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Editorial: Anxious Japan must be bridge-builder between nuclear, non-nuclear states

Nov. 29, the date of North Korea's most recent missile launch, was also the opening day of the 27th United Nations Conference on Disarmament Issues in Hiroshima. It was a microcosm of Japan's present situation: in favor of the absolute abolition of nuclear arms, and deeply troubled by the threat presented by North Korea. The missile test highlighted once again Japan's worries as the only nation on Earth to have been attacked with nuclear weapons.

Another ingredient in Japan's anxiety is the U.N. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons agreed on in July this year by a majority of the world's nations. Japan, though it suffered the horrors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki A-bombings, was not among them. Along with other countries protected by the U.S. nuclear umbrella, Japan was not even at the negotiating table.

If Japan did join the ban treaty, it would "harm the legitimacy of the U.S. nuclear deterrent. This risks sending the wrong message to North Korea," Foreign Minister Taro Kono stated, summing up Japan's current position.

However, during his historic May 2016 visit to Hiroshima, then U.S. President Barack Obama himself renewed a vow to seek a nuclear-free world. Not just "hibakusha" A-bomb survivors, but many other figures questioned Kono's recent comment, and Japan's position on nuclear disarmament is now an object of severe doubt both inside and outside the country.

It would be best for Japan to become a bridge between nuclear and non-nuclear states. However, there was not a single panelist representing the U.S. government at the two-day U.N. conference in Hiroshima, which is troubling. Previous disarmament conferences were attended by senior U.S. State Department officials, who also helped direct the discussions.

There were also no representatives of the British or French governments at the latest gathering, giving the impression of obstinance among the nuclear-armed powers opposing the U.N. atomic weapons ban treaty. Performing that bridging role would be no easy task.

Meanwhile, the participation of two delegates from China -- which had not attended the conference for many years possibly due to Beijing's tough line on relations with Japan -- was a real bright spot.

The disarmament conferences, propelled primarily by the U.N. office concerned and Japan's Foreign Ministry, among other organizations, are essentially undertaken with a deep sense of purpose. Just before this year's edition, the Foreign Ministry-backed Group of Eminent Persons for Substantive Advancement of Nuclear Disarmament also met in Hiroshima, and we have high hopes for the proposals discussed.

What worries us is that we did not see much in-depth discussion at the latest disarmament conference. How are the nuclear arms ban treaty and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to be harmonized with each other? The 2015 NPT Review Conference ended in discord, but can the 2020 edition be guided firmly and determinedly to a successful conclusion?

There are many points to debate. The threat of nuclear weapons and the shaky foundations of the non-proliferation system are causing global instability. In this situation, the usual exchange of opinions will not suffice. Rather, we need serious talks on how to break through the current crisis deadlock. Going forward, we would like to see Japan clearly define its role of urging constructive discussion. That is the position of the only country on Earth to have suffered a nuclear attack.

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