After the crippling of the Fukushima nuclear power plant following the devastating March 2011 earthquake, Japan has seen a drastic reduction in its use of nuclear power. Only two reactors remain online as concerns over safety and public sentiment convinced the government to shut many other reactors down. There are signs, however, that widespread nuclear energy production may return to the world’s third largest economy in the coming months, with applications by nuclear operators over restarting the reactors now subject to review.
With advanced nuclear capabilities, Japan is widely believed to have the necessary capacity and technology to develop nuclear weapons should it so desire. At this moment in time, such a development is highly unlikely. As the only country to experience the horror of nuclear attack (during the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended WWII), there is strong anti-nuclear proliferation sentiment in the country. Furthermore, Japan remains restricted by its post-WWII constitution, partly drafted by the Americans to prevent a repeat of Japanese power projection across the East Asia region.
Long-standing social norms, historical memory and constitutional limitations seem to rule out Japan becoming the latest nuclear power. However, there are intimations that such a development is no longer as ludicrous as it once seemed. As North Korea recklessly plunders on with its own nuclear programme, and China continues to develop its naval capabilities to challenge Japanese sovereignty in the East China Sea, there have been some calls within Japanese nationalist circles to pursue a more rigorous defence. Some observers even believe Japan is pursuing a secret nuclear weapons policy aimed at stockpiling plutonium for future manufacture of warheads.
Japan already has anti-nuclear and ballistic missile defences, jointly developed with the USA, which provides some security against a nuclear attack. Nevertheless, some argue this is not as great a deterrent as actually owning nuclear weapons. If North Korea makes further steps towards nuclearisation and China increases its aggression in defending what it perceives as its territory, the potential for “nuclear fever” to spread across East Asia, drawing in other non-nuclear weapons states like South Korea and Taiwan, is not unthinkable.
Despite its ageing population, fewer and fewer Japanese now have a personal connection with WWII and the horrors wrought by the atom bombs. Whilst anti-nuclear sentiment remains more embedded in Japanese culture than in other nations, times are changing and regional security dilemmas help to fuel anxiety and policy change. The LDP government of Shinzo Abe, a hawkish conservative gaining in popularity, may yet listen to nationalist agitators and reconsider the military nuclear option. Although undoubtedly still some way off, as Japan’s nuclear reactors come back on line, questions will be raised within and outside the country about what other uses they may be put to.