Japan Looks to End Taboo on Military Research at Universities

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Yuya Shino / Reuters

Government wants to tap best scientists to bolster defenses

By Eric Pfanner and Chieko Tsuneoka / The Wall Street Journal 

Japan's military is prying open long-closed doors at university research labs, boosting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's U.S.-backed effort to cast off some of the country’s pacifist constraints.

Mr. Abe’s government says Japan needs to tap its best scientists to bolster its defenses. U.S. military officials, eager to make use of Japanese expertise in areas such as robotics and electronics, have encouraged the shift.

Critics say it marks a further erosion of the bedrock value—pacifism—on which Japan’s postwar society was built. But they concede they may be fighting a losing battle.

Since World War II, Japanese academics have broadly renounced research that could serve military ends, and many universities have banned the research outright, though it isn’t illegal. Now some professors are agreeing to such projects, and universities and scientific bodies are giving them greater latitude.

Parliament is set to approve in the next few weeks the first direct research funding from the Defense Ministry to universities since the war, under one of two programs started by Mr. Abe’s government that blur the line separating civilian and military research.

At ¥300 million ($2.5 million), the amount is small. But to Satoru Ikeuchi, a professor emeritus of astrophysics at Nagoya University, it marks the crossing of a Rubicon.

“In countries that won the war, science is used for war, too,” Professor Ikeuchi said during an interview at his home in Kyoto. “But Japan lost the war and regretted its militarism. I think Japan has been a very healthy country as a result.”

Still, an online petition he and a handful of other academics set up last year has attracted only 800 signatures. “I am lamenting that reaction has been low,” he said.

Mr. Abe’s supporters say objections like the professor’s are the products of a bygone era and are increasingly out of touch as Japan faces growing military challenges, including a hostile North Korea and a more assertive China. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The U.S., which imposed a pacifist constitution on Japan after the war, now wants the country to play a more active role in regional defense.

Last year, Mr. Abe’s cabinet reinterpreted the constitution to permit Japan’s so-called Self-Defense Forces to come to the aid of an allyunder attack. It also loosened a ban on weapons exports.

“Japan can’t address its security needs without state-of-the art technology,” said Masahisa Sato, a lawmaker from Mr. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and a former military officer. “To nurture technologies, particularly for basic research, Japan needs extensive collaboration among government, universities and industry.”

The government has pushed for that collaboration. Guidelines published in December 2013 called for stronger partnerships between the military and universities and research institutes, to make better use of civilian technology. Last year, four projects were started under a 2008 information-sharing program, which doesn’t provide funding, up from only one in each of its first four years.

Mr. Sato said he is lobbying the Ministry of Education to persuade universities to drop their resistance to military research, especially at a time when general government funding for universities is declining.

Some academics have shown flexibility. The Science Council of Japan, which previously advised scientists not to get involved in military research, in November 2012 called on them merely to ensure their work isn’t used “for purposes that threaten social safety.”

Last year, the University of Tokyo, considered the nation's most prestigious, declined a ministry request to help solve a problem with a new transport aircraft. But it raised no objections when one of its professors agreed to work with the ministry “as an observer in a private capacity,” as the school put it.

Its Graduate School of Information Science and Technology had banned military studies “without exception,” but in December it revised that policy, saying “many research projects contain ambiguity between military use and peaceful use.”

At Yokohama National University, in an office decorated with pictures of military aircraft, engineering professor Seiya Ueno has been working with the ministry for two years on a computer algorithm to control and link the movements of multiple vehicles.

He said his work could also have civilian applications, including disaster relief and environmental monitoring. He dismisses those who object to the cooperation as extremists.

“A very sharp knife can be used for cooking or for killing,” he said. “No one says the technology is bad. What matters is how it is used.”

A new government program, called Impact, is modeled on the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, which provides venture capital-style funding for technology projects in the U.S.

The Japanese program, with a budget of ¥55 billion over five years, isn’t strictly military in scope but it does include some dual-use research projects—those with military or civilian applications. One, for example, seeks to develop ultralight bulletproof materials.

Pentagon officials say the U.S. could benefit from Japanese research, especially in areas such as robotics. Japan, they say, has an edge in robotics hardware, while the U.S. is stronger in software. But Japan's research restrictions have limited U.S. access until now.

“Cooperating with the U.S. in areas where there is mutual concern, such as disaster response and homeland security, stands to benefit both countries,” said Gill Pratt, Darpa program manager.

Japan’s military contractors have welcomed loosened restrictions, one of several steps the government is taking to boost their competitiveness.

“This government is becoming less allergic to dual use,” said Satoshi Tsuzukibashi,director of the industrial technology bureau of Keidanren, the Japanese business lobby group. “Japan is a peaceful country, but personally I sometimes think it is too peaceful.”

Photo: Yuya Shino / Reuters

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