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June 13, 2002

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Koizumi under a nuclear smokescreen

By Axel Berkofsky

"Fukuda has to go," demanded Japan's political opposition after the Liberal Democratic Party's chief cabinet secretary Yasuo Fukuda questioned the so-called three non-nuclear principles that ban the country from producing, possessing and introducing nuclear weapons into Japan.

"Depending upon the world situation, circumstances and public opinion could require Japan to possess nuclear weapons," said the influential LDP politician in an off-the-record conversation with Japanese reporters last week, causing an uproar in Japan and indeed all over Asia.

Initially, it was reported that it was a "high-ranking official LDP official" who made the controversial remarks on Japan's nuclear policy, although the choice of LDP politicians with the nerve to question the fundamentals of Japanese defense policy was very quickly narrowed down to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi himself and a few defense hawks around him.

Koizumi, though, was on his way to South Korea to watch the opening of the soccer World Cup, and two days later Fukuda admitted that he was the official in question, who, on condition of anonymity, had spoken to Japanese journalists, reportedly "trying to get young reporters to begin thinking differently about their country's future".

The journalists thanked Fukuda for the lesson on Japanese constitutional rights, yet another verbal gaffe from Japan's policy-making elite and a spectacular headline for the next morning's newspapers had been made.

During the administration of former lame duck and scandal-ridden prime minister Yoshiro Mori, the articulate and ambitious Yasuo Fukuda was named the "exculpatory chief cabinet secretary" for his impressive skills in explaining Mori's frequent gaffes and incompetence to the public.

Now, it seems, Fukuda has to sort out his own verbal blunders, and talking himself out of trouble will certainly be as challenging as it can get when Japan's sacred three non-nuclear principles, established in 1967, are the issue.

Koizumi stood up for his embattled colleague, and reportedly had no problem whatsoever with Fukuda's gaffe, saying it was "nothing serious", and he casually dismissed the opposition's call for Fukuda's head. "The opposition is always requesting someone to resign, but I wonder how effective such tactics are," Koizumi said in his usual nonchalant manner.

Fukuda, for his part, set about rephrasing his remarks, claiming that they in no way represented a shift in Japan's nuclear policy. This proved to be a very challenging task, even for the eloquent Fukuda, who found himself explaining to a special committee of the Diet's House of Representatives why his remarks and the announcement that "the revision of Japan's non-nuclear principles is likely now that the revision of the constitution is under way" still conformed to the government's non-nuclear principles. Koizumi jumped in quickly to stress that no review of the principles was planned, hoping to lay the issue to rest.

The same special committee is currently discussing Japan's so-called national emergency laws that would enable the armed forces to defend Japanese territory effectively, and Koizumi fears that interrogating Fukuda could further delay the implementation of the bills beyond the current Diet session that is scheduled to end on June 19.

Koizumi received support from Japan's biggest daily newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun, which right after Fukuda's "this is not what I was really trying to say" line published a couple of editorials pointing out that the government, at least for now, did not recommend a change in nuclear policy. "Given an ordinary interpretation, this [Fukuda's] statement is simply an observation that any basic policy of a country can be reviewed depending on changing times and circumstances," the paper said, hinting, nevertheless, that the nuclear policy could be changed.

The timing to question Japan's sacred non-nuclear principles couldn't have been worse, with Koizumi attending the opening ceremonies of the World Cup in South Korea, and Japan's foreign minister calling on India and Pakistan to pledge not to use nuclear weapons against each other.

"At a time when Japan should be urging caution over rising tensions between India and Pakistan, it is criminal to utter such a comment," said an official of the Hiroshima Council against Atomic Bombs in a recent interview with the New York Times, joining Japan's second-biggest daily newspaper, the Asahi Shimbun, which wrote that "Japan cannot complain if Asian nations suspect Japanese ambitions to become a military power".

The three non-nuclear principles were established during the administration of Eisaku Sato and are considered to be untouchable tenets of Japanese defense policy. Only in theory, however, as revelations of recent years seem to suggest. Roughly two years ago, Japan's Communist Party presented the Japanese public with the so-called "US-Japan Secret Agreements" documenting that visiting US warships calling at Japanese ports during the Cold War had regularly been equipped with missiles carrying nuclear weapons.

These once-classified documents seem to confirm earlier suspicions that consecutive Japanese governments were never really overly interested in finding out whether US warships were violating one of the sacred principles. According to the documents and secret conversations between then US ambassador to Japan Edwin Reischauer and the Japanese government in the 1960s, the US government claimed that ships with nuclear warheads on board calling Japanese ports could not be classified the "introduction" of nuclear weapons into Japan, and therefore there would by no violation of the non-nuclear principles.

The Japanese government reportedly gave in to this US linguistic interpretation, and so with the revelations of nuclear-armed US warships refueling at Japanese harbors critics have some cause to say that in fact the three non-nuclear principles were a long time ago reduced to two - indicating a "half-compliance" with the principle of not introducing nuclear weapons into Japan.

The Japanese government is vehemently denying all of this, calling the revelations "leftist propaganda" and calling the documents fake, although Fukuda's comments were certainly not at all helpful in assuring the Japanese public that Japanese governments are as allergic to nuclear weapons as they have made out over the decades.

Fukuda, however, is by far not the only influential Japanese politician to question nuclear policy, sending shock waves throughout Japan and Asia in recent years. The country's policy-makers, it seems, have brought the once-taboo nuclear issue on to the agenda on a regular basis, and "Japanese politicians have indeed remarkable skills in putting Japan's pacifist and non-nuclear principles in jeopardy whenever they open their mouths off the record", as one Japanese political commentator suspects.

In May, deputy chief cabinet secretary Shinzo Abe said that Japan's pacifist constitution and the war-renouncing Article 9 would not stand in the way of Japan possessing nuclear weapons as long as they were "small", adding that "in legal theory Japan could have intercontinental ballistic missiles and atomic bombs".

A few months earlier, Ichiro Ozawa, an influential opposition leader and one of Japan's most outspoken advocates of expanded the country's regional and global military role, went even beyond the theoretical and announced that Japan could easily go nuclear if China continued to threaten Japanese territory.

"If China gets too inflated, the Japanese people will become hysterical in response. We have plenty of plutonium in our nuclear power plants, so it's possible for us to produce 3,000-4,000 nuclear warheads," he declared, indicating that Japan would have no trouble whatsoever in turning its nuclear power plants into production sites for nuclear warheads.

In October 1999, Shingo Nishimura, then the newly appointed vice minister of defense in the cabinet of Keizo Obuchi, suggested in an interview with the Japanese Playboy that Japan should consider arming itself with nuclear weapons to avoid being "raped by China", as he put it. Unlike Fukuda, Nishimura did not even bother to explain his remarks, did not fall on his knees to apologize in the typical Japanese-style career-saving move, and was forced to resign still insisting that equipping Japan with nuclear weapons would become necessary sooner rather than later.

Nishimura was already notorious for his political gaffes and adversity toward China even before he took office, and why he was appointed in the first place and chose a magazine that specializes in men's sexual fantasies to end his short three-week career as vice minister remain a mystery.

No discussion on Japan's defense is possible without comments from Tokyo's nationalist and outspoken mayor, Shintaro Ishihara, who thanked Fukuda personally for his "courageous" remarks about nuclear weapons, as the Tokyo Shimbun reported last week.

The controversial governor and self-declared defender of Japanese national interests is also known for his antagonism toward China and his desire to see the US troops stationed in Japan booted out so that the country can take care of its own defense. More sound bites from Ishihara might be in the offing since he is widely considered a possible candidate to succeed the prime minister should sinking public approval rates and opposition from within his own party force Koizumi out of office.

And in this regard, Koizumi is counting on his influential chief cabinet secretary Fukuda to help him hang on to his job, and he cannot afford to lose his close ally within the LDP. So, given Koizumi's own appetite for high-sounding rhetoric and enthusiasm for defense matters, Fukuda is very unlikely to face any consequences beyond advice to take a break from generating negative headlines.

Fukuda's political ambitions beyond his current post and the number of verbal gaffes coming from Japanese policy-makers in recent years, however, might very easily turn this into a case of wishful thinking.

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