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Editorial: Japan’s involvement needed in newly enforced nuclear ban treaty

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which comprehensively outlaws nuclear arms, has entered into force. On this historic occasion, we must not forget the activities of atomic bomb survivors, known as hibakusha, who have continued efforts to reach out to the international community and open the world’s eyes to the destruction caused by nuclear weapons.


Shigeaki Mori was 8 years old when he experienced the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Time passed, and as he grieved his tragic experience, Mori learned about American soldiers who became victims of the bomb. He was almost 40 then.


Mori collected testimonies and read documents, and found out the names of 12 U.S. soldiers who fell victim to the A-bomb. He also went to lengths to search for their family members, all because of his belief that nationality should not matter when it came to A-bomb victims.


His dedication to peace helped Mori form a strong bond with the United States, which led to a hug with then President Barack Obama when the latter visited Hiroshima five years ago. At 83 years old, Mori continues to search for American prisoners of war killed in the bombing.


In 2018, a year after the nuclear arms ban treaty was adopted, Mori spoke at the United Nations. He said he wanted the United States to use its great technology not for killing but for peace.


We wonder how the Japanese government took Mori’s remark. While Japan prides itself on serving as a bridge between nuclear and non-nuclear powers, it remains devoid of concrete achievements.


As the only country to have suffered atomic bombings in war, Japan has submitted a draft nuclear abolition resolution to the U.N. every year, but will not sign the nuclear weapons ban treaty on the grounds that Japan depends on America’s “nuclear umbrella.” While it stresses that the country shares the ideology of abolishing nuclear arms, Japan has dismissed the newly enforced treaty, claiming that it takes “a different approach.”


In the meantime, Japan curries favor with the U.S. and doesn’t even try to persuade Washington to enter into nuclear arms reduction efforts. If this approach continues, Japan will never be able to serve as “a bridge.”


How, then, should Tokyo transform its deadlocked strategies?


In light of the difficult security environment in East Asia with actors such as China and North Korea, some argue for reinforcing nuclear deterrence. But isn’t the heightened tension in the area all the more reason to reduce dependence on nuclear weapons? With nuclear arms around, the degree of risk only increases.


Taking the occasion of the treaty coming into effect as an opportunity, Japan must renew its pursuit of a path toward a world without nuclear weapons.


First, Tokyo should consider participating in a meeting of signatories of the ban treaty as an observer. Whether Japan will be allowed to have a say or only to sit in will be decided at a signatory meeting planned to be held within a year.


There could be significant benefits from Japan joining the meeting. It would be able to fulfill its moral imperative as a wartime atomic-bombed country, and Tokyo’s move would pave the way for other U.S. allies to take part. Japan would also be able to participate in discussions on a road map for nuclear abolition and the state of the treaty’s implementation, among other topics. It is likely that the meeting will cover potential security alternatives to nuclear deterrence. These are all challenges of grave importance for Japan as well.


If Japan is granted a say, it will be able to explain the state of damage caused by the atomic bombings. Nearly 76 years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there are at least 130,000 hibakusha alive, and they are still suffering the aftereffects of radiation exposure.


The effects of radiation from the atomic bombings on human bodies have not been exhaustively clarified. Japan could use the occasion to raise issues concerning the reality that many people are still suffering from prolonged and serious ailments.


Japan’s Komeito party, the junior coalition partner of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, is demanding that the country participate as an observer and is eyeing Japan’s ratification of the treaty in the future. To do this, an environment where as many nations as possible can assemble needs to be fostered.


Japan has many roles to play. In August, the Review Conference of Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which had been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, will convene.


In the 1995 conference, where the indefinite extension of the NPT was adopted, nuclear powers promised the enactment of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. It has not entered into force to date, however, as the United States and other nuclear powers have not ratified it.


In the last NPT review conference, participants failed to adopt the final statement due to conflict over the framework for nuclear weapon free zones in the Middle East. The U.S. and other parties strongly opposed the final resolution. But if nuclear free zones were expanded, there would be less room for the proliferation of nuclear arms. Japan should proactively advocate for such initiatives.


Japan must additionally work hard to improve the security environment in Asia, including tackling issues such as North Korea’s nuclear arms development. It is also crucial for Japan to move forward with trust-building with China and to make efforts to ease the tension.


The United States and Russia possess around 90% of all nuclear weapons in the world combined, and they hold the key to nuclear abolition. The two superpowers need to agree on the extension of the New START, or Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, due to expire on Feb. 5.


Newly sworn-in U.S. President Joe Biden has supported a no-first-use policy with nuclear arms. And Vice President Kamala Harris proposed a bill to prevent arms races while serving as a senator.


Viewing the regime change in Washington from former President Donald Trump, who fueled nuclear arms competition, as a favorable opportunity, Japan should step up its efforts to persuade the U.S. to shift its course toward nuclear disarmament.

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