A glance at Japan’s elementary school textbooks shows why the only nation hit by nuclear bombs is unlikely to embrace them despite the growing threat from North Korea.
Among the first images of World War II is often a flattened Hiroshima, one of two cities leveled by U.S. nuclear bombs in 1945. The devastation, which left more than 200,000 people dead and tens of thousands reeling from injuries and radiation exposure, is taught in schools to children as young as six years old.
“If Japan were to have nuclear weapons, it would be like giving permission to any country in the world to have them,” Miharu Kobayashi, a high school messenger of peace from Hiroshima, said in an interview on this week in Tokyo before she met with Japan’s foreign minister. “We are the country that knows how terrifying they are and how they should be abolished, so if we were to make the mistake of possessing them it would be unforgivable.”
North Korea has test-fired missiles over Japan’s territory and threatened it with annihilation, prompting some lawmakers to call for a debate on acquiring an atomic arsenal. U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster also warned earlier this month that Japan and South Korea could seek nuclear weapons in the face of North Korea’s threat.
But polls show about 80 percent of Japanese are against the country possessing a nuclear deterrent. That contrasts with fellow U.S. ally South Korea, where surveys suggest a majority supports having atomic weapons to counter Kim Jong Un’s regime.
“The whole ethos of anti-nuclear Japan is deeply embedded in the consciousness of Japanese people,” said Dan Sneider, a lecturer in East Asian studies at Stanford University, who researches U.S. foreign policy in Asia. He called it a “huge barrier” to Japan ever going nuclear.
Tragic stories of nuclear victims are woven throughout the Japanese school curriculum, and pop up in films and comic books. The well known manga series “Barefoot Gen” centers around a six-year-old boy’s struggle to survive after the bombing in Hiroshima.
Shigeru Ishiba, a former defense minister, has been one of the most outspoken politicians saying Japan should at least talk about an atomic arsenal. The country now depends on America’s “nuclear umbrella” — an oft-repeated pledge that the U.S. would use its nuclear weapons to defend Japan if required.
In a Fuji TV interview this month, Ishiba proposed having a shared nuclear deterrent like the one operated by NATO in Germany — essentially meaning Japan would host U.S.-owned weapons. He cited concerns that the U.S. would eventually accept North Korea as a nuclear power, a move that would leave Japan more at risk than any other country.
Gen Nakatani, another former defense minister, sees no need for Japan to get such a deterrent because of its security relationship with the U.S.
“There is no other alliance that has the merits of the U.S.-Japan alliance,” he said in an interview this week. “So our best option is to do all we can to make sure it stays in place.”
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has repeatedly said he’s not thinking of changing the 50-year-old principles of not possessing, developing or allowing the introduction of nuclear weapons. Instead, Japan is beefing up its missile defenses and planning to obtain long-range missiles to fit on fighter planes.
James Platte, a U.S.-based analyst who researches deterrence, said it would make little strategic sense for Japan to acquire nuclear weapons. He said they could anger China and become targets for North Korea — not to mention the excessive costs.
Even so, Japan is already a latent nuclear power. As of the end of last year, it had a stockpile of 46.9 tons of plutonium, with 9.8 tons held in the country and the rest in the U.K. and France. Japan also has an advanced rocket-launch program that could be adapted for missile purposes.
“One could speculate that a simple gun-type uranium device such as the one used at Hiroshima could be completed and ready to test within a couple of years or less,” said Lance Gatling of Tokyo-based aerospace consultancy Nexial Research. More complex weapons would take longer, but probably less than a decade, he added.
Getting over the cultural barriers may prove more difficult.
In accepting the Nobel Peace Prize this month on behalf of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, Hiroshima survivor Setsuko Thurlow spoke in Oslo of the “ghostly” procession of victims she saw in the aftermath.
Describing people with eyeballs and intestines hanging from their bodies, she said the development of nuclear weapons “signifies not a country’s elevation to greatness, but its descent to the darkest depths of depravity.”
(Takashi Hirokawa and Kanga Kong contributed to this report)
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