While the amendment to the atomic law and the statement may be innocuous, it has given scope for fresh anxieties within the region and beyond about the Japanese nuclear programme, particularly its recycling programme of extracted plutonium from spent nuclear fuel.
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Former Japanese defence minister Shigeru Ishiba's recent statement that "having nuclear plants shows to other nations that Japan can make nuclear weapons," has raised fresh questions on Tokoyo's nuclear intentions. However, the statement is to be seen in the backdrop of opposition to nuclear energy power plants after the 2011 Fukushima crisis. While Ishiba is not arguing for Japan to develop nuclear weapons, the technical know-how and the material availability will suggest a certain capability about Japan - that it can develop a weapon capability should the need arise in the future. Estimates suggest that given that Japan already has the technology and the know-how, it could take up to one year to develop a weapon.
However, this debate deserves greater attention in the backdrop of another development - the June 20, 2012 change in the Japanese Atomic Energy Basic Law, considered to be the fundamental document pertaining to use of nuclear energy. Amendment to Article 2 of the Atomic Energy Basic Law involved insertion of a national security phrase, saying nuclear safety should be guaranteed not only to defend lives, people's health and the environment but also to "contribute to Japan's national security." This has come under criticism within the country with several commentators questioning Japan's long-term intentions. In one of the opinion pieces, Tetsuya Endo, former diplomat and acting chairman of the Cabinet Office's Japan Atomic Energy Commission, argued that given the ambiguity and anxiety following the insertion of the phrase "national security," the Atomic Energy Basic Law should be amended again to revise security clause.
In an effort to moderate the anxieties, nuclear policy minister Goshi Hosono and Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura, among others, have clarified that the term security only connotes to security against proliferation or security against terrorism. While this may have been true, both the amendment to the nuclear law and the Ishiba statement has aroused curiosity among the regional powers as well. Referring to the Japanese government statement that it is not considering at all the possibility of weaponisation, the South Korean official position maintained that it is keeping a watch on the developments. However, some South Koreans have been much more critical. An editorial in the South Korean newspaper ChosunIlbo said, "Tokyo is displaying its schizophrenia by eyeing nuclear weapons … Its main excuse is North Korea's own nuclear program." Similar concerns have been expressed in other South Korean newspapers such as Donga Ilbo and JoongangIlbo too. Similarly, China is also watching closely. Commenting on the amendment, deputy director of the Institute of International Studies at Tsinghua University, Beijing, in an interview to the Global Times (China) opined that the new language could become the legal basis for Japan to develop a nuclear weapon programme.
There has also been a change in the Japanese Aerospace Basic Law which has mentioned that its space assets will have "contribution to Japan's national security," which again sparked regional attention. The change implied the use of space assets for defense and military purposes. In an interview to the Global Times (China), Kazuto Suzuki from Hokkaido University, Japan, maintained that the change was more of a necessity as there is a growing demand for military satellite communications because of the deployment of Japanese Self Defense Forces (SDF) for peacekeeping operations.
On the other hand, Lee Sangsoo, a research fellow with the Stockholm-based Institute for Security and Development Policy, was much more aggressive and ambitious about the Japanese space programme. He suggested that Japan could possibly shift to re-militarisation with the military utilization of space assets, including beefing up its missile detection system and that it will possibly be increasing R&D funding for military uses of space technology. He also added that these amendments will pave way for expansion of Japan's military capabilities while easing the security restraints imposed by Article 9 of the Japanese constitution.
This is not the first time that there have been such debates about Japan's military capabilities. There have been numerous efforts in the past to make changes to its pacifist posturing - after the Chinese nuclear test in 1964, during the Vietnam War, in the context of the end of the Cold War, during the 1994 North Korean nuclear crisis, and also after the indefinite extension of NPT. Japan contemplated a nuclear weapon programme in each of these situations. The very fact that there is an open public debate on the nuclear issue today reflects that there is a more mature and realistic appraisal of Japan's geopolitics and security than ever before.
In conclusion, while the amendment to the atomic law and the statement may be innocuous, it has given scope for fresh anxieties within the region and beyond about the Japanese nuclear programme, particularly its recycling programme of extracted plutonium from spent nuclear fuel. Article 9 and Japan's pacifist posture have meant that it never enjoyed the clout of a major geopolitical power. This, however, is changing gradually. It is clear that Japan is beginning to assume larger security responsibilities in an effort to emerge as a more "normal" nation. And the changes being undertaken in the nuclear law may be the beginning of more concrete changes to come in the future.