Hegemonic Politics in the Age of Atomic Capitalism

Hegemonic Politics in the Age of Atomic Capitalism

by Yuki Natsui

September 5, 2016

Originally posted on the author’s blog. Contact Dianuke.org for permission to re-publish.

Pax Americana may indeed have proved illusory by its own nature, eclipsed by the aggressive interventionism of a foreign policy based on military doctrines of full-spectrum dominance, nuclear primacy and preemptive strikes. With some eight hundred military bases encircling over seventy countries and territories, the preeminent nuclear-weapon state stands poised to embark on a trillion-dollar program to ‘modernize’ its nuclear arsenal and production facilities. Having instated the material and ideational dimensions of unrestrained global capitalism as its guiding principle, the United States treads uncharted territory as it negotiates an emerging configuration of bipolar rivalries, in relation to its principal adversaries on the Eurasian landmass, China and Russia.

atomic capitalism

Atomic capitalism (from top to bottom): electric power companies, industrial circles; governments, government-patronized scholars, administrative bodies; nuclear power culturati, mass media; urban citizens, consumers; nuclear power plant workers, inhabitants in the vicinity of nuclear power plants. Poster derived from the early 20th century poster ‘Pyramid of Capitalist System’.

It is Asia and the Pacific where the United States is ‘forward-deploying’ its military and diplomatic apparatuses, including the employment of soft power,[1] to counterpose the political engagement and economic development initiatives led by China, whose emerging power status it identifies as a ‘threat’ to its dominant position. In an overture to the Pivot, former assistant secretary of defense Joseph Nye stressed the linkage between regional hegemony and unrestricted access to external markets and power resources: “Over the course of this century, Asia will return to its historic status… America must be present there. Markets and economic power rest on political frameworks, and American military power provides that framework.”[2]

The notion of America’s Pacific Century in itself is a misnomer, not least because the implied reorientation in policy undermines the historical continuity of U.S. power and influence in the region.[3] There is clearly a hegemonic vision articulated in the Washington consensus, which has manifested in major regional pacts (e.g., Trans-Pacific Partnership) promoting ‘free trade’ in the climate of a liberal economic ‘order’, inextricable from the orientalist and imperialist imaginary that represents the Asia-Pacific as monolithic and to be mastered. In short, the Pivot aims to extend bilateral military partnerships and expand joint training exercises with countries in China’s politico-economic orbit. Strengthened military, economic and diplomatic ties with Japan, Mongolia and South Korea in Northeast Asia; Brunei, Burma, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam in Southeast Asia; Bangladesh and India in South Asia; Australia and New Zealand in Oceania, form the fulcrum for the ‘strategic turn’.

south korea banners

Thousands of South Korean residents hold up red banners reading “We absolutely oppose THAAD deployment,” during a rally against the planned deployment of the U.S.-built Terminal High Altitude Area Defense in the southern town of Seongju | Reuters

Renewed commitment to allied forces has been met with daily resistance to naval bases and militarism. Unresolved contradictions of Japanese colonialism and Cold War authoritarianism faced by residents of Gangjeong village were exacerbated by the resumed construction of a U.S.-backed military base along the southern coast of Jeju Island[4] earlier this year, planned to accommodate Aegis-equipped destroyers, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and nuclear-powered attack submarines. The ‘civilian-military’ project has exasperated local islanders and mainland organizers, who have strongly condemned the misleading title that distracts from its role as a lily-pad[5] in the broader missile defense program operated by the United States. In concurrence, the selection of Seongju County for the deployment of THAAD, slated for operation by U.S. military personnel early next year, follows an existing trend in which one battery was situated in Guam and two radars were installed in Japan at Shariki and Kyogamisaki. Little heed was paid to public disquiet over the dangers posed by the anti-ballistic missile system in escalating the regional arms race, or the risks of long-term exposure to electromagnetic radiation emitted by the radar.

A legacy of suffering borne by Jeju Island parallels a history of deprivation endured by the Ryukyu Islands. The insistence on ‘relocating’ Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to the Henoko coastal district of Nago is commensurate with the intent of completing work on new military helipads in the subtropical rainforests of Yanbaru. A wildlife sanctuary protected for its rich biodiversity and endemic biota, the life-nurturing forest remains vulnerable to accidents and incidents involving the MV-22 Osprey. Notorious for generating excessive noise and harmful low-frequency waves during flight, the defective tilt-rotor hybrid aircraft has been fiercely opposed by Takae residents of Higashi Village, who have taken direct action against the forcible construction of U.S. Marine Corps helipads that would be used for takeoff and landing. Sit-in protests organized to prevent further militarization of the forestlands were met with excessive crackdowns on resident villagers and their supporters by both mainland and prefectural riot police. The egregious disregard for local autonomy and democratic will is captured in the prodding of the carrot and the stick: “It is natural that the [development] budget will be reduced if there is no progress in the [base] work.”[6]


Riot police remove a sit-in protestor opposed to the construction of U.S. Marine Corps helipads in the village of Higashi in Okinawa | Okinawa Times

The U.S. military presence in the Pacific islands of Guam,[7] Hawaii,[8] Jeju, Okinawa and elsewhere, constitutes a key node in the virulent war machine that finds legitimacy in its exerted capacity to erode distinct sociocultural identities while rendering its global footprint invisible. In the popular consciousness, the history of atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands had been readily consigned to the dustbin, along with the specter of mass expropriation of land and natural resources driven by the expansion of live-fire training ranges[9] in Pagan and Tinian of the Northern Mariana Islands. The militarization of distant islands and the attendant risks of armed conflict and environmental destruction receive little attention because extreme inequalities and structural violence imposed upon indigenous peoples and marginalized groups are not held as priorities.

Since the Pivot was outlined by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and implemented by President Barack Obama, the regional dispute in the South China Sea, for instance, has been needlessly elevated to the sphere of international arbitration, likely the locus of a future Sino-American conflict. Subsequent U.S. intervention into the maritime delimitation and territorial sovereignty issue was justified as a matter of ensuring ‘freedom of navigation’, protecting ‘unimpeded lawful commerce’ and upholding ‘rules-based peaceful resolution of disputes’. On July 12th, an ad hoc tribunal formed pursuant to the UNCLOS, to which the United States is non-signatory, ruled in favor of the Philippines and against China over its claimed ‘historic rights’ to the waters.[10] While the landmark decision has pointed toward long-term diplomatic solutions, U.S. intransigence over ‘unfettered access’ to the South China Sea would seem to involve the deployment of additional military assets, including anti-ship ballistic missiles, carrier battle groups, long-range strategic bombers, and as one scholar notes,[11] ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons.

The U.S. nuclear umbrella unequivocally provides the underpinning for America’s leadership of the Pivot and concomitant geostrategy to dissuade member states from pursuing their own weapons programs. As Vice President Joe Biden has recently affirmed, the United States “wrote Japan’s constitution to say they couldn’t be a nuclear power.”[12]  To this day, Japan remains in legal limbo with respect to its designation as an ‘enemy state’ under the UN Charter, thus unable to secure a permanent seat on the UN Security Council for greater international leverage. A network of bilateral and multilateral military agreements was carefully circumscribed so as to preclude efforts at rapprochement or regional cooperation and integration independent of American influence. Special relationships (e.g., Australia, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore) with the United States are protracted by capitalizing on existing tensions, frictions and disputes in the region, thereby reaffirming the ‘essential nature’ and ‘indispensable role’ of the econo-military alliance. In sum, the Pivot can be framed as a tacit reassertion of Cold War containment policies that finds its telos in prolonging America’s unipolar moment, which accords its privileged position as an arbiter of interstate conflicts.


Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force Shirane-class destroyer leads a formation with Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers | United States Navy

In the case of Japan, the demise of Pax Americana is matched by a rise of jingoism in which the central government has openly romanticized the criminality of the country’s imperial past, as evinced in its desire to elevate the position of the Emperor from ‘symbol’ to ‘head of state’. An extant ethos of revisionism, both constitutional and historical, was institutionalized in the LDP’s policy agenda dating back to its formation in November 1955. In the House of Councillors election of July 2016, the Liberal Democratic Party led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe acquired a full majority, for the first time in twenty seven years, and with its junior coalition partners, secured the two-thirds majority needed to initiate the process of amendment. Abe has since then reshuffled his Cabinet to accommodate neo-nationalist ideologues stalwart to Nippon Kaigi, an extra-parliamentary association that remains unapologetic to erstwhile pan-Asianist inclinations and dedicated to resurrecting ‘the national character of a beautiful tradition’ centered on the Imperial Household.

Not ‘feeling the bird’, the Tokyo electorate opted against veteran journalist Shuntaro Torigoe in favor of former defense minister Yuriko Koike as its new (female) governor. An advocate for incorporating ‘moral education’ across the national curriculum with the aim of ‘clarifying standards for unacceptable conduct’, Koike has been no less enthusiastic of Oya Gaku (Parenting Studies),[13] a discriminatory practice that posits developmental delay as a product of ‘improper parenting’ and the need for parents to be educated about ‘correct childrearing’. Devoted to the privatization and devolution of state assets such as national universities, she has voiced opposition to school systems operated by the Zainichi Korean community, in addition to foreign immigration and non-Japanese electoral participation. Her brand of feminism can be distilled as a faux modality wherein Japan’s ‘underutilized strengths’ are funneled through public policies that attach priority to maximizing economic growth over challenging prevailing assumptions that undergird ethnic and gender relations. Such welfare chauvinism forms the basis for Koike’s political platform of ‘fortitude’, ‘steadfastness’ and ‘tenacity’, which has been receptive to hardline policies like nuclear armament, nuclear technology exports and unconstitutional court-martials.

The selection of an iron butterfly as metropolitan governor dovetails with the appointment of a militant hawk, or former reform minister Tomomi Inada, as the new defense minister. Once likened to Jeanne d’Arc by the incumbent prime minister, the former chairwoman of the LDP’s Policy Research Council has demanded that “lives be sacrificed” and “blood be spilt” in the defense of the state,[14] in accordance with the ideas of Seicho-no-Ie (House of Growth), a key tributary of a predecessor organization to Nippon Kaigi. A regular visitor of Yasukuni Shrine, Inada has been a staunch defender of wartime atrocities carried out by the Japanese military, not delimited to the mass killings of civilians or the use of forced labor, including the forceful recruitment of women for ‘comfort stations’, and has even spearheaded a party committee to reevaluate the legal basis of the Tokyo War Crimes tribunals. Judicially acknowledged earlier this year, Inada’s affiliation to the anti-Korean group Zaitokukai can be regarded as assent to xenophobic abuse directed at minority communities, helping to solidify Abe’s support base.

While the expressed desire to ‘take back Japan’ under other circumstances would have signified a fundamental overhaul of American-imposed institutions, the Abe government instead has pursued the reverse course toward entrenchment, effectively anchoring the country’s status as a client state.[15] With Abe at helm, the advent of the LDP-led administration inaugurated the ‘escape from the postwar regime’ with a perplexing decision to further subordinate its military apparatuses to the United States, marked by closer relations with Australia and India in forging an Indo-Pacific ‘security diamond’, as well as increased suppliance of maritime patrol boats to Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Bureaucratic inertia and coordination failure was resolved by centralizing executive power and enforcement discretion through the establishment of a new national security council, modeled after its Anglo-American counterparts, with the objective of fielding a CIA or MI6-style intelligence agency in the long run. Manufacturing consent to rectify the ‘masochistic’ view of history and transform Japan into a ‘normal country’ was also required to elicit the desired shift in public opinion. The targeting of critical levers of state power such as the Bank of Japan, the Cabinet Legislative Bureau, the Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was honed by a draconian state secrecy law designed to marginalize and persecute critical journalists, dissentient thinkers and peace organizers.

antinuke tent

Tokyo District Court officials remove tents set up by anti-nuclear groups on the premises of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry in the government district of Kasumigaseki | Kyodo

Even without constitutional revision or the hotly contested military legislation steamrolled last summer, Japan had long deviated from its ‘pacifist’ trajectory, having provided the material and logistic assistance needed for American military adventures in the Koreas, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Since the Persian Gulf Wars, Japan has closely cooperated with the United States toward developing next-generation missile interceptors, networked with fighter-interceptor aircraft and surface-to-air missiles, and in recent years, has significantly eased restrictions on arms exports to transfer the missile defense system to third countries. Ranked as one of the world’s top military spenders, Japan now contemplates a record $51 billion defense budget for fiscal year 2017, embracing new military hardware such as the F-35 stealth fighter, the most expensive conventional weapons system to date.

Aspiring for ‘national resilience’ and ‘proactive pacifism’, Abe has consolidated his politico-military reforms under an eponymous program of economic policies and practices. Abenomics, a macroeconomic policy quiver of ultra-lax monetary and fiscal arrows vaunted to stimulate growth, merely rehashed the neoliberal principles of its predecessors, with the privatization of public assets and the dismantling of regulatory structures as its corporeal targets. Of a pork-barrel variety, lavish spending on infrastructure projects had been more than offset by corporate tax cuts and sales tax hikes, which has led precisely to lowered real wages and reduced welfare benefits.[16] In the ‘true spirit of risk-taking and innovation’, the precedence given to large-scale oligopolies, primarily to those in the energy, financial and nuclear complexes, simply reinforced their extractive logics and technologies that have rendered more aspects of the ‘global economy’ subject to capital accumulation.

The tightened nexus between government and enterprise had preceded the uncritical acceptance of neoliberal reforms, in which the production of fissile materials was, in no small measure, sheltered from the harsh discipline of competitive markets. Where deemed necessary, such as in the procurement of ‘strategic’ resources considered vital to national security, state interventionism comported with the economic analysis. In spite of the radiological disasters threatened by Chernobyl, Fukushima and Hanford, the Japanese government has assiduously promoted exports of ‘dual-use’ components with both civilian and military applications, having concluded accords with Jordan, Kuwait, Russia, South Korea and Vietnam (under the DPJ), and with Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (under the LDP). As nuclear ambassador, Abe has been negotiating agreements with Brazil, India, Malaysia, Mexico, Mongolia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Thailand, among others,[17] although it remains to be seen whether such grandiose plans will actually come to fruition.


Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stands on a pipe dressed as Mario at the 2016 Summer Olympics closing ceremony in Rio de Janeiro | Kyodo

Attitudes unaltered and lessons not learned from Fukushima, the central government pressed forward with its bid to host the 2020 Summer Olympics. Abe’s cameo at the closing ceremony in Rio de Janeiro can be traced back to his presentation at the 125th IOC Session in Buenos Aires assuring the situation at the crippled nuclear power plant was ‘under control’. Newer evidence that fallout on Tokyo from the meltdown was concentrated and deposited in non-soluble glass microparticles[18] runs counter to the assertion that the incident ‘has never done and will never do any damage’. Five and a half years since the triple meltdown, with the exact conditions and locations of the corium unconfirmed, a lack of resources allocated to stem radioactive contamination and radiation exposure, and tens of thousands of residents from the stricken Tohoku region still displaced from their homes, Abe’s statement was absurd as to be patently irresponsible.

With regard to the thousands of black industrial storage bags filled with irradiated soil and debris stored on the outskirts of Fukushima City, one cardiologist from the National Academy of Sciences laments, “The lack of security, the failure to provide any of the internationally accepted protective warnings against radioactivity contamination, the absence of any warning signs for non-Japanese-speaking individuals, despite the active advertising campaign to attract tourists to view the cherry blossoms on this beautiful region of Japan, is disturbing. The possibility that individuals could access enormous amounts of radioactively contaminated dirt and transport it to a sensitive area in Japan or elsewhere is frightening.”[19]

On June 30th, the Ministry of the Environment arrived at a decision to allow the reuse of radioactively contaminated soil for public-works projects in violation of Act No. 166 of 1957, which specifies one hundred Bq/kg or less as the criteria for recycling concrete and metals derived from nuclear power plants. Raising the threshold eighty-fold up to eight thousand Bq/kg for reusing radioactive materials was considered “reasonable from economic and social points of view.”[20] On August 12th, the No. 3 Unit at the Ikata nuclear power plant was restarted, at present the only operating reactor to burn plutonium-uranium oxide (MOX) fuel, posing additional and yet unknown hazards. Notwithstanding the raft of safety issues and evacuation plans left unaddressed, opposition to the restart was dismissed on the belief that “an accident similar to that in Fukushima will never happen.”[21]


Anti-nuclear protesters stage a rally outside the Ikata nuclear power plant in the western prefecture of Ehime | Kyodo

Such tactics of minimization and rationalization form the basis for enclavic groupthink, regulatory capture and techno-scientific consensus, which inform how the state manages the welfare of its population. In concert with the pragmatic calculus, the market-oriented mode of governance functions to administer a specific problem-solution frame[22] that suppresses alternative conceptions, while substituting the discourse of public accountability for the vernacular of ‘personal responsibility’. Accordingly, the notion of autonomous and self-regulating individuals is invoked as a justification for the socialization of costs and risks. In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the systematic pathologization of health concerns as ‘irrational’ or ‘unscientific’ was accompanied by the imposition of self-management through flexibility of safety standards, manipulation of dosimeter readings and neglect for workers’ rights. Subcontract laborers dispatched to decommission the site consisted mostly of the debilitated and dispossessed, including foreign migrants and homeless people, with little oversight by the electric power company. For other evacuee groups split into ‘temporary’ dwellings, the Village mantra held with a proselytizing zeal that ‘the effects of radiation do not come to people that are happy and laughing; they come to people that are weak-spirited, that brood and fret’.

In the context of social inequality, ecological degradation and depleted resources, the demonstrated willingness to spend extravagantly on nuclear-industrial programs, public relations campaigns and state-of-the-art weaponry may fare especially poorly with older and newer generations of hibakusha,[23] whose cautionary tales would appear to have been overshadowed by the very spectacles of mushroom clouds and smoke plumes. Equipped with excess plutonium reserves, Japan stands as one of few ‘latent’ nuclear powers to possess the technological infrastructure needed to rapidly develop a nuclear arsenal, notably retaining the fast breeder reactor and its closed fuel cycle as official government policy. Prospects for ‘reform’ are likely to recede, given how state operations have been firmly captured by a predatory politico-economic system dominated by the military-industrial complex.


“The Liberal Democratic Party of Japan, the eternal ruling party,” according to ‘Pokemon Go’ | Sankei

If there is to be a fatalist logic of insecurity that has embroiled nation-states in a downward spiral of arms races and military competitions, it must also be inherent to the doctrines of nuclear ‘deterrence’ and mutually assured destruction said to define the postwar present. The veritable utility of nuclear weapons as coercive instruments in determining parameters and enforcing dictates has nonetheless rendered their continued centrality in modern state apparatuses as non-negotiable.[24] In line with such formulations of national security, countries like China, Japan, Russia and the United States have actively supported nuclear power generation within and outside their borders. Transcending differences among states in ideology and self-conception, the enhancement of nuclear preemptive, interceptive and retaliatory capabilities has been coterminous with the expansion of nuclear power stations, production facilities and reprocessing plants, amid stated commitments to building a sustainable peace in an era of permanent war and restoring trust in national polities that are more secretive and less democratic.

Where government authorities have overseen an escalation of maritime militia operations in the East and South China Seas,[25] and have applauded Japan’s pivotal role as America’s ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’ in the region, any potential confrontation may one day erupt into a major conflagration. Preventing a full-fledged conflict in Asia and the Pacific persists in the immediate halt to the construction of artificial islands, military bases and radar facilities, decoupled from the aegises of Pax Americana and Pax Sinica, toward a non-hegemonic vision of demilitarization and denuclearization. In light of the dissolution of student activist groups, the stagnation of citizen’s federations and the fragmentation of opposition camps in mainland Japan, it is imperative the underlying conditions of atomization and depoliticization that occlude the chain of equivalence be inverted. Will the question of Power be given due consideration, or will any viable notion of collective resistance be kept at bay until the next nuclear meltdown?

Originally posted on the author’s blog. Contact Dianuke.org for permission to re-publish.


[1] Eric Draitser, “Academic Imperialism: US Uses Education to Undermine China in Asia,” New Eastern Outlook, June 30, 2016.
[2] Joseph S. Nye Jr., “The Right Way to Trim Military Spending,” The New York Times, August 4, 2011.
[3] John Feffer, “The Militarization of Paradise,” Foreign Policy In Focus, November 11, 2011.
[4] Joseph Gerson, “Reinforcing Washington’s Asia-Pacific Hegemony,” Foreign Policy In Focus, September 13, 2012.
[5] David Vine, “The Lily-Pad Strategy,” TomDispatch, July 15, 2012.
[6] “Minister warns: Base delays may result in smaller Okinawa budget,” The Asahi Shimbun, August 5, 2016.
[7] Jon Letman, “Guam: Where the US Military Is Revered and Reviled,” The Diplomat, August 29, 2016.
[8] Jon Letman, “Hawaii’s Legal Case Against the United States,” Truthout, December 13, 2010.
[9] Wyatt Olson, “Mariana officials bristle at US military’s live-fire plans for Pagan, Tinian,” Stars and Stripes, April 17, 2015.
[10] Goh Sui Noi, Raul Dancel, Kor Kian Beng, Jermyn Chow, “China has no historic rights to resources in South China Sea, says UN-backed tribunal,” The Straits Times, July 12, 2016.
[11] Peter Lee, “RAND’s ‘Unthinkable’ war with China,” Asia Times, August 12, 2016.
[12] Peter Landers, “Biden Gets Japan’s Attention With Nuclear Remark”, The Wall Street Journal, August 17, 2016.
[13] “言動を知るほど危うい 小池百合子氏の「子育て・教育論」”, Nikkan Gendai, July 29, 2016.
[14] “防衛相に抜擢された稲田朋美の軍国主義丸出し発言集!「祖国のために命を捧げろ」「後に続くと靖国に誓え」”, LITERA, August 2, 2016.
[15] Gavan McCormack, Client State: Japan in the American Embrace (New York: Verso, 2007).
[16] Gavan McCormack, “Resilience for Whom?”, Jacobin, August 12, 2016.
[17] “The Current State of Japan’s Nuclear Power Plant Export Plans,” Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, March 30, 2014.
[18] “Fukushima Radioactive Glass Microparticles In Tokyo Confirm Other Findings,” SimplyInfo, June 29, 2016.
[19] Andrew R. Marks, “The Fukushima nuclear disaster is ongoing,” The Journal of Clinical Investigation, May 23, 2016.
[20] “Reuse of radioactive soil could cut costs by 1.5 trillion yen: ministry estimate,” The Mainichi, August 3, 2016.
[21] “Grave concerns remain over restart of Ikata nuclear plant,” The Mainichi, August 17, 2016.
[22] Majia Holmer Nadesan, Governmentality, Biopower, and Everyday Life (New York: Routledge, 2008)
[23] Ryan Masaaki Yokota, “‘No more hibakusha’ takes on new meaning after 3/11,” The Japan Times, August 7, 2013
[24] Joseph Gerson and John Feffer, “Empire and Nuclear Weapons,” Foreign Policy In Focus, November 30, 2007.
[25] Jesse Johnson, “Chinese Senkaku swarm tactic spells trouble for Japan,” The Japan Times, August 7, 2016.

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