Fri, Aug 08, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Japan begins to express doubts about nuclear ban

FORMER TABOO In light of the threat posed by North Korea, Japan is thinking the once unthinkable and asking whether it should have its own atomic weapons

AP , TOKYO

Just a few years ago, talk about nuclear weapons would have been the pinnacle of taboo in Japan, the only nation to suffer atomic attacks, where memories of raging firestorms, charred bodies and bulbous tumors are etched into the collective consciousness of generations.

But the suspected nuclear weapons programs in neighbor North Korea now has this nation, bound by its war-renouncing constitution, thinking the unthinkable -- should Japan have its own atomic arsenal?

"People are clearly waking up to the idea," lawmaker Shingo Nishimura says of the new willingness to debate the once forbidden issue. "They feel something is wrong with Japan."

Nishimura was forced to resign as a vice minister for defense back in 1999 for even suggesting Japan should consider acquiring nuclear weapons.

But as a sign of the changing times, his nuclear views now win Nishimura -- a popular opposition lawmaker -- prime-time air with television talk show appearances.

Yasuo Fukuda and Shintaro Abe, two prominent ruling party politicians and top advisers to the prime minister, are among other leaders who have broached the once-shunned issue within the last year, asserting that Japan has the right to bear nuclear arms.

The shift in attitudes is especially stark this week as the country commemorates the 1945 nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a time when pleas for a nuclear-free world grow louder and many memorialize the misery unleashed by atomic weapons.

"There's no problem with nuclear weapons if it's out of national interest," says Kinko Sato, a 69-year-old Tokyo lawyer. "It may be inevitable for self-protection."

Major newspapers have not done recent opinion polls on a nuclear Japan. But an Internet survey by Vote.co.jp found 53 percent of nearly 8,000 respondents answered "Yes" to the question: "Is it OK for Japan to have a nuclear bomb?"

Japanese traditionally abhor atomic weapons, and the country's post World War II constitution renounces war as a means to solving international conflicts.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi affirmed Japan's policy banning the production, possession and transport of nuclear weapons at Wednesday's memorial service marking the 58th anniversary of the Aug. 6, 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

"Our country's stance on this will not change," Koizumi said. "We will do our utmost to advance the call for smaller nuclear arsenals and nuclear non-proliferation while working toward ridding the world of nuclear weapons."

All that could change, however, if North Korea ups its atomic ante.

US Vice President Dick Cheney speculated in March that Pyongyang's ambitions could trigger a regional "arms race" and that "others, perhaps Japan, for example, may be forced to consider whether or not they want to readdress the nuclear question."

While analysts see a nuclear-armed Japan as a deterrent against a possible North Korean attack, it would likely worry neighboring China and possibly change the US-Japan alliance, which for decades has centered on Japan's reliance on the US nuclear umbrella.

This month, The Shokun, a right-leaning magazine from major Tokyo publisher Bungeishunju, gathered essays from more than 40 prominent writers to debate the issue.

Even journalists with dovish reputations said the option was a valid "card" to play for political leverage, not only against North Korea but the US and other nations. Some questioned whether Japan was ready for the responsibility; others called for missile defense.

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