isn’t so certain. Indeed, on closer examination, Japan’s nuclear allergy might be psychosomatic.

Japan’s aversion to nuclear weapons perhaps has less to do with the weapons themselves, and more to do with the catastrophe Japan suffered during World War II. And the 1941-1945 war was only a follow-on to a costly, bloody quagmire in China starting in 1931.

The US firebombing raids on Tokyo were no less horrific than the nuclear attacks in August 1945, and no Japanese city of any consequence was spared. Ground combat in the Pacific was equally ghastly.

Japan suffered around 3 million military and civilian deaths during the war. Adjust for population size and this would be as if the United States suffered around 6 million dead – versus the 300,000 military personnel killed and near zero civilian casualties.

After the war ended, there were victory parades in the US and the GI Bill that put veterans into college and houses. Post-war Japan was in shambles and was a place people could starve to death.

It’s easy to forget all this – and it does put Japanese attitudes towards defense (not just nuclear weapons) into a certain perspective. One fairly asks what would be American attitudes towards defense if the US experienced something similar?

Japanese resistance to developing a military that can actually fight – versus one that’s good for parades, canned exercises, and snow festivals may have some elements of laziness and pathological dependence on or cynical manipulation of the US.

But the horrific experience of World War II should not be forgotten.

As for nuclear weapons, Japan likes to portray itself as uniquely victimized. However, this is perhaps more a natural human trait to shift responsibility or even excuse failure. The Japanese are not alone.

After World War I, many Germans claimed to have been ‘stabbed in the back’ (by the Jews), and bullied by the victorious Allies at Versailles, which was really to blame for Hitler’s rise (not the German public).

And some Americans claim failure in Vietnam was owing to the biased media and anti-war protesters at home, not from bad policy or a poorly fought war.

And it’s not just the word nuclear that causes allergy symptoms to flare up in Japan.

Until just a few years ago, the word ‘amphibious’ was taboo in Japanese political, academic, bureaucratic, and even military circles – where even mentioning it ruined the careers of certain Japanese officers.

Why so? It conjured up images of Japanese forces going overseas and attacking people – and everything else that came with that in the 1930’s and 1940’s – i.e. 3 million dead, horrific suffering on the home front, and enemy occupation.

These days, however, amphibious is back on the approved vocabulary list and the Japan Self Defense Force is developing amphibious forces, seen as a necessary capability to defend Japanese islands from China.

Not even the leftist Asahi newspaper objects very much. All it took was a real threat to appear.

One senses ‘nuclear’ could also go onto the approved list before too long.

Building nuclear weapons and developing a capability to deliver them isn’t hard if Japan wishes to do so. One observer familiar with both nuclear weapons and missiles commented to me a couple months ago:

“If they want a simple atomic bomb, no sweat. If they want a boosted atomic bomb, maybe a slight bit of sweat. If they want a full fledged hydrogen bomb, some sweat but no insurmountable obstacles.

Japan does build and launch rockets and is experienced with nuclear reactors, so politics aside they should have no problem fielding a nuclear armed ICBM in a very few years if the desire is there. It is hard to think of any critical technology they couldn’t develop quickly if they didn’t have it already.”

So, suppose the Americans back off their commitment to defend Japan (or are perceived as doing so), or a North Korean missile hits Tokyo, or maybe the Chinese grab the Senkaku Islands.

In such circumstances Japan just might make a miraculous recovery from its nuclear allergy.

Grant Newsham

Grant Newsham is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo with more than 20 years' experience in Japan and elsewhere in Asia as a US diplomat, business executive, and US Marine Corps officer.

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