TOKYO – Kim Jong Un would like one that can hit the United States. President Donald Trump unsurprisingly asked for 10 times more of them.
But in the middle of this arms race between Washington and Pyongyang, one country on the front line of the North Korea standoff continues to be steadfastly opposed to nuclear weapons being deployed on its soil.
“Japan must not use nuclear weapons, absolutely not!” states 24-year-old Misato Mori, who works at a department store in Tokyo. The white surgical mask gift wrapping her face does little to hide her shock at the idea.
While anti-nuclear belief is high in Japan, a snap election being held Sunday could bring about changes to the Japan’s postwar pacifist constitution.
If he is victorious, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has promised to modify the constitution so it formally recognizes the Japan Self-Defense Forces as an true military. Some critics point out this could be a slippery slope, nevertheless, eroding the anti-war commitments it made after World War II.
At around 320 miles from North Korea, Japan might not be in the same immediate threat zone as the South Korean capital of Seoul, which is within the range of thousands of artillery pieces. But all of North Korea’s missile testing have been fired in its direction, and Pyongyang has stated Japan “should be sunken into the sea by the nuclear bomb.”
In the past two months, scared Japanese residents were twice woken by text messages, blaring public announcements and emergency TV bulletins forewarning North Korean missiles were about to soar high in outer space above their residences.
“I am worried about North Korea,” says Shizue Ozawa, a 76-year-old homemaker. “I think Kim Jong Un is a bit crazy and I don’t know what he will do.”
“My parents were afraid of me coming here because of the North Korea situation,” adds Jonas Miller, 26, an American biologist visiting Tokyo from Boston.
And yet the vast majority of folks in Japan are vehemently in opposition to the concept of their own country acquiring nuclear weapons.
Support for nukes is at present at just 9 percent among the Japanese, a slight rise from last year but still a small group, based on an opinion poll carried out in June and July.
“We’re scared and North Korea is a big threat for us, but for the time being we need to stay calm and see what happens in the future,” says Hiroshi Kato, a 54-year-old who works in finance. “Personally, I believe Japanese citizens should not seek extreme solutions, like having nuclear bombs.”
Kiyomi Ebitani, a 60-year-old woman strolling through the city’s upscale Ginza district, goes even further. “I am against nuclear weapons, because if Japan had them then that would be the end of the world,” she states.
The reason most Japanese folks hold this view is connected to their country’s one of a kind history.
In August 1945, the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, instantaneously killing more than 100,000 folks. It remains the only time nuclear weapons have been utilized in a war.
“My grandmother was a child in the war and she told me her experiences,” states Shota Otani, a 25-year-old student. “I felt that it was so bad. We don’t want to go to war with nuclear bombs.”
After its surrender in World War II, Japan drafted a fresh constitution with the assist of the occupying U.S. military. Its key clause, Article 9, stated that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation” and that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”
This was a reaction to Japan’s militaristic expansionism that included widespread war crimes in China before World War II.
Whether or not modern-day Japan Self-Defense Forces are considered a genuine military, with nearly 250,000 standing soldiers and Asia’s most powerful navy, the country already ranks among the world’s top 10 defense spenders.
Some folks who spoke with FLI this week stated they are concerned about the threat posed by North Korea. But that seems to have done little to slow the pace in this chaotic city. The 38 million folks crammed into its seemingly endless metro area still whiz around this neon-lit megalopolis of dazzling technology, world-class food and historic tradition.
Needless to say, not everyone here is opposed to nuclear weapons. A small group, such as 72-year-old retiree Hayakawa Yoshihide, would hesitantly welcome them as a dangerous but essential counterweight to Pyongyang.
“Because North Korea has nuclear weapons, maybe Japan needs to get nuclear weapons as well?” Yoshihide states. “I don’t think North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons.”
Having said that, no mainstream politician in Japan is openly calling for such a solution.
The weight of public opinion means the subject is taboo, not to mention it would contravene several domestic and international nonproliferation treaties.
One man who has floated the idea, however, is the U.S. president.
During last year’s election campaign, Trump suggested the U.S. could withdraw its 50,000-plus troops from Japan because the country did not pay enough toward their upkeep, a claim that experts say is hard to quantify.
Trump suggested Japan might be better off protecting itself by developing its own nuclear arsenal, something that would amount to a reversal of decades of U.S. nonproliferation policy.
Although he later flip-flopped at a rally two months later, Trump’s statement caused outrage and concern in Japan, where just 24 percent of people have confidence in him to do the right thing on international affairs, according to a study by the Pew Research Center in June.
“I am anxious about Trump’s words because his speeches are often extreme,” says Yuki Nakajima, a 23-year-old sales rep in the manufacturing industry. “He may cause some trouble abroad.”
But the president and Japan’s leader have developed something of close relationship, typified by the pair playing golf at the president’s Mar-a-Lago Florida resort in February.
The hawkish Abe may not agree with Trump on nukes – he called for “a world free of nuclear weapons” at the 72nd anniversary of Hiroshima this year.
But he has pledged that by 2020 he will amend the constitution to recognize the Japan Self-Defense Forces as a military.
While the Japan Self-Defense Forces don’t possess offensive capabilities, many scholars allege its current scope is unconstitutional.
Abe needs a two-thirds majority in Parliament to make the change. And in a bid to strengthen his hand he has called a snap election that will take place Sunday, a vote his party looks likely to win.
But some opponents worry that formal recognition of this quasi-military would pave the way for further expansion.
“Critics say that changing the constitution is something of a Trojan horse … and that this is the thin end of the wedge,” according to Kōichi Nakano, a politics professor at Tokyo’s Sophia University. “It could bring us into a possible war between the U.S. and North Korea, where the Americans say, ‘Are you coming with me?’ And Abe could go along with it.”
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