Since its devastating defeat in World War II, Japan has pursued pacifism under its Constitution and the country’s scientific community has vowed to stay away from military research out of repentance over wartime military cooperation.
But the long-held position has been complicated by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government policy to turn to universities for technology development potentially useful for national defense, as the country deals with the changing regional security situation.
To entice universities in that direction, the Defense Ministry’s technology agency began in fiscal 2015 a fund for basic research on so-called dual-use technologies that have both civil and military applications, with a rather modest budget of 300 million yen ($2.7 million) compared with the nation’s total research funding.
The move has prompted debate inside the Science Council of Japan, the representative body for the scientific community, on how to position itself against research that has a military dimension, leading it to renew its pledge made in 1950 and repeated in 1967 that scientists will never engage in studies “for the purpose of war.”
The organization also expressed concerns over the Defense Ministry funds in its statement in March, saying that it has “many problems” in terms of the sound development of science partly due to the “significant government intervention” in research.
Opponents have said the statement effectively urges universities not to apply for the Defense Ministry funds. Even before the release of the statement, the controversy over the issue resulted in a sharp drop in the number of applications from universities, companies and others to 44 in fiscal 2016 — less than half compared with the first year.
But whether the number of applications will continue to fall remains to be seen, with the Defense Ministry having sharply increased the budget for the current fiscal year to 11 billion yen. Questions also linger among researchers over how to define “military research” given the increasingly blurred line between civil and military technologies.
“I believe there will continue to be scientists who will apply to the fund on the grounds that it is offered for basic research (and not for the direct development of defense equipment),” Ryo Kato, an assistant professor at the state-run Toyohashi University of Technology, said in a recent phone interview.
The 43-year-old chemist is one of the first batch of researchers who have received the Defense Ministry funds. He is currently working to develop a nanofiber sheet that absorbs toxic gas, receiving 12 million yen for a three-year period from fiscal 2015.
While the ministry may be hoping to use the outcome of his studies to create a better gas mask for Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, Kato said his aim is to meet civilian needs by making disposable products to be casually used by workers at factories and construction sites.
“I also think there is little chance that the technology will be used in a weapon to kill or harm anyone,” he said, explaining why he thought his studies would not go against the science community’s pacifist stance.
Still, Kato admitted that research money from the Defense Ministry was not necessarily his first choice of funding source.
He was worried that the contents of “military-linked” studies would be subject to high confidentiality, contradicting the universities’ perceived mission of conducting studies openly for social benefit.
Among funds he has applied for, the Defense Ministry program was “the only one that offered me financial support,” he said.
Kato later found his initial concerns were groundless at least in his case, as the ministrytold him to be open about the outcome and he felt no intervention by those overseeing his project.
Tsutomu Iida, a 50-year-old professor at the Tokyo University of Science, also said he finds no difference between the Defense Ministry funds and grants-in-aid provided by the science ministry in their support for the development of basic technologies.
“I couldn’t find any particular reason to exclude funding just because it comes from the Defense Ministry,” said Iida, who receives subsidies both from the defense and science ministries for his study on thermoelectric technology for converting heat into electricity.
The technology is studied globally as a way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from a car’s engine which uses only a portion of the energy generated from gasoline with rest lost as waste heat. It could be applicable to tanks, but Iida said the Defense Ministry funds only cover his research for thermoelectric batteries to be loaded on ordinary vehicles.
Opponents have sought to extend their influence inside the academic community, but Seigo Hirowatari, an emeritus professor at the University of Tokyo, said after attending a related symposium in Tokyo in late June that scientists are still “split over this issue.”
Critics say the Defense Ministry is taking advantage of universities that are struggling due to cuts in state subsidies, leaving scientists with no option but to look for alternative funding sources such as the Defense Ministry and the U.S. military.
But Hirowatari, a former head of the science council, indicated that it may not be just the fund shortage problem that is bringing academics and the Defense Ministry closer together now.
“There is a certain portion of scientists who believe they should carry out military studies as long as it is for the purpose of the country’s defense,” he said.
The Abe government’s hawkish position on security issues may be giving a boost to such arguments. Japan’s SDF members have been given larger roles to defend the country under controversial security legislation, which critics said has loosened the constraints of the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution.
Takashi Onishi, the current president of the Science Council of Japan and head of the Toyohashi University of Technology, said he hopes for an in-depth debate inside the council from the viewpoint of whether certain scientific research for national defense is allowed.
Onishi said the sensitive topic was “left to the decision of universities or research institutions” in working out the latest statement — the first of its kind in half a century — and it means there is a need to continue with the discussions “in the context of the actual situation.”
“We didn’t have the SDF in 1950 (when the council first vowed not to engage in scientific research for the purpose of war), but now 90 percent of the public are supportive of the SDF and apparently accept the SDF’s current level of defense capability,” he said, referring to Japan’s armed forces created after World War II.
Onishi played down concerns that allowing research for national defense will undermine the scientific community’s pacifist stance, citing the fact that researchers at his university, for example, will undergo screening over their work’s military applicability.
“There are certain studies our Constitution does not permit in the first place, like proposing a new way to make atomic bombs…As for dual-use technologies, we should check each case,” he said.