by Martin Fackler
THE NEW YORK TIMES
TOKYO, Oct. 9 — The last time North Korea tested a powerful new weapon, in 1998 when it fired a ballistic missile over the largest Japanese island, Japan reacted by upgrading its military and swinging politically to the right.
North Korea’s claim that it tested a nuclear weapon on Monday appears likely to push Japan even further down the same nationalist path. Many political analysts say the test, which has yet to be confirmed, could weaken public support for the pacifism Japan adopted after World War II and prompt it to seek a growing regional security role.
But could the crisis be big enough to force Japan to break what might be its ultimate postwar taboo and go nuclear itself?
This is what some in East Asia have speculated it would do if the isolated and erratic Communist government to its north suddenly conducted an atomic bomb test. But for now, analysts say, domestic opposition runs too deep for Japan to reverse its renunciation of nuclear weapons.
“The nuclear test may prove to be an even bigger shock to public opinion” than the 1998 missile, said Yasunori Sone, a professor of political and policy analysis at Keio University in Tokyo. “It will get a minority of people here calling for Japan to build nuclear weapons.”
The most likely result of North Korea’s actions, analysts say, would be to rally public opinion around Japan’s new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, and his calls for taking Japan in a more assertive direction. The crisis may also increase Mr. Abe’s chances of revising the Constitution to allow Japan to possess full-fledged armed forces.
There have been no calls yet here to build atomic weapons. Still, that is not a far-fetched notion. Japan is known to have stockpiles of weapons-grade atomic material, used in its civilian nuclear power and research programs, and some studies have said it would be able to construct a bomb in a matter of months.
But Mr. Sone and other analysts say that despite North Korea’s claim of a weapons test, Japanese proponents of acquiring nuclear weapons will remain a minority on the far-right fringe. Analysts say going nuclear would face broad and emotional opposition in Japan, which remains the only nation to have suffered atomic bomb attacks.
The prospect of a nuclear Japan might also send shudders through the rest of Asia, where memories of Japan’s wartime aggression are still raw. Some fear it could even set off a new Asian arms race.
Mr. Abe appeared to be trying to take a leading role in responding to the crisis, analysts here said. He and other Japanese leaders were quick to condemn the reported test, saying Japan was working with the United States, its closest ally, and Asian neighbors like South Korea and China to find a response.
Speaking in Seoul, where he was meeting with President Roh Moo-hyun, Mr. Abe criticized the test as a “serious threat to the security of Japan and South Korea, and of neighboring countries.”
“We have agreed that we must respond resolutely,” Mr. Abe said in a news conference after the meeting. “We have entered a new and more dangerous era.”
He also said Japan was considering imposing economic sanctions against North Korea and increasing its participation in a missile defense shield that it is developing with the United States. He said Japan had requested an immediate meeting of the United Nations Security Council.
In Tokyo, Yasuhisa Shiozaki, the chief cabinet secretary and top government spokesman, said Japan would try to work with the United States to seek United Nations action, possibly including global economic sanctions. “We will lodge a stern protest and condemn” the test, he said.
If North Korea has exploded a nuclear device, analysts said the effects on Japanese public opinion might take time to appear. When North Korea test-fired a multistage Taepodong missile over Japan in 1998, Japan’s initial reaction was muted, but public opinion ended up moving sharply in favor of building a stronger defense.
That allowed Japan to begin adding weapons that once would have been unthinkable, including Japan’s first spy satellite, a troop transport ship now under construction that experts say could serve as a small aircraft carrier, and aerial tankers that would allow Japanese fighter jets to refuel in midair to reach North Korea and other countries.
For now, analysts said most of Japan’s action was likely to come on the diplomatic front. They also said the crisis offered an unexpected chance for Japan to patch up its ties with South Korea and China.
“This crisis allows Mr. Abe to say that all three countries face a shared enemy,” Mr. Sone of Keio University said. “This is a chance for him to improve relations with Asia.”