Remapping Revisionism: Japan’s Nuclear Ambiguity

Remapping Revisionism: Japan’s Nuclear Ambiguity

by Yuki Natsui

A Japanese version of this article can be found here (日本語版). 


This essay provides an overview of the historical attempts to revise the Constitution of Japan (promulgated in November 1946) and the issues that have been present in the resurgent anti-war movement to counter the loosening of constitutional restraints on the abuse of power. It also provides a discussion of the driving forces behind constitutional revision as situated in relation to the regional balance of power maintained under an American politico-military aegis. It is argued that the formations underpinning constitutional revision, legitimized by successive regimes of government, preclude efforts to advance dialogue on the risks and externalities posed by the preservation and maintenance of the country’s plutonium economy and security apparatus.


Maritime Self-Defense Force ships gather for a fleet review near Sagami Bay | Koichi Kamoshida

On Article 9 and the Cold War

Restraints placed on militarism by Article 9, which renounces war as a “sovereign right” and outlaws the “use of force” as a means of settling international disputes,[1] have served as a constitutional and legal bulwark against decisions to permit greater Japanese involvement in the international collective security system. Yet proposals to lift these restraints have often been received in the narrow sense of the possibility that Japanese soldiers might someday be deployed alongside its allies to participate in overseas military adventures. Revisionism cannot be viewed in isolation as an instance of postwar phenomena, but rather must be understood carefully in relation to the contemporary situation of the Cold War. It is an appropriate term insofar as it conveys the tension between power blocs over competing claims on spheres of influence, accompanied by military strategies in which direct “hot” conflicts involving nuclear arsenals are less preferable to indirect “cold” conflicts restricted to conventional forms of warfare. It is more constructive to frame regional complexities in the Asia-Pacific as a continuation of existing historical trends,[2] with consideration given to how the distribution and utilization of nuclear technologies have instated nuclear weapons as political instruments for projecting military and economic power across the globe.

Politics of constitutional revisionism

In concurrence with progressive reforms to dismantle Japan’s imperial military complex and restructure its civil and industrial institutions, the new government formulated and promulgated the Constitution of Japan under the directive of General Douglas MacArthur and his staff. Though initially met with opposition from conservative voices, it has never been amended since its enactment in May 1947. Constitutional revision had been sidelined as a political issue throughout the 1960s and 1980s, a period characterized by tremendous social unrest—notably the ANPO struggle, as well as the protests of 1968 and the emergence of the New Left—and, on the other end, by impressive economic growth and rise in urban consumerism. By the 1990s, following the end of the Gulf Wars, commitments to a doctrine of unarmed neutrality had largely been displaced by campaigns for constitutional revision in response to pressures to fulfill international norms of multilateral peacekeeping. In 1994, the Yomiuri Shimbun published its set of suggestions for amendment, reigniting a polarizing debate that has since guided public discourse. While leftists, progressives and pacifists sought to maintain the existing Constitution, conservatives, populists and nationalists advocated for provisions that would expand Japan’s contribution to international society. Changes in public opinion on Article 9 also occurred alongside nuclear confrontations between the United States and North Korea, as well as the country’s unilateral claims to preemptive self-defense with regard to the launching of the Taepodong-1 over Japanese territory.[3]

Since its formation in 1955, the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (自由民主党) has maintained constitutional revision as its key policy platform, although attempts over the decades to carry out amendment had faltered due to popular resistance. In April 2012, the Liberal Democratic Party proposed a new eleven-chapter draft amendment comprising one hundred ten articles, with a desire to “unshackle the country from the system established during the Occupation and make Japan a truly sovereign state.”[4] In recent years, the LDP led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has displayed a stronger commitment to constitutional revision, placing it as a top administrative priority. Alongside a series of provisions that could have a considerable impact on the universality of natural rights, the ruling coalition has set forth proposals to replace the existing Self-Defense Forces (自衛隊) with a National Defense Military (国防軍).[5] This new section uses the term “軍,” connoting an established army or military. These proposed changes are significant because the scope of SDF operations has traditionally been restricted to exercising “individual self-defense,” as well as providing auxiliary support to UN-mandated peacekeeping missions following the enactment of the International Peace Cooperation Law in 1992.[6] The NDM represents a complete transformation of the SDF into a permanent military institution with the Prime Minister as its supreme commander.

It should be recalled that America’s “reverse course” policies toward Japan relied on steady rearmament and politico-economic stabilization in response to the growing perception of a Communist threat in the region. Upon the eruption of the Korean War in the early 1950s, the National Police Reserve (警察予備隊) was introduced as measure to reinforce domestic security. With the support and urging of the United States, the NPR was reorganized as the National Safety Forces (保安隊) in 1952, and was subsequently renamed the Self-Defense Forces in 1954.[7] Proposals outlined in the draft amendment would appear to indicate this regress in the focus of SDF operations. The new provisions enable the government to restrict and subordinate individual rights and freedoms (of assembly and of association) to the “public interest and public order,” rather than protect them under the “public welfare.” Concerns loom over the prospect that the NDM may also be assigned for internal security tasks such as law enforcement, police surveillance and counterinsurgency efforts.[8] The blueprint also includes a section granting the Prime Minister the authority to declare a “state of emergency” under prevailing conditions, in which the Cabinet can enact orders having an effect tantamount to that of laws passed by a Diet resolution.[9]

Trends in domestic and foreign policy

These constitutional amendments should be considered together with the reactionary trends of historical revisionism, educational reform and media manipulation observed under the LDP-dominated political system. In December 2006, a complete revision of the Fundamental Law of Education (教育基本法) was formulated and passed in order to nurture compatriotism and stronger regard for traditional family values.[10] The language used throughout the text would seem to elevate the state over the individual,[11] displaying tendencies normally confined to wartime regimes of government. Diet groups such as the Nippon Kaigi organization (日本会議国会議員懇談会) have also been committed to popularizing conservative values such as “moral education,” centrality of the imperial family and respect for the national flag and the national anthem, principles inherent in the draft amendment.[12]

In December 2014, the Specifically Designated Secrets Protection Law (特定秘密の保護に関する法律) was enacted, allowing the government to designate by fiat any information related to national defense, diplomacy, anti-terrorism and anti-espionage as state secrets.[13] Its vagueness of scope and lack of oversight has been criticized on the grounds that it threatens criminal prosecution of bureaucrats who might leak designated secrets and the journalists who might report them.[14] Incentives for the passage of the SDS law, which in effect created the framework to enable the mutual exchange of classified information with the United States through the National Security Council (国家安全保障会議),[15] are manifold. Geopolitical motives involve Japan’s territorial disputes with Russia and China over the ownership of the Southern Kuril islands and the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. Other considerations include the political aftermath of the disaster unfolding at Fukushima Daiichi, as well as potential uprisings in response to defaulting on sovereign debt obligations and collapsing of public pension funds,[16] scenarios that can easily disrupt the “public interest and public order.”

In March 2016, the Peace Security Law (平和安全法制) was enacted, enabling the SDF to exercise the right to “collective self-defense,”[17] or the use of military force to defend another state from an armed attack, marking another expansion of the U.S.-Japan security partnership. In the Diet deliberations of August 2015, lawmaker Taro Yamamoto presented the contents of the third Armitage-Nye report issued by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington-based think tank known to be heavily funded by the Japanese government and nuclear industry companies.[18] The contents of the national security legislation were found to be identical to the suggestions in the report, some of which have included the restart of nuclear power plants, participation in Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, repeal of the Three Principles on Arms Exports, relocation of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and protection of national secrets under the U.S.-Japan security treaty.[19]

In line with these deliberations, Defense Minister Gen Nakatani specified that under the security bills, the Self-Defense Forces would be allowed to transport, repair and store nuclear weapons for foreign or multinational forces.[20] More recently, the Abe Cabinet has issued statements on two separate accounts explaining that nuclear weapons are actually permitted under the Constitution, on the basis of an interpretation that Article 9 does not ban the country from possessing armed forces that are “the minimum necessary for self-defense.”[21] History shows how successive administrations of the Liberal Democratic Party have suggested that Japan should consider developing its own nuclear weapons program. On this topic, Australian historian Gavan McCormack chronicles Japan’s supposed “non-nuclear” status:

“Prime Minister Kishi, in 1957, is known to have favoured nuclear weapons. In 1961, Prime Minister Ikeda told US Secretary of State Dean Rusk that there were proponents of nuclear weapons in his cabinet; and his successor, Sato Eisaku, told Ambassador Reischauer in December 1964 (two months after the first Chinese nuclear test) that “it stands to reason that, if others have nuclear weapons, we should have them too.” US anxiety led to the specific agreement the following year on Japan’s inclusion within the US ‘umbrella.’ Prime Ministers Ohira (in 1979) and Nakasone (in 1984) both subsequently stated that acquiring nuclear weapons would not be prohibited by Japan’s Peace constitution—provided they were used for defence, not offence. In the late 1990s, and with North Korea clearly in mind, the chief of the Defence Agency, Norota Hosei, announced that in certain circumstances Japan enjoyed the right of “pre-emptive attack.” The Defence Agency’s parliamentary vice minister, Nishimura Shingo, then carried this line of argument even further by putting the case for Japan to arm itself with nuclear weapons.”[22]

The cornerstone of Japan’s “exclusively defense-oriented policy” is unequivocally American nuclear warheads. The nuclear basis for the bilateral security arrangement has been outlined by the Ministry of Defense in the “National Defense Program Guidelines”[23] and “The Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation”,[24] each of which reaffirm Japan’s commitments to the Three Non-Nuclear Principles (非核三原則) of non-possession, non-production and non-introduction of nuclear weapons; and its continued reliance on the U.S. extended nuclear deterrent.

The coherence to the notion that Japan can exist as a “non-nuclear” state entitled to enrichment and reprocessing activities is supported by its nuclear victim status, its compliance to the three conditions of non-proliferation, disarmament and “peaceful” use of nuclear technology prescribed under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (核拡散防止条約); and its special relationship with the United States. While non-signatory states such as India, Israel and Pakistan are given preferential treatment that further legitimizes their nuclear power status, other nuclear states such as Iran and North Korea are routinely denounced for their insistence on the right to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy without discrimination. Japan stands to benefit from its passiveness in the areas of non-proliferation and disarmament; and its simultaneous openness in exporting civilian nuclear technologies to developing countries.[25]

Government officials seem unconcerned with the presence of U.S. military bases, including the storage of American nuclear warheads in Okinawa and on American nuclear-powered aircraft carriers with free access to Japanese ports, a legacy that can be traced back to the reversion agreement reached between then Prime Minister Eisaku Sato and President Richard Nixon.[26] Nor would they appear to have any qualms about Japan’s bid for nuclear superpower status as it pursues the elusive goal of closing the nuclear fuel cycle via fast breeder reactors such as Monju (もんじゅ), together with the use of plutonium-uranium oxide (MOX) fuel in conventional light-water reactors. As the domestic stockpile containing forty-eight tons of weapons-usable plutonium accumulates at the Rokkasho reprocessing facility (六ヶ所再処理工場), slated for commercial operation in 2018,[27] heightened regional tensions and widened rifts between Japan and its neighbors can be expected.

Because the foundation of its defense guidelines rests on American nuclear warheads, Japan has been unaffected by diplomatic efforts being made to establish a Northeast Asian Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone (NEA-NWFZ).[28] Constitutional revision could therefore be seen as another step forward to integrate nuclear command and control operations with America’s containment policies, particularly in relation to China and North Korea; but it could also be seen as an extension of Japan’s “coping strategy” that focuses on minimizing risks when responding to a shifting international order.[29] Former U.S. negotiator Morton H. Halperin explores this complexity in detail:

“Throughout the postwar period, Japanese leaders have quietly debated the question of whether Japan should develop an independent nuclear capability… while some Japanese have doubted the credibility of the U.S. nuclear deterrent, most Japanese who leaned toward advocating a Japanese nuclear capability took this position because they believed such a capability would permit Japan to end the security relation with the United States and to assert an independent role in the world… Japan saw no choice but to sign onto the NPT and later to accept making it permanent, while quietly maintaining its options so that it could respond if the international and domestic situation made it possible for Japan to acquire a nuclear capability.”[30]

Although the closed, plutonium-based nuclear fuel cycle has failed to deliver the nation’s energy “needs,” it would appear to have conferred Japan the status of a de facto nuclear-weapon state. Positioned at the center of the nation’s energy and security matrix, Japan’s plutonium program has widely been regarded by public officials as a “tacit nuclear deterrent” with diplomatic functions.[31] It is unclear whether Japan intends to use its plutonium stockpiles for manufacturing its own nuclear weapons, but there should be no misunderstanding of the intentions that underlie its compliance to the non-proliferation regime.

Organizing for social change

Following the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster that devastated northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011, civil society witnessed a resurgence of social movements that presented another opportunity to not only reconsider nuclear power as a source of energy and reflect on the global contamination from atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, but to also revisit the premises of the U.S.-Japan military partnership that is predicated on both. The incident revealed not only the administrative dysfunctions spanning local and central levels of governance; it also unveiled the bureaucratic machinations and the transnational regimes involved in influencing public opinion and policy decisions.[32]

Members of post-3/11 Japanese society certainly have expressed a stronger desire for the abolition of nuclear weapons, the phase-out of nuclear power and the transition toward renewable energy within a framework of accountability and sustainability; but there is still good reason to delineate how social progress in Japan has been hampered by tendencies toward prefigurative modes of action that eschew engagement with existing power structures.[33]

In the wake of the triple disaster, private individuals turned to social media, which offered alternatives for information otherwise unavailable. It served as a platform for planning and mobilization, helping to normalize dissident practices and negotiate commonalities of interest. But over time, social media underwent a transformation from a cultural apparatus for informative opinion into the modus operandi for collective action. David Slater provides an account for this “double-edged sword of social media” observed in post-3/11 Japan:

“The dissipation of organized movements and even more ad hoc political participation are linked to the nature of social media… Social media offered unaffiliated and non-institutionalized individuals and groups the possibility to mobilize and work together, even to create a common cause, bypassing much of the painstaking organizational work characteristic of traditional social movements. The framing of participation as self-consciously diverse and open might have broken down institutional boundaries that once kept non-affiliated out, but the problem remains: how to keep these same supporters connected, committed and active over an extended period of time.”[34]

In contrast to their classical counterparts that are vertically integrated, social media movements are structured by horizontal networks that cannot be arbitrated. Decisions are typically made through consensus and commitments that bind people to the movement are relatively loose. While this prefigurative politics provides flexibility and mobility, the absence of centralized authority and administrative hierarchy create difficulties in reaching agreements on direction and tactics to be pursued.[35] Accordingly, the lack of professional management and strategic calculus pose serious challenges to the development of leadership and stewardship needed to organize fragmented social bases into an alternative hegemony with the power to steer political outcomes.[36]

By the same measure, it remains to be seen whether a framework for social and political vision that truly confronts entrenched norms and practices will be adopted in the current peace movement. There have been no demands for a redistribution of income and wealth that fundamentally challenges the foundation of Japanese corporate capitalism in its neoliberal ethos; or the LDP-dominated political establishment with its neoconservative conceptions of citizenship and the common good.[37] Neither has there been a meaningful attempt to make the connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons, or pursue denuclearization with respect to global imbalances in economic and military power; nor has there been a clear expression of solidarity for indigenous peoples in their struggle for self-determination and resistance to American imperialism.[38] Unless these facets of reality can be debated and contested, there is little reason to expect more than incremental progress in the abolition of war.


Japan is undergoing a process of realignment amid escalating financial and ecological crises. There is a growing trend epitomized by concentrated political power, economy-first mentalities, reinforcement of military integration and consolidation of national identities. Constitutional revision, alongside ideological formulations of public policy, reflects a number of pernicious changes oriented away from providing for the civil liberties of citizens and toward imposing duties on people as national subjects. These developments are unfolding largely in relation to the renewed focus on Russia and China as part of America’s rebalancing strategy in the Asia-Pacific and are paralleled by strategic counterweights to its trade agreements, military overtures and related hegemonic ambitions.[39]

The challenge faced by organizers in Japan is the need to initiate and sustain connections across disparate and factionalized movements that relate singular issues to broader systemic and structural problems of militarism, inequality and environmental degradation at home and abroad. Making democracy function in an atmosphere of dispossession, dogmatism and duplicity requires the participation of a capable and disciplined citizenry with the power to assert its shared interests. It demands a sense of civic agency and the practice of a radical politics that articulates vision, organizes community and builds power.[40] Such endeavors must begin with an understanding for the functions and relations of power that collectively shape interpersonal and institutional life.

This article was originally published on the author’s blog.

This essay makes no attempt to provide an exhaustive consideration of state and non-state actors, or other economic, social and political factors involved in framing contemporary issues in the Asia-Pacific.


[1] “
Nihon-Koku Kenpō,” National Diet Library, May 3, 2003.

[2] Michael Klare, “The Coming of Cold War 2.0,” TomDispatch, June 30, 2015.

[3] Glenn D. Hook and Gavan McCormack, Japan’s Contested Constitution: Documents and Analysis (London: Routledge, 2004).

[4] “LDP announces a new draft Constitution for Japan,” The Liberal Democratic Party of Japan, May 7, 2012.

[5] “Abe faces major challenges in constitutional revision, foreign affairs,” The Asahi Shimbun, July 22, 2013.

[6] “International Cooperation: Participation by Japan in United Nations Peace-keeping Operations,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, 1995.

[7] Fumika Sato, “A Camouflaged Military: Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and Globalized Gender Mainstreaming,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, August 28, 2012.

[8] Lawrence Repeta, “Japan’s Democracy at Risk – The LDP’s Ten Most Dangerous Proposals for Constitutional Change,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, July 14, 2013.

[9] “Nihon koku kenpō kaisei sōan,” The Liberal Democratic Party of Japan, April 27, 2012.

[10] “Basic Act on Education,” Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, December 22, 2006.

[11] David McNeill and Adam Lebowitz, “Hammering Down the Educational Nail: Abe Revises the Fundamental Law of Education,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, July 3, 2007.

[12] Norihiro Kato, “Tea Party Politics in Japan: Japan’s Rising Nationalism,” The New York Times, September 12, 2014.

[13] “Tokutei Himitsu no Hogo ni kansuru Hōritsu,” Cabinet Secretariat, December 13, 2013.

[14] Mina Pollmann, “Japan’s Troubling State Secrets Law Takes Effect,” The Diplomat, December 18, 2014.

[15] Lawrence Repeta, “A New State Secrecy Law for Japan?”, The Asia-Pacific Journal, October 21, 2013.

[16] “Paul Krugman: Meeting with Japanese officials,” The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, March 22, 2016.

[17] “Heiwa Anzen Hōsei,” Cabinet Secretariat, September 30, 2015.

[18] “US Think Tank Urging Japan Keep Nuclear Funded By Japanese Govt & Nuclear Industry,” SimplyInfo, April 12, 2016.

[19] Richard L. Armitage and Joseph S. Nye, “The U.S.-Japan Alliance: Anchoring Stability in Asia,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, August 2012.

[20] Reiji Yoshida, “Japan defense chief says SDF could deal with nukes under security bills,” The Japan Times, August 5, 2015.

[21] “Abe Cabinet says Article 9 does not ban possessing, using N-weapons,” The Asahi Shimbun, April 2, 2016.

[22] Gavan McCormack, “Japan as a Nuclear State,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, August 1, 2007.

[23] “National Defense Program Guidelines,” Ministry of Defense, December 17, 2013.

[24] “The Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation,” Ministry of Defense, April 27, 2015.

[25] P. K. Sundaram, “The Emerging Japan-India Relationship: Nuclear Anachronism, Militarism and Growth Fetish,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, June 2, 2013.

[26] Matsumoto Tsuyoshi, “Revealing “Secret U.S.-Japan Nuclear Understandings”: A solemn obligation of Japan’s new government,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, December 14, 2009.

[27] Shaun Bernie and Frank Barnaby, “Nuclear Proliferation in Plain Sight: Japan’s Plutonium Fuel Cycle–A Technical and Economic Failure But a Strategic Success,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, March 1, 2016.

[28] Hiromichi Umebayashi, “A Northeast Asia Nuclear Weapon Free Zone with a Three-plus-Three Arrangement,” The Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainable Development, March 13, 2012.

[29] “INTERVIEW/ Gerald L. Curtis: Japan’s ‘coping’ diplomacy, challenged by changing world order,” The Asahi Shimbun, December 22, 2015.

[30] Morton H. Halperin, “The Nuclear Dimension of the U.S.-Japan Alliance,” The Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainable Development, December 21, 2000.

[31] Chester Dawson, “In Japan, Provocative Case for Staying Nuclear,” The Wall Street Journal, October 28, 2011.

[32] Jeff Kingston, “Japan’s Nuclear Village,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, September 9, 2012.

[33] Jonathan M. Smucker, “Can Prefigurative Politics Replace Political Strategy?”, Berkeley Journal of Sociology, October 7, 2014.

[34] David Slater, Nishimura Keiko and Love Kindstrand, “Social Media, Information and Political Activism in Japan’s 3.11 Crisis,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, June 7, 2012.

[35] Malcolm Gladwell, “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted,” The New Yorker, October 4, 2010.

[36] Mike Miller, “Alinsky for the Left: The Politics of Community Organizing,” Dissent Magazine, Winter 2010.

[37] Robin O’day, “Differentiating SEALDs from Freeters, and Precariats: the politics of youth movements in contemporary Japan,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, September 14, 2015.

[38] David Slater, “SEALDs (Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy): Research Note on Contemporary Youth Politics in Japan,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, September 14, 2015.

[39] Jon Letman, “The U.S. Is Militarizing the Pacific — and Not Taking Questions,” Foreign Policy In Focus, March 30, 2016.

[40] C. Douglas Lummis, Radical Democracy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997).

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