Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Japan’s defense research paved the way for its homegrown X-2 stealth fighter. Now, the defense ministry is stepping up efforts to court academics to work on projects that could have both civilian and military payoffs.

The Asahi Shimbun/Contributor/Getty Images

Japanese military entices academics to break taboo

In 1950, Japan’s scientific community, chastened by the complicity of researchers in their nation’s disastrous military adventurism, took an extraordinary vow. “To preserve our integrity as scientists, we express our firm commitment both domestically and abroad that we will never pursue scientific research for the purpose of war,” declared the Science Council of Japan (SCJ), now the nation’s equivalent to the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Extended to broadly proscribe military research in 1967, the commitment held for 65 years—until Japan’s defense ministry started a small program to fund university research with both civilian and military applications in 2015. Now, the ministry is sharply ramping up support for “dual-use” research—sparking an outcry among academics who see it as a dangerous revanchist policy.

The budget of the dual-use program, run by the Acquisition, Technology & Logistics Agency (ATLA) here, will skyrocket from $5.2 million this year to $95 million in the fiscal year beginning 1 April. In response, SCJ is considering amending its code of conduct to spell out conditions under which academic researchers can accept military money. That’s not sufficient, some say: “I want the SCJ to clearly state that military research in academia is extremely inappropriate,” Satoru Ikeuchi, an astrophysicist at Nagoya University in Japan, said at a 14 January symposium on the topic at Keio University’s Yokohama campus.

The defense ministry’s courtship of civilian researchers is another step in Japan’s ongoing remilitarization, asserts Morihisa Hamada, a volcanologist at the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology in Yokosuka. A key tenet of Japan’s stance on promoting peace, he believes, “is not to take part in military research at universities.” The new policy’s supporters, meanwhile, argue that military research benefits Japan’s overall science and technology efforts.

Japan’s constitution, written during the U.S.-led occupation after World War II, renounces war and the use or threat of force to resolve international conflicts and says military forces “will never be maintained.” Despite that clause, Japan has built up self-defense forces now ranked as the world’s seventh most powerful military by the Global Firepower website. The defense ministry has its own considerable R&D capabilities. Last year Japan flew a prototype stealth fighter, the X-2, based on domestic technologies.

Prime Minister Shinzō Abe wants Japan’s military to have a bigger role. In 2015, his governing parliamentary coalition adopted legislation that reinterpreted the constitution, allowing Japan’s forces to fight overseas in “collective self-defense” alongside allies. In the face of increasingly sophisticated threats, the defense ministry must rely on input from civilian researchers to maintain “technical superiority,” Shigeo Suzuki, an ATLA official, has explained.

Two years ago, ATLA began awarding grants to scientists at universities—and at other governmental institutions and private companies—to work on dual-use technologies. It started with a modest $2.6 million budget, covering nine grants over 3 years. The budget doubled last year, and 10 more groups won support. Projects include reducing resistance of ship hulls moving through water, tactile sensing for robotic hands, and hypersonic jet engines. Defense labs will pick up on promising results, Suzuki said at a November 2016 meeting of a new SCJ committee on security and academic studies. He added that ATLA-funded civilian researchers are, in principle, free to publish their results.

Openly disseminating findings is likely to be a key point in any guidelines SCJ might adopt, says the society’s president, Takashi Onishi, an urban planner and president of Toyohashi University of Technology. The council will not disavow the 1950 and 1967 declarations, he says, noting that under the constitution, “We cannot conduct research for an atomic bomb.” SCJ’s security committee is due to complete a report on the guidelines for working with ATLA by this summer so the council’s governing board can decide on any action by September. It is too early to predict what the committee may recommend, Onishi says, because “reaching a unified opinion is not easy.”

Critics, however, are drumming up support for maintaining a strict separation of academic and military research. In September 2016, Ikeuchi and colleagues launched the Japanese Coalition Against Military Research in Academia, bringing together 25 university unions and antiwar citizen groups and hundreds of individuals. It has gathered nearly 2000 signatures on a petition opposing any relaxation of the ban on academic cooperation with the military. Even if ATLA-funded research starts out in an open manner, Ikeuchi says, “At some point if it is adopted for military use, secrecy will creep in.”

Ultimately, each university must decide whether to allow its researchers to accept defense funds. Institutions are split. Onishi says that now 10 universities allow researchers to accept defense grants. According to Hamada, 14 forbid military research. Most universities have yet to take a stance—but with the pot of money about to grow much bigger, they will soon have to.