The Rising Japanese Nuclear Horn?

A Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) Type-74 tank fires ammunition during a live fire exercise at the JSDF's training grounds in the East Fuji Maneuver area in Gotemba on May 22, 2021. (Akio Kon/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

Land of the Rising Nukes?


The U.S.-based security alliance in the Asia-Pacific region as we know it is all but dead.

For the first time since the end of World War II, Japan has announced that it will double its defense spending. Over the next five years, its defense budget will increase from about 1 percent to 2 percent of GDP per year, or from about $50 billion to $100 billion per year. This will make Japan the third largest defense budget in the world, after the United States and China.

There are several reasons behind this drastic departure from Japan’s defense posture and several implications that attach to it.

A Shift in Defense Sharing

First, Tokyo has determined that the world has reached a turning point in history. Communist China is now its biggest threat. Beijing has a blue water navy that’s now numerically larger than the U.S. Navy, continually threatens Taiwan and Australia, and has made new alliances with traditional Western allies, such as the Solomon Islands.

On a related front, China’s deepened alliance with Russia and its support of nuclear-armed North Korea both pose elevated security risks. Japan now faces threats from all three aggressive nations and the worst security environment since World War II.

Second, Japan has explicitly linked its security to that of Taiwan. To support that recently announced strategic object requires deploying military assets that go beyond defending Japan’s home islands. More on that in a bit.

Third, Japan’s leaders have rightly determined that the U.S. security umbrella is becoming less reliable as China’s military power grows, the United States gets more deeply involved in Ukraine, and war clouds gather over the Asia-Pacific region. Plus, in the wake of the disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal, U.S. political will and strategic reliability are less certain than before in the minds of U.S. allies.

Fourth, both the war in Ukraine and Beijing’s vow to take control of Taiwan underscore that war is possible in the Asia-Pacific region, perhaps and even probable. Ukraine’s lack of military readiness and strategic weapons prior to Russia’s invasion is certainly not lost on Japanese military planners.

Japan’s New Defense Plans

Japan’s new security plans include enhancing its coastguard and maritime forces, as well as developing greater cyber and space capabilities, unmanned systems, and integrated missile defenses. They will also be increasing munition supplies and hardening infrastructure to increase resilience.

Epoch Times Photo
The 5th and 8th Air Wing of Japan Air Self-Defense Force’s F-15 and F-2 fighters hold a joint military drill with U.S. Marine Aircraft Group 12’s F-35B fighters off Japan’s southernmost main island of Kyushu in this handout picture released Oct. 4, 2022. (Joint Staff Office of the Defense Ministry of Japan/Reuters)

But that’s not all. In addition to purely defensive actions, Japan will also develop counterstrike capabilities. Those capabilities could include long-range precision-guided cruise missiles capable of hitting enemy bases in North Korea and China. This is a huge upgrade in defensive capabilities, indicative of new perspectives of Japan’s military planners.

Whether spoken aloud or not, if Japan is to truly take responsibility for its own security, then its military capabilities will have to go even further.

In light of the rising tensions, there will also be a shift toward closer Japanese defense and intelligence cooperation with regional allies, such as South Korea and Australia, with the participation and blessing of the United States. Again, as Ukraine demonstrates, close coordination is critical in providing effective responses in a fast-moving conflict.

But as the war in Ukraine aptly shows, counterstrike capability doesn’t prevent war; it only escalates it. Deterrence is the key to protecting against invasion by another nation.

Deterring War With Nukes

Therefore, the ultimate deterrence would have to be the possession of precision-guided nuclear ballistic missiles, preferably hypersonic, to avoid anti-missile defense systems.

The idea of a nuclear-armed Japan goes back to the 1960s. As recent as 2009, planners feared that a nuclear-armed Japan would cause an arms race among other Asian nations, such as India and North Korea, but the region is well past that point.

However, this potential nuclear option has yet to be widely discussed. The ongoing dialogue between the United States and Japan has mainly been around evolving the joint security posture from one of dependence to mutual engagement. Tokyo’s enhanced engagement would likely include Japan building up its own defense industry to make them more competitive internationally, including a modern fighter aircraft industry in possible collaboration with the United Kingdom and Italy.

Japan Is Quite Capable of Going Nuclear

Japanese military planners are not only considering the nuclear option, but it is well-prepared, both technologically and in terms of its supply of fissile material. Japan certainly has the know-how and industrial infrastructure to develop its own delivery systems, but it also owns enough plutonium to produce up to 6,000 nuclear warheads. Only Russia and the United States own more weapons-grade plutonium than Japan.

Of course, there are deep historical, political, environmental, and cultural issues surrounding the question of Japan developing nuclear weapons that are too diverse to go into here. Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Fukushima are huge factors in Japan’s cultural identity.

However, the overriding fact is that Japan sees the world order rapidly changing and, with it, the deterioration of its security. Japan counts at least three nuclear-armed adversaries, with two of them, North Korea and China, repeatedly violating its air and sea spaces with missiles and naval vessels.

As Tokyo’s confidence in U.S. security guarantees diminishes and Russia threatens the use of nukes in its war with Ukraine, Tokyo is forced to reevaluate its security situation going forward and its defense options to meet them. Consequently, nuclear deterrence is now at the center of Japan’s security planning going forward.

Who can blame the Japanese?

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

James Gorrie

James R. Gorrie is the author of “The China Crisis” (Wiley, 2013) and writes on his blog, He is based in Southern California.

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