This article was originally published by Foreign Policy In Focus

Although the smashing victory of the opposition Democratic Party in Japan’s parliamentary elections of August 30 had numerous causes, one of the results will be a strengthening of the campaign for a nuclear weapons-free world.

In the past few years, Japan’s long-ruling conservatives — grouped in the misnamed Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) — had shown increasing signs of dispensing with Japan’s nuclear-free status. Pointing to North Korea’s development of a nuclear capability, party officials had publicly floated the idea of Japan’s acquiring nuclear weapons. More recently, a former government official revealed what many Japanese already suspected: Decades ago, an LDP government had agreed to allow stopovers in Japan by U.S. military aircraft and vessels carrying nuclear weapons. Outside observers even began to voice the idea that Japan’s LDP government, by insisting on U.S. nuclear guarantees, might undermine plans by the Obama administration to reduce the importance of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense policy.

But the stunning victory by Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), with its sharply antinuclear stand, has altered this situation dramatically. Pointing to the nation’s “Three Non-Nuclear Principles” — a 1967 government pledge not to possess, manufacture, or introduce nuclear weapons into Japan — Democratic Party leader Yukio Hatoyama promised to work to codify these principles into law. Nor is the party’s antinuclear vision limited to Japan. The DPJ endorses a regional nuclear-free zone. And as recently as this August, Hatoyama told a public gathering that “realizing a nuclear-free world as called for by U.S. President Barack Obama is exactly the moral mission of our country.”

The DPJ’s victory gives added momentum to a campaign for nuclear abolition that has recently transitioned from an apparently utopian vision to pragmatic politics.

Growing Movement

Long before these new U.S. and Japanese officials turned their attention to abolishing the world’s vast nuclear arsenals, citizens groups had organized vigorous campaigns to do just that. And these nuclear disarmament campaigns played a major role in convincing governments to pull back from the nuclear arms race and accept nuclear cutbacks. As a result, the number of nuclear weapons around the world declined substantially — from some 70,000 at the height of the Cold War to fewer than 24,000 today.

Furthermore, in the last few years the call for nuclear disarmament has turned into a demand for a nuclear-free world. In January 2007 and again in January 2008, a group of former top U.S. national security officials wrote op-ed pieces in the Wall Street Journal contending that, as the very existence of nuclear weapons raised profound dangers for human survival, the U.S. government should commit itself to the goal of nuclear abolition. During the recent U.S. presidential campaign, Obama repeatedly spoke out for building a nuclear-free world, as he did again this April. On this last occasion, addressing an audience in Prague, he committed the U.S. government to “seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” Subsequently, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon announced his own plan to spur the world forward “on its journey to a world free of nuclear weapons.”

A number of important constituencies also champion this goal. In 2008, the U.S. Conference of Mayors unanimously adopted a resolution supporting the global elimination of nuclear weapons by 2020. It followed this up in 2009 by unanimously passing a resolution “enthusiastically” welcoming “the new leadership and multilateralism that the United States is demonstrating toward achievement of a nuclear-weapon-free world” and calling upon Obama “to announce at the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference” the beginning of negotiations for “an international agreement to abolish nuclear weapons by the year 2020.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, relatively silent on nuclear disarmament since its dramatic antinuclear pronouncements of 1983, displayed a new interest in the subject in 2009. On April 8, speaking on behalf of the Conference, Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany welcomed the Obama administration’s leadership “toward a nuclear-free world” and declared that the Conference “look[ed] forward to working with the Administration and Congress in supporting legislation” toward that goal. On July 29, in a keynote talk at a “Deterrence Symposium” hosted by the U.S. Strategic Command, Archbishop Edwin O’Brien of Baltimore — a member of the Conference’s Committee on International Justice and Peace — startled the military-oriented gathering by insisting that “our world and its leaders must stay focused on the destination of a nuclear-weapons-free world.”

Labor and Peace

The labor movement has also started to mobilize against nuclear weapons. On July 10, 2009, the International Trade Union Confederation — representing 170 million workers in 157 countries (including the members of the AFL-CIO) — launched an international campaign for nuclear disarmament. A focal point of the campaign is a petition calling for a nuclear disarmament treaty signed by all U.N. member states. According to the world labor confederation, the campaign was “being run in cooperation with the worldwide ‘Mayors for Peace’ group,” headed by Hiroshima Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba, which has called for creating a nuclear-free world by 2020.

Although the U.S. peace movement has been preoccupied with ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as with averting war with Iran, it recently has increased its efforts around the theme of a nuclear-free world, especially in connection with the run-up to the May 2010 NPT review conference at the United Nations. Beginning in the summer of 2009, peace and disarmament organizations began circulating a nuclear abolition petition directed to Obama, calling upon the administration to use the occasion of the conference to announce negotiations for a treaty abolishing nuclear weapons. There are also plans afoot for a large antinuclear demonstration at the United Nations on May 2, 2010, as well as for smaller events designed to rally support for a nuclear-free world.

At the moment, the degree to which the Japanese elections will increase the clout of this burgeoning nuclear abolition campaign remains uncertain. The DPJ faces a number of challenges if it is to implement its nuclear-free promises. Although public sentiment in Japan is strongly antinuclear, there is also a rising fear of North Korea’s nuclear program — a fact that might lead to an erosion of the new administration’s nuclear-free doctrine. Compromise on maintaining a nuclear-free Japan is alluring, as Japan has the scientific and technological capability to produce nuclear weapons easily and quickly. Furthermore, many Japanese (and particularly LDP members), though uneasy about Japan’s development of nuclear weapons, feel comfortable under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. Thus, they might resist international efforts to create a nuclear-free world.

Even so, the DPJ’s election sweep should hearten opponents of nuclear weapons, for it provides not only a symbolic victory for antinuclear forces but a potentially significant shift in the nuclear policy of a major nation. Above all, it serves as an indication that, around the world, the antinuclear momentum is growing.

Lawrence Wittner is professor of history at the State University of New York–Albany and a Nuclear Age Peace Foundation Associate . His latest book is Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement (Stanford University Press).