Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Japan should consider hosting the U.S.’ nuclear weapons, seizing on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to promote his long-held belief that the country should abandon its pacifism and arm itself with offensive weapons.
Japan could seek an arrangement similar to NATO’s nuclear sharing policy that allows countries without nuclear arms to keep such weapons on their soil for potential use in wartime, the 67-year-old conservative politician said in a TV interview on Sunday.
“We should not put a taboo on discussions about the reality we face,” said Abe, an influential voice in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
Abe’s comments came as Russian President Vladimir Putin made veiled threats of nuclear war in response to mounting Western sanctions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
On Sunday, Putin moved the country’s nuclear deterrent forces to high alert, escalating an increasingly deadly conflict that has killed at least hundreds of civilians and military personnel since Russia launched its attacks on Ukraine last week. And Belarus, a key Russian ally, renounced its non-nuclear status on the same day, a move that paves the way for the country to host nuclear weapons for the first time since the Soviet Union fell in 1991.
The former Japanese leader has sought to break with the passive defence position the country had maintained since World War II and beef up Japan’s military force to include offensive capabilities.
Abe has advocated for developing a first-strike capability on enemy bases against a nuclear-armed North Korea and an increasingly assertive China. As prime minister between 2012 and 2020, Abe steadily increased Japan’s military spending and scrapped a pledge to keep defence spending within one percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
Abe’s suggestion that Japan could host nuclear weapons has touched a nerve in a country that was devastated by two atomic bombs during WWII, prompting condemnation from the current prime minister and other anti-nuclear politicians.
“It is unacceptable given our country’s stance of maintaining the three nonnuclear principles,” Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said, referring to a policy of nuclear nonproliferation that bars Japan from producing, possessing, or hosting nuclear arms.
Hailing from a constituency in Hiroshima, one of two cities to ever suffer nuclear bombing, Kishida has long advocated for a nuclear-free world. More than 213,000 people, mostly civilians, were estimated killed in the U.S. nuking of Japan in 1945.
Japan is constitutionally prevented from having an offensive military or buying weapons like ballistic missiles, but is protected from nuclear threats by a nonbinding legal arrangement with the U.S., which promises to defend Japan if attacked by a nuclear-armed force. It also possesses self-defense forces that have engaged in peacekeeping operations overseas.
Abe, now the head of the largest bloc of lawmakers within the ruling government, said during the TV interview it was important for Japan to uphold the goal of abolishing nuclear weapons. But he suggested that Ukraine could have deterred a Russian attack if it hadn’t given up its nuclear weapons.
Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons at the end of the Cold War in exchange for security assurances from Russia, the U.S., and Great Britain, in what’s known as the Budapest Memorandum of 1994.
“In the wake of this Ukraine conflict, we should discuss how to protect the lives of the Japanese people and the nation of Japan, with a firm view of the various options available,” Abe said.
Citing his ill health, Abe resigned in 2020 as Japan’s longest-serving prime minister but has maintained his clout among Japanese conservatives.