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The issue dates to the 1960s. Historical documents released in the past two years show that the idea of a nuclear-armed Japan was long talked about behind the scenes, despite repeated denials by the government.

The papers were obtained by Japanese public broadcaster NHK in 2010 and more recently by the Associated Press under a public records request.

Paper trail

In a once-classified 1966 document, the government outlined how the threat of China going nuclear made it necessary for Japan to consider it, too, though it concluded that the U.S. nuclear umbrella made doing so unnecessary at the time.

In meeting minutes from 1964, 1966 and 1967, Japanese officials weigh the pros and cons of signing the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which would mean foregoing the nuclear option. Japan signed the treaty in 1970.

The government denials continued, even after former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone wrote in his 2004 memoirs that, as defense chief, he had ordered a secret study of Japan’s nuclear arms capability in 1970.

The study concluded it would take five years to develop nuclear weapons, but Nakasone said he decided they weren’t needed, again because of U.S. protection.

In 2010, the Democratic Party of Japan, after breaking the Liberal Democratic Party’s half-century grip on power, reversed past denials and acknowledged the discussions had taken place.

Given the secretive past, former diplomat Tetsuya Endo and others are suspicious about the June amendment that added “national security” to the atomic energy law.

Backers of the amendment say it refers to protecting nuclear plants from terrorists. Opponents ask why the words aren’t then “nuclear security,” instead of “national security.”

Stockpile of plutonium

Japan has 45 tons of separated plutonium, enough for several Nagasaki-type bombs. Its overall plutonium stockpile of more than 150 tons is one of the world’s largest, although much smaller than those of the U.S., Russia or Britain.

Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, an outspoken conservative, repeatedly has said Japan should flaunt the bomb option to gain diplomatic clout. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has expressed similar sentiments, although in more subdued terms.

The Yomiuri, the nation’s largest newspaper, made a rare mention of the link between nuclear energy and the bomb in an editorial defending nuclear power last year, saying that Japan’s plutonium stockpile “works diplomatically as a nuclear deterrent.”

That kind of talk worries Tatsujiro Suzuki, vice chairman at the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, a government panel that shapes nuclear policy.

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