Opinion: A-bombed nation strikes inconsistent stance toward nuclear weapons

by Noritaka Egusa, Editorial Writer

Triggered by disputes involving Takeshima Island in Shimane Prefecture and the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture, the San Francisco Peace Treaty has promptly drawn attention.

The treaty, signed in 1951, affirmed the end of war between Japan and the Allied Forces. It did not specify, however, Japan’s right of ownership to either Takeshima Island or the Senkaku Islands. In that sense, the treaty is partly to blame for these long-running tensions between Japan and South Korea, and Japan and China.

The voices of some historians inside and outside Japan have been heard. Their analysis suggests that U.S. political intentions were behind the ill-defined settlement: “Some sources of instability in the East Asian region were left intentionally in order to maintain a strong U.S. presence after the war.” Observing current conditions here, it would appear that this analysis is not far off the mark.

The Japanese government recently created a stir which turns a spotlight on another aspect of the peace treaty: the issue of making nuclear weapons illegal under international law.

Thirty-four nations, including Switzerland and Norway, released a joint statement on the inhumanity of nuclear arms at the First Committee of the U.N. General Assembly. Japan, too, was approached to lend its backing to this statement, but the Japanese government declined to sign it.

Considering the devastation wrought by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the inhumanity of nuclear weapons is clear. Japan has every reason to take the lead in proposing a joint statement of this kind, which urges all nations to engage in efforts to realize a world without nuclear weapons.

The government, however, will not even support the statement. The Foreign Ministry of the A-bombed nation reportedly cited as a reason: “As long as nuclear weapons exist, we must co-exist with them. Nuclear deterrence is therefore indispensable for preventing their use by third-party nations.”

I cannot help but see this as an illegitimate rationale.

And the root cause lies in the peace treaty, with Japan’s decision to set aside U.S. responsibility for the atomic bombings and renounce its right to claim reparations for war damage.

There is a belief that Japan has been safeguarded by the U.S. “nuclear umbrella.” And it may be true that without the Japan-U.S. alliance, Japan would not have prospered to the degree we enjoy today.

Even so, for many citizens of Japan, the Japanese government’s position of bending over backward to avoid signing the joint statement, out of deference to the United States, appears very odd.

The fact that Japan waged a strong protest against the United States in the aftermath of the atomic bombings is well known. But this level of protest has existed only on that one occasion.

The protest at that time was made through the Swiss government. It may be a fateful coincidence that the permanent neutral state of Switzerland now plays a leading role in the recent anti-nuclear statement.

The signatories of this joint statement include Norway and Denmark, nations under the U.S. nuclear umbrella in Europe as member nations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

When comparing the stance of each nation with regard to nuclear weapons, the difference in the paths taken by Japan and Europe after the war becomes clear.

There is another connection between the issues of territory and nuclear weapons, and this concerns the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

In 1996, the ICJ issued an advisory opinion which states that the “use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law.” Back then, the Japanese government would only offer that “The use of nuclear weapons does not follow the spirit of humanitarianism.”

Taking into account its response to the current anti-nuclear statement, and its earlier stance, this indicates that the A-bombed nation holds the position: “The use of nuclear weapons is an infringement of international law, but possession alone is not.”

From some perspectives, this thinking may be commended as coherent. But in this respect, Japan would be entitled to place blame on the United States for its past use of atomic bombs. Based on this logic, Japan cannot affirm the idea of nuclear deterrence as this idea implies the threat of using nuclear arms.

The Japanese government has studied the possibility of bringing the case of Takeshima Island before the ICJ. If Japan is willing to rely on a ruling made by the ICJ, then it must look squarely at the significance of the advisory opinion regarding nuclear weapons.

The elimination of nuclear weapons begins with the absolute rejection of their very existence. I believe this is the path that the A-bombed nation, above others, should take to address the lingering issues left by the war.

(Originally published on November 1, 2012)