April 2002

Japan 'could build 7,000 nuclear bombs'

The Guardian, April 08, 2002
by Jonathan Watts in Tokyo

[Posted 08/04/2002]

Japan has the technology and the plutonium to make thousands of nuclear weapons, one of the country's most influential politicians declared this weekend in comments that are likely to stir up the ire of both China and survivors of the wartime atomic bombings. Ichiro Ozawa, the leader of the opposition Liberal party, made the comments against a backdrop of increasing Japanese concern about the economic and military rise of its Asian neighbour.

"China is applying itself to expand its military power in the hope of becoming a superpower," he said. "If China gets too inflated, the Japanese people will get hysterical."

However, he boasted that Japan would never lose a military confrontation if it became serious about strengthening its defences.

"It would be so easy for us to produce nuclear warheads. We have enough plutonium at nuclear power plants in Japan to make several thousand such warheads," he said.

Although military analysts and anti-nuclear groups have long claimed that Japan could develop nuclear weapons, politicians usually steer clear of the subject, which rekindles painful memories of the 200,000 killed by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The government has a non-nuclear weapons policy.

The timing is also sensitive because the Japanese prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, will visit China next week. Li Peng, chairman of the Chinese parliament, is currently visiting Japan to mark the 30th anniversary of bilateral ties.

Mr Ozawa is known for rocking the boat with his uncompromising statements and political tactics. In 1993, he led a defection that pushed the Liberal Democratic party out of power for the first and only time since 1955.

Three years ago, a member of his party was forced to resign as a junior defence minister after calling for a parliamentary debate on whether Japan should acquire a nuclear deterrent.

Mr Ozawa insisted, however, that his latest comments were aimed at improving Japan-China relations.

Anti-nuclear campaigners welcomed the candidness of the statement, saying that Japan's plutonium stockpile of 38 tonnes - including material being reprocessed in the UK and France - was part of an undeclared weapons programme able to make more than 7,000 warheads.

Shaun Burnie of Greenpeace International said: "[Ozawa] has exposed the myths of it being a peaceful energy programme for a resource-poor country."

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