By Ichiro Suzuki
As Vladimir Putin’s Russia is raging a war on the soil of Ukraine, European countries, especially former Soviet satellites, have suddenly heightened alert on Putin’s future aggression beyond the Ukrainian border. This is exactly why Ukraine wished to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and non-NATO countries such as Finland and an Sweden are showing their growing interest in the collective security system. Even German Chancellor Olaf Sholz has immediately announced raising defense spending to 2% of GDP that the NATO expects, though Germany faces lower probabilities of being invaded than former communist neighbors. As Europe’s foremost pacifist, Germany’s foreign policy for the last half a century has been based on engagement with the Soviet Union/ Russia in the hope that good business relationship with a potential foe fosters security. Such a hope of Ostpolitik (eastern policy) was totally dashed by Putin’s invasion into Ukraine. It was a rude awakening to doves in Germany. There is not really such a thing as rule-based international order. It takes only one mad man to throw Europe into a cauldron of war.
In the Far East, the war in Ukraine sent a strong message to Japan as well. The country is officially more pacifist than Germany, with the Article 9 of the Constitution that declares to renounce armed forces as a means of settling international disputes. Right after WWII, General MacArthur’s occupation force drew this constitution for Japan, striping the country of power to be engaged in military actions. Only a few years later, however, a war that broke out in the Korean Peninsula revealed great inconvenience of the highly idealistic Article 9. The United States then allowed Japan to dodge the Article 9 by calling the newly created armed forces Self Defense Force. In response to concerns among Asian neighbors, the Japanese government maintains that the SDF can be deployed only for the purpose of defending the country against an aggressor. That is what Ukrainian military is engaged in at present.
Such an interpretation of Article 9 faced a major obstacle at the time of the 1991 Gulf War. Led by the U.S., coalition of forces went to the Persian Gulf to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s aggression. Being unable to be a part of the allies in military operations, Japan contributed cash, $9 billion, and then was scorned. Later, an interpretation of the Constitution was changed to sidestep the Article 9 to allow the SDF to participate in peace-keeping operations under the United Nations, but not in battles. Not being able to even fire a shot greatly constraints responsibilities the SDF can assume outside Japan. The SDF’s constrained capacity causes great inconvenience to other participating forces in operations in dangerous areas.
Then, in this Ukraine War, Russian President Vladimir Putin dared to threaten use of tactical nuclear weapons. Putin’s recklessness has raised a voice in Japan on possible possession of nuclear weapons, in the same fashion the Korean War led to the birth of the SDF. For Japan, however, this ‘N-word’ is a taboo beyond anything else. ‘The only country that has suffered a nuclear disaster’ is a phrase politicians frequently utter in their talks on international relations. Japan prides itself in the sole nuclear experience. Though this is a fact, it is hard to believe that this means really something to other countries. Nonetheless, this phrase instills so much self-conceit in the minds of some Japanese. The nuclear experiences has made us special, they think. This makes it nearly impossible to debate pros and cons of nuclear weapons with a cool head.
‘Three non-nuclear principles’ ban Japan to have nuclear weapons brought into the country from elsewhere, in addition to not producing and not possessing them. The principles were declared in 1967 by Prime Minister Eisaku Sato. In 1974 he was awarded Nobel Peace Prize for his effort on nuclear non-proliferation. It has long been suspected if these three principles were strictly observed. It is 100% certain that Japan has never produced or possessed N-bombs. However, how can anyone be fully sure that they have never been bought into U.S. marine bases in Okinawa or naval bases in Yokosuka or Sasebo? It is hard to think that ships that dock at the Yokosuka base have unloaded N-bombs before arriving there without fail. The government has kept saying ‘No, definitely’ but the truth unofficially could be somewhat different. This time around, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has confirmed Japan’s adherence to the principles. Admitting nuclear weapons’ existence in the country even in the distant past would almost certainly cause an uproar in the Diet (Parliament) and on the streets.
Unlike Germany that hears Russia’s footsteps so near, Japan is 5,000 miles away from the battle fields in Ukraine. Though Russia’s aggression has lifted awareness on Japan’s security, sense of urgency is not felt so acutely among politicians as well as average Japanese men and women on the street. Russia and China are Japan’s neighbors in this part of the world. Nonetheless, that is not still a strong enough factor to raise the alarm level. After all, not even the 2014 annexation of Crimea by Russia, the first European border change by force after WWII, did not move Germany. Only full-fledged Russian invasion in Ukraine awakened Germany. It takes a stronger message for Japan to be reawakened than
a war 5,000 miles away. By the same token, no loud voice has been heard to raise Japan’s defense budget that has been long anchored at 1% of GDP.
About the author: Mr. Suzuki is a retired banking executive based in Tokyo, Japan.