By Norihiro Kato
TOKYO — When Yasunari Kawabata became the first Japanese to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, he gave a speech called “Japan, the Beautiful, and Myself” that presented a benignly aesthetic portrait of the so-called Japanese spirit larded with references to classical poetry, the tea ceremony and ikebana. When Kenzaburo Oe received the prize in 1994, he titled his lecture, “Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself,” and offered a critical take on the country’s ambiguities, starting its being part of Asia and simultaneously aligned with the West.
I was reminded of the contrast between Japan the Beautiful and Japan the Ambiguous late last month when, during the third Nuclear Security Summit in the Hague, the Japanese government announced that it would hand over to the United States more than 700 pounds of weapons-grade plutonium and a vast supply of highly enriched uranium. It struck me then that the ambiguities of Japan’s policy on nuclear weapons might be coming up against the nationalist agenda of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, also the author of “Towards a Beautiful Country: My Vision for Japan.”
On the one hand, since the 1970s Japan has pursued a pacifist foreign policy best symbolized by its Three Non-Nuclear Principles: “Japan shall neither possess nor manufacture nuclear weapons, nor shall it permit their introduction into Japanese territory.” On the other hand, starting in the 1950s it has implemented a nuclear energy policy centered on a closed nuclear fuel cycle, which yields nuclear materials that can be used to run so-called fast-breeding reactors. Japan has one such facility, which it uses for research, but it has been plagued by problems and is not commercially viable. Although the fuel cycle yields plutonium through the reprocessing of spent fuel, Japan has managed to escape the usual restrictions on the possession of such materials by stressing its commitment to the Three Non-Nuclear Principles and so, implicitly, its special status as the only country in the world to have suffered atomic bombings.
But now the two props of Japan’s not-so-secret strategy of technological deterrence are falling apart. The Abe cabinet has adopted a confrontational stance toward Japan’s East Asian neighbors. It has weakened the country’s previous commitment to not exporting arms to certain types of countries, including those subject to arms embargoes or involved in international conflicts. Other countries, sensing that the Abe administration may want to jettison the Three Non-Nuclear Principles, have begun expressing concern over Japan’s stores of plutonium.
At the same time, the government is finding it increasingly difficult to explain why Japan should maintain its fuel-cycle policy. In the wake of the Fukushima disaster in 2011, none of Japan’s 48 commercial nuclear reactors is currently in operation, and popular opinion is mounting against the idea of developing more special fast-breeder reactors.