The beheading of two Japanese by the Islamic State has caused more than outrage in Japan. The killings could cause Japan to become more militarily aggressive, or at least, more internationally assertive.
After its unconditional surrender following World War 11, Japan was forced to adopt a ‘peace constitution’ and commit to a pacifist course that limited its future to a strictly self-defence role.
But this is changing as Japan faces new challenges.
Further pressure has been applied to Japan following a challenge by the Islamic State. The masked and knife-wielding Islamic State militant beside the kneeling Japanese journalist Kenji Gogo, whom he was about to behead, directly addressed the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The militant warned, "because of your reckless decision to take part in an unwinnable war, this knife will not only slaughter Kenji, but will also carry on and cause carnage wherever your people are found. So let the nightmare for Japan begin."
This challenge didn't fall on deaf ears. Prime Minister Abe is known to be a hawk – he’s a grandson of former Japanese Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, who controversially signed the 1960 U.S. Japan Security Treaty with Washington, thereby upgrading Tokyo’s response to an active role in self-defence during the Cold War.
In 2014, Abe continued this process and persuaded his cabinet to “reinterpret” the peace constitution to allow Japan to send troops overseas. Admittedly, this was only to allow Japan to send troops and equipment to aid allies in times of war – but this would be boots on the ground for Japan, for the first time since the end of World War 11.
Visit to the Yasukuni Shrine
Prime Minister Abe has already alarmed Asian neighbours by officially visiting the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which commemorates Japan’s war dead, including 14 convicted war criminals, 7 of whom were hanged following World War 11.
The priests of the privately run Yasukuni Shrine added the names of the war criminals in 1978, a move that reflected the belief of some Japanese nationalists that these convicted criminals were actually patriots who had been victims of victor’s justice by the triumphant Allies. When the enshrinement was made public a year later, in 1979, the emperor at the time, Hirohito, showed his displeasure by refusing to visit Yasukuni, a boycott continued by his son, the current emperor, Akihito.
China has never forgotten the humiliation and devastation of the Japanese invasion in 1937. The Nanjing massacre was a 6 week orgy of mass murder and rape, during which some 300,000 Chinese were killed.
But Japanese Prime Minister Abe is unrepentant. He has frequently suggested in speeches that Japan should be proud of its history, sparking criticism that he is encouraging the whitewashing of past atrocities — an exoneration that the Yasukuni Shrine has come to represent.
Conflict with China
The conflict with China has now resurfaced in the form of disputed islands in the East China Sea.
Beijing is currently in a persistently tense standoff with Tokyo over the islands that the Japanese call the Senkakus and which the Chinese claim as the Diaoyutai. These islands are also claimed by Taiwan. China is a ramping up its military forces in the region, and Japan is uneasy about restrictions that would constrain its response.
Also, despite President Obama’s assurances of support during his visit to Tokyo in 2013, and promise to cooperate in protecting regional stability, America’s withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan has illustrated that America is growing tired of becoming involved in distant conflicts.
Can America be depended upon to defend Japan? Can Japan rely on the shelter of America’s nuclear umbrella? Well, yes, maybe, because America’s promised protection has also been for the pragmatic reason of discouraging Japan and South Korea from developing nuclear capabilities of their own to combat North Korea.
Japan as a Nuclear Power
Another dilemma for Japan is its commitment to nuclear power, following the Fukushima disaster in 2011. The Fukushima disaster was the world’s worst release of nuclear radiation since Chernobyl in 1986.
Public opinion in Japan remains consistently opposed to restarting the nation's reactors, even after massive increases in power tariffs. But Japan has committed too many billions of dollars to keep its nuclear power stations mothballed. And anyway, Japan doesn't have any energy resources of its own to ensure its industrial future.
Prior to the Fukushima disaster, Japan had aimed to increase nuclear power to more than 50 percent of its energy output by 2030. But now, anywhere near that level is unlikely with the cleanup at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant facing constant delays, and expected to take decades.
Japan began the process of trying to agree on new power targets for 2030 last month, and a ratio of between 15 to 20 percent for nuclear power was proposed as a starting point by some members of the panel set up under the country's industry ministry. But Japan’s troubled history with nuclear power means that achieving any public consensus will be difficult.
However, “Japan must continue with the nuclear fuel cycle,” says Kazuo Ishikawa, a former Trade Ministry official who worked on energy policy. “Japan’s energy security depends on it.”
The Plutonium Question
Then there’s all the plutonium that Japan has stockpiled. Japan is one of the few countries that continues to invest in the production of plutonium, which is weapons grade material.
Japan has stockpiled more than 9 tons of separated plutonium, according to IAEA declarations. And another 35 tons are stored outside the country. Facilities in France and the U.K., two of the five officially recognized nuclear-weapons states, currently reprocess Japanese spent fuel.
Japan is banking heavily on conventional uranium-based nuclear power and on advanced systems using plutonium to relieve its almost complete dependence on imported oil and coal.
Plutonium can be extracted from the spent fuel of nuclear power plants and then used as fuel itself, either in conventional reactors or in fast breeder reactors, which can create more plutonium than they consume.
But Japan’s plutonium production also commits Japan to using a mixed plutonium-uranium fuel for reactors that is considered somewhat more dangerous than uranium fuel if there is an accident. The mixture, called mixed oxide fuel, is necessary because plutonium produced by recycling cannot be used alone in the reactors.
The nuclear reprocessing plant in Tokai, a Pacific coast town 70 miles northeast of Tokyo, handles about 12 percent of Japan's spent fuel. The Tokai plant and the adjacent plutonium fuel fabrication factory now contain about 4.4 tons of plutonium, which is toxic and in some forms can be used to make nuclear warheads.
Even before the Fukushima accident, Japan's plan to breed plutonium was facing an uncertain future because of the December 1995 leak of sodium coolant at the country's prototype fast breeder reactor, known as Monju. No date has been set for reactivating Monju, which has been closed since the accident.
Japan has spent another $22 billion on a new reprocessing plant at Rokkasho located in Japan’s northern Aomori Prefecture. Rokkasho is not yet operating, but it will be capable of producing nine tons of weapons-grade plutonium per year.
The USA has chosen to close down its own breeder reactors. This is because firstly, the plutonium produced contributes to nuclear proliferation which, in turn, leads to eventual security issues. Secondly, breeder reactors create their own radioactive waste with potentially high radiation exposures. For these reasons, President Carter halted such spent fuel reprocessing and shut down both of the USA’s breeder reactors.
Elsewhere in the world, only India, Russia, and China currently have operational fast breeder reactor programs. The U.K., France and Germany have effectively shut down theirs.
Understandably, Japan’s stockpile of plutonium has alarmed China, which accuses Japan of stockpiling plutonium and uranium “far exceeding its normal needs.” To put China's concern into perspective, the bomb used to explode over Nagasaki in 1945, used just 6.2kg of plutonium in its core. Well, Japan now has approximately 44 tons of this material.
Japan's justification for stockpiling plutonium was to meet its future energy needs. But some Japanese also consider that this stockpile can also bolster national security. Both China and North Korea have recently launched missiles into waters off Japan. Therefore, keeping plutonium that could be used to make nuclear weapons might also be a deterrent.
The former trade ministry official, Kazuo Ishikawa, who worked on energy policy, says “It doesn’t hurt that others think we could build one (a nuclear weapon).”
So, following the ISIS beheadings of two of its nationals, what is Japan likely to do next? One school of thought is that a majority of Japanese may feel that Japan should keep a low profile rather than becoming more vocal on global issues, which could pose risks to Japanese citizens.
The other approach for Japan is to throw off its recent pacifist past and become a more muscular military force, better able to deal with military and terrorist threats.
It’s easy to predict that Prime Minister Abe will prefer the option of less constraint and more force. But how much he can persuade the Japanese people to follow him, is now one of the big questions in Asia. Not to mention the growing concerns of Japan's neighbours, who still can't forget their treatment by a militaristic Japan during World War 11.