On May 31, a senior Japanese official suggested that Tokyo could revise its longstanding policy of forswearing nuclear weapons but was forced to issue a retraction after his remarks provoked widespread condemnation.
Speaking to reporters, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said that “in the face of calls to amend the [no-war provisions of the Japanese] constitution, the amendment of the principles is also possible,” according to Japan’s Kyodo News Agency.
Fukuda was referring to Japan’s three non-nuclear principles, which state that Tokyo will never produce, possess, or allow nuclear weapons on its territory. These principles were set out in the late 1960s by then-Prime Minister Eisaku Sato and have been subsequently endorsed by successive Japanese governments.
Fukada did not allow reporters to quote him by name, but harsh domestic criticism to his comments fueled by opposition leaders forced Fukuda to claim responsibility for and to back away from the initially anonymous remarks. “I only said there is a chance the government could take another look at the three non-nuclear principles in the future,” Fukuda clarified on June 3, according to The New York Times. “There is absolutely no chance that this cabinet will discuss revising these principles,” he added.
During a June 10 parliamentary session, Fukuda told Japanese lawmakers that his “remarks did not indicate the government’s future policy” and that he was not advocating a review of the principles, Kyodo News reported. At that session, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi also made clear that his government did not support revising the non-nuclear principles, saying there would be “no change” in its policy on the issue.
Even if Japan were to renounce or revise its policy, the government would have to withdraw from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty—which bars it from possessing nuclear weapons—and abolish domestic law that restricts nuclear development to civil use before it could build nuclear weapons.
Japan’s neighbors quickly reacted to the remarks, articulating varying degrees of concern. On June 4, China’s foreign ministry spokesman called the remarks “really shocking” and noted that “they obviously run counter” to Japanese policy. Two days later, North Korea’s state-run news agency blasted the remarks as an “ill-boding act,” warning that “Japanese militarists are well advised to behave with discretion, mindful of what disaster their reckless moves for nuclear armament will bring.” South Korean officials also expressed concern.
Because Japan was attacked with atomic bombs during World War II, the Japanese political environment is particularly sensitive to nuclear issues. In 1999 the Japanese foreign minister resigned after suggesting that the parliament should consider arming Japan with nuclear weapons. (See ACT, November 1999.) This past April, the leader of Japan’s opposition Liberal Democratic Party also sparked controversy by stating that Japan could produce “thousands of nuclear warheads overnight” and that it would be “easy” for Tokyo to develop nuclear weapons.