Every year in early August, Japanese politicians and peace activists converge on Hiroshima to commemorate the day when the city was devastated by an American atomic bomb. In the famous peace park, the horrors of World War II are vividly recounted. Speakers of all political stripes repeat Japan’s postwar mantra: “Never again.”
The familiar reaffirmations of peace were there this year, too, on the 72nd anniversary, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Sunday declaring that Japan, “as the only country to be irradiated in war,” would “firmly advance the movement toward a world without nuclear weapons.”
But there was no hiding the tensions straining Japan’s postwar pacifism, as fears over the fast-advancing nuclear program in neighboring North Korea — and political disagreements over how to respond — rose jarringly to the surface.
At a news conference after the official memorial ceremony, a forum normally dominated by reflections on the past and appeals for a peaceful future, a reporter prodded Mr. Abe about the alarmingly here-and-now problem of the nuclear ambitions of the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un.
North Korea’s repeated defiance of a ban on testing missiles and nuclear bombs prompted the United Nations Security Council on Saturday to unanimously adopt a resolution imposing the most stringent sanctions yet against the country.
The reporter asked, Should Japan, whose Constitution renounces war, acquire the means to strike North Korean missile sites if an attack on Japan appeared imminent?
It is a topic that has occupied policy makers and defense experts in recent months as Pyongyang, the North’s capital, has stepped up the pace of its missile tests, with pieces of its increasingly sophisticated arsenal splashing down in waters off Japan. But it seemed a remarkable subject for the anniversary in Hiroshima.
Mr. Abe’s answer was hardly a comfort to Japanese pacifists.
Though he responded that his government was not planning to arm Japan to carry out any pre-emptive strikes, at least for now, he stopped well short of rejecting the idea outright.
“At the present time, we are not planning any specific deliberations about possessing” weapons for a pre-emptive strike, Mr. Abe said. He added that Japan needed to strengthen its defenses generally, “given that the security situation surrounding Japan is becoming increasingly severe.”
Although Japan has a military, the Self-Defense Forces, it has forgone certain offense-oriented weapon systems, like long-range missiles and bombers. Such weapons are seen as being incompatible with its Constitution, which was created by occupying American forces after World War II and has been interpreted as allowing Japan to fight only to fend off attacks.
Several local news outlets noted the contrast between the occasion and Mr. Abe’s remarks, as did supporters of Japan’s increasingly beleaguered peace movement.
“What a thoughtless thing to say in Hiroshima!” said one Twitter user, whose handle translated to “Peace is Number One.”
Many experts have questioned whether pre-emptive strikes on North Korean installations would be effective, given that Pyongyang takes countermeasures like keeping its missiles mobile or hiding them deep underground.
But that has not stopped some Japanese from arguing that their country should at least have the option to try.
As a treaty ally of the United States, Japan relies for its defense on the deterrent power of the Americans’ vast arsenal, including the aircraft carriers, Tomahawk missiles and nuclear weapons that Japan does not possess. That ambivalent stance — rejecting such weapons for itself but approving their deployment by the United States — has also created political friction.
On Sunday, the mayor of Hiroshima, Kazumi Matsui, and survivors groups urged Mr. Abe to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, a first-of-its-kind agreement negotiated at a United Nations conference last month.
Mr. Abe has declined to support the treaty, arguing that while eliminating nuclear weapons may be desirable, unilateral disarmament by Japanese allies would only aid North Korea and China.
“We need a realistic, step-by-step approach,” Mr. Abe said Sunday, “in order to achieve a nuclear-free world.”