Report IRSEM No. 93 - 2022



The official posture of the Japanese government which, for decades, has reconciled the U.S. nuclear umbrella with diplomacy in favor of abolishing nuclear weapons, has always been surrounded by discordant statements from senior political officials. These include the former Prime Minister Abe, claiming that Japan’s Constitution does not prohibit the possession of defense-oriented nuclear weapons, while various members of his entourage have already asserted the need for Japan to pursue a nuclear hedging strategy. Many observers and analysts have expressed their agreement, particularly because of two policies pursued by Tokyo and regarded as ambiguous owing to their duality: the maintenance of a program to extract plutonium from spent fuel, and a dynamic space program, increasingly affirming the role of outer space in national security. Rethinking the concepts of hedging and latent nuclear capabilities in the case of Japan shows that Japan’s latency is cultivated and is used by Tokyo as a diplomatic lever at the regional level, with the aim of limiting aggressiveness from China and North Korea toward it; it also serves as a political lever vis-à-vis Japan’s U.S. ally, in order to push Washington to strengthen its security guarantees, via the same implicit threat of rapid nuclear proliferation, in the event of a sudden change in the status quo. Through this reassessment of Japan’s nuclear policy, the differences between the Japanese government and a part of its population that favors nuclear abolitionism are examined, on a political level. On a conceptual level, this reassessment leads to challenging and rethinking the central concepts of hedging and latency, to adapt them to contemporary nonproliferation and even counter-proliferation issues. Finally, on a geopolitical level, it provides insight, through the singular example of Japan, into the consequences of the military rise of China and the failure to resolve the North Korean crisis on the stability not only of East Asia, but also of the world, insofar as these two phenomena weaken the nonproliferation regime established by the NPT fifty-two years ago.

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Thimotée Albessard