Watching the weasel on Japan’s nuclear disarmament policy!

by Steven Leeper, Professor at the Hiroshima Jogakuin University

Epoch-making step taken by Japanese government

On October 22, 2013, Japan signed a statement on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons that New Zealand presented to the UN General Assembly. This was an epoch-making event. Japan had already refused to sign similar statements several times, but public pressure appears to have changed the government’s mind. The mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, various NGOs, and large numbers of ordinary citizens opposed to nuclear weapons raised their voices enough to move the government. Increasing public activism, the Internet, and several other factors were involved, but the fact is, public pressure influenced government behavior with respect to nuclear weapons. This is the epoch-making part. However, Japan’s signature does not necessarily mean the start of a new epoch in nuclear disarmament.

About 20 days ago, at the world’s first high-level meeting on nuclear disarmament, which, disgracefully, never took place until September 26, 2013, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pointed out that the Tokyo Olympics would “…coincide with the annual memorial ceremonies in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” He then expressed his desire to “…make the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games a sports festival where we think of peace together with citizens around the world.”

So in 2020, the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombings and seven years from now, Japan’s ambition is to “think about peace” during the Olympics. Of course, thinking about peace is a fine thing to do anytime, but Prime Minister Abe could have set his sights a bit higher. He might, for example, have mentioned the new movement led by Switzerland, Norway, the Red Cross and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. This is the movement that produced the New Zealand statement he just signed.

Or, since he was talking about the 2020 Olympics, he might have mentioned the 2020 Vision Campaign being conducted by Mayors for Peace, which now boasts over 5700 city members in 157 countries. Surely the Prime Minister knew about these campaigns. Why did he say nothing about them?

Previously, in April 2013 Japan was offered an opportunity to sign a statement regarding nuclear weapons that was introduced by South Africa. That statement was signed by 80 countries, but Japan refused because of the phrase, “under any circumstances.” The statement in question declared, "It is in the interests of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances." Japan tried and failed to get “under any circumstances” changed. Logically, this resistance seems to indicate that Japan would, under certain circumstances, want the US to use nuclear weapons to protect Japan, which is why it refused to sign a declaration that completely rejects their use.

The declaration that Japan refused to sign highlighted the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. The signers were saying, in effect, “Nuclear weapons are too dangerous. Even a single large hydrogen bomb in a large city would kill millions and be an unprecedented catastrophe utterly beyond the response capacity of the Red Cross or any country. Ten or fifteen large bombs on that many cities (if they send five million tons of particles into the atmosphere) would cause nuclear darkness, drastically disrupting global agriculture for at least 10 years causing billions to starve. The use of a few hundred hydrogen bombs would cause a nuclear winter so deep that most human beings would die. Such a humanitarian catastrophe is unacceptable, so nuclear weapons must never be used and should be eliminated as quickly as possible.”

Japan’s refusal to sign meant, in effect, “We are willing for the US to destroy human civilization and cause the starvation of billions of people or possibly even kill all human beings if necessary to protect Japan from attack.” Is this really what Prime Minister Abe and Foreign Minister Kishida wanted to say? I doubt it. And, in fact, they seem to have changed course.

Of all nations, Japan understands most profoundly the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, which is why the new movement to examine those consequences pushed them into such embarrassing self-contradiction. The fact that Japan refused for so long to join the movement to protect the world from such consequences was an international scandal. Japan suddenly found itself unable trumpet its commitment to a nuclear-weapon-free world while quietly but effectively clinging to its nuclear umbrella.

Whether or not the designers of the new movement did it on purpose, the new movement is forcing the nuclear weasel states into the open. States like Japan, Australia, and Germany routinely offer righteous rhetoric about their determined pursuit of a nuclear-weapon-free world, but they invariably help the nuclear-weapon states oppose serious, practical movement in that direction. Now they are being forced to choose which side they are on, and, happily, Japan joined 124 other countries in endorsing the statement by New Zealand.

To find out what this means, let’s look more closely at the choice being made. The nuclear weapon states and their supporters always say the following: “Everything is fine. The US and Russia are reducing their warheads, aren’t they? Let’s just stay this course. The most effective way to eliminate nuclear weapons is the step-by-step approach derived from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).”

Of course the nuclear-reliant nations love the current approach. They completely dominate it. It’s 100% consensus framework gives them veto power over any challenge. However, even a cursory glance at what the nuclear-weapon states are actually doing reveals plans and budgets designed to maintain their nuclear privilege indefinitely. Thus, the non-nuclear nations know perfectly well that the step-by-step approach is actually designed to thwart abolition, and the fact that the nuclear-weapon states are obviously clinging to their weapons is leading inexorably toward a world full of nuclear-armed nations. After all, how long can the Arab states allow Israel to be the only country in the Middle East with nuclear weapons? And if nuclear weapons are vital to the security of nine states, why should they be denied to others who might want that same security?

Meanwhile, the new movement is saying, “Come on, you nuclear-weapon-states, let’s solve this problem. You’ve been promising disarmament for over forty years, and we can’t wait any longer. Nuclear weapons are spinning out of control, and we need you to get rid of yours right now before everyone gets them. Don’t bother even mentioning deterrence, and we don’t want to hear about your national interest or national security. No one has any right, for any reason whatsoever, to destroy civilization and possibly kill us all, so stop screwing around and get rid of the damn things. And by the way, if you don’t, we’ll go right around the consensus obstacles, institute a formal global ban, and make sure everyone on the planet knows that the vast majority of us consider your arsenals illegal, immoral and a war crime waiting to happen.”

All this is being said extremely gently and politely, as it should be, but still, the nuclear weapon states are freaking out. Imagine, a bunch of non-nuclear countries actually dissing deterrence and threatening to create a nuclear weapons ban all by themselves. Nevertheless, that’s precisely what’s happening, and the forces for abolition are thrilled if Japan is getting on the right side in this struggle.

Japan is the key player when it comes to all things nuclear. Japan has the political, social and economic power to turn the new movement into an irresistible tsunami of global public opinion. Japan has the opportunity to be a hero among nations, the gallant knight who removes the sword of Damocles that has been dangling perilously over our collective head for 68 years. If the Japanese people want true security, meaning love and admiration from China, Russia, both Koreas and the rest of the world, they should stand up right now and shout, “Just do it!” as loud as they can. That would convince everyone that they truly want peace.

Luckily, the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, among many others, are raising their voices in support of the new movement, and they are already having an effect. New Zealand’s statement was an effort by the new movement to widen support. Still, it clearly states that nuclear weapons must never be used “under any circumstances.” Japan’s signature could be a great step forward, but abolitionists are rightly nervous. Does Japan really intend to strengthen the new movement and help protect us all from nuclear holocaust? If Japan is still a nuclear weasel state, its goal could be to weaken the new movement from within, diluting declarations (as it may have done to New Zealand’s) and opposing progress toward a nuclear weapons ban. If Japan’s presence within the new movement leads that movement away from outlawing nuclear weapons and toward the meaningless step-by-step approach, those who genuinely seek a nuclear-weapon-free world will be disgusted.

The next six months will be critical. I hope the people of Japan will thank Prime Minister Abe and Foreign Minister Kishida for allowing Japan to join the new movement. Then, I hope they will watch carefully to make sure Japan’s participation is constructive. We have seen this month that when the Japanese people send a message in a determined way, their government is open to influence on this topic.

If the Japanese people make their wishes plain over the next few months, Prime Minister Abe will gladly represent them. When he greets the NPDI (Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative) in Hiroshima next April, he won’t have to be a weasel encouraging folks to “think about peace.” With his people firmly behind him, he can be a bold hero saying, “The Tokyo Olympics will end on Nagasaki Day. By that time, the hottest global topic other than sports will be the new treaty outlawing nuclear weapons. It will have been offered for signature in 2015, and by 2020 it will have been signed by at least 170 countries, unequivocally expressing the will of the world. Our goal is to make the Olympics a glorious, global festival celebrating the start of negotiations toward a universal nuclear weapons convention that will end the nuclear age and liberate the human family from the threat of self-annihilation. We have a lot to do between now and then, so let’s get to work.”


Steven Leeper became a professor at the Hiroshima Jogakuin University since September this year after serving the chairman of the Hiroshima Peace Culture Foundation for six years since April 2007. He began working for Mayors for Peace in 2001, becoming the full-time U.S. representative in 2002. He earned a BA in experimental psychology from Eckerd College in 1969, did four years of alternative service as a conscientious objector, taught English in Japan from 1973 to 1976, and obtained a masters degree in clinical psychology in 1978 from West Georgia College. He was born on November 20, 1947 in Urbana, Illinois, USA.