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Japan unveils existence of a secret nuke pact with the US

Shamshad Ahmed Khan was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here to for detailed profile
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  • March 16, 2010

    Putting all speculations about the existence of a “secret nuke pact” between the US and Japan to rest, a Japanese Foreign Ministry panel entrusted to look into the matter has concluded that “a tacit agreement” on nuclear arms was reached by Japan and the US during the Cold War period. The acknowledgement of the existence of the pact and the announcement by Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama of Japan’s adherence to the three non-nuclear principles is likely to affect US-Japan relations given that US warships have so far enjoyed unrestricted access to Japanese territory as part of the secret pact. The secret pact allowed US warships and aircraft carrying nuclear weapons to stop over in Japan or pass through Japanese airspace or territorial waters without prior consultation. However, the Japanese believe that such a secret agreement violates Japan’s three non-nuclear principles of not producing, possessing and introducing nuclear weapons in Japan. They have been demanding a policy announcement from the government about the pact ever since reports of such a pact surfaced in the Japanese media.

    Japan had adopted the three non-nuclear principles (hikaku sangensuku) amidst mounting public pressure and countrywide protests by Gensuikyo (Japan Council against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs). The trigger for this was provided by Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke’s remark in the early 1960s that, “small atomic arms for self defence would not violate the Constitution.” This statement was construed by anti-nuclear groups and the nuclear-allergic masses as reflecting the government’s intention to keep the nuclear option open, since China had begun to develop its nuclear arsenal at that time. The Socialists accused the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of nursing the desire to arm the Japanese Self Defence Forces with nuclear weapons and presented a resolution in 1959 in the Diet against possible domestic nuclear armament. It was due to continued pressure from the anti-nuclear lobby inside and outside the Diet that Kishi’s successor, Eisako Sato, adopted the three non-nuclear principles in 1967.

    However, a year later, as the recent investigation reveals, the Japanese government violated its own non-nuclear principles by giving blanket approval for the passage and port calls of all US Navy warships without first determining whether they carried nuclear weapons; a fact that the previous LDP government had denied. The fact finding investigation by the Japanese government was a part of the Democratic Party of Japan’s electoral promise made on the campaign trail in the run-up to the 2009 general elections. During the campaign Hatoyama had said that “Tokyo and Washington will thoroughly discuss the issue if we take the reins of government. It is most desirable to openly abide by the three non-nuclear principles.”

    The documents on this secret deal were in fact declassified for the public in 1999, and a researcher from a private institute in Washington even made a copy of it, before it was reclassified on security grounds. Japan’s leading newspaper Asahi claimed to have procured a copy of the document and reported about it in August 2001, opening a Pandora’s Box in Japanese political circles. During the 2009 election campaign, Katsuya Okada, the then DPJ Secretary General, (now Foreign Minster) was quoted by the Japanese media as saying that the party will go to every nook and cranny of the Foreign Ministry for the documents which prove that past LDP-led governments concealed information from the public. True to his word, after assuming charge of the Foreign Ministry, Okada constituted a 15-member team under Shinichi Kitaoka. The fact finding team sifted through files at the Japanese Foreign Ministry and the Japanese Embassy in Washington and after going through more than 300 documents (which have also been declassified by the ministry) revealed the existence of the “tacit agreement” between Tokyo and Washington.

    The disclosure of this agreement is aimed at scoring political points as well as addressing the discontent among the nuclear allergic Japanese who want adherence to the non-nuclear principles in letter and sprit. The panel has noted that in order to satisfy the Japanese people, “The [previous] Japanese government offered dishonest explanations, including lies, from beginning to end. This attitude should not have been allowed under the principle of democracy.”

    The disclosure has yet again opened up a debate in Japan. One group demands that the nuclear-armed US warships and aircraft should be given an exemption to transit through Japanese territorial waters. But other groups demand that the Japanese government stand firm on the three non-nuclear principles. The Yomiuri Shimbun, a pro-US Japanese media group, in its editorial urges the government to “revise” the three non-nuclear principles. In support of its argument it says: “In order to make the US military’s nuclear deterrent work for Japan, the government should give serious thought to exempting the port calls and transit through Japanese territorial waters by US vessels carrying nuclear weapons from the principle of not permitting the introduction of such weapons into Japan--one of the three non-nuclear principles.” It further asserts that: “If the Hatoyama administration believes it a taboo to review the three non-nuclear principles, the situation will hardly differ from half a century ago when the secret agreements were made and when healthy discussions about security were not held.”

    However, other media groups such as the Ashahi Shimbun and Japan Times have urged the government to seize this opportunity to prevent nuclear proliferation in the region. The Asahi Shimbun has argued that “the best course of action for Japan is to stand firm on its three non-nuclear principles and assert its leadership in the creation of a security system that relies as little as possible on nuclear weapons and strive to be an architect of peace in Northeast Asia.” Speaking in the same tone, the Japan Times in its editorial argues that: “the Hatoyama administration should use this chance to cooperate further with the Obama administration in working out effective ways to prevent nuclear proliferation and to remove seeds of conflict in East Asia. Both countries must strive to prevent the development of any situation that might lead to threats to use nuclear weapons.”

    However, initial remarks by the Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada in the Diet suggest that Japan is likely stand firm on its three non-nuclear principles. Okada has been quoted by the Japanese media as saying that: “I still believe that temporary port calls and the passage through [Japanese] territorial waters [of US warships carrying nuclear weapons] constitute bringing nuclear weapons into Japan [which should be subject to prior bilateral consultations].” However, he made it clear that he has no intention of asking the United States to seek prior approval for its nuclear-armed ships to make port calls in the future. When asked by LDP lawmaker Itsunori Onodera whether the government would ask the United States whether its warships making port calls in Japan are carrying nuclear weapons and emphasized that “there is a need to coordinate interpretations (on the issue) with the United States,” Okada responded thus: “we would be able to identify by the model of ship or aircraft whether it is carrying strategic nuclear weapon.” This remark suggests that the Hatoyama government does not want to enter into yet another diplomatic trough with the United States.

    The ongoing debate following the announcement of the existence of the secret nuclear pact suggests that Japan will strictly adhere to the three non-nuclear principles and will likely shut its doors to US nuclear-armed ships. But the non-nuclear principles remain a “principle” and the present Hatoyama government does not intend to make it into a law, as is being demanded by the anti-nuclear groups. This hints at the fact that the DPJ government is keeping its option open to switch to a “2.5 principle” in the event of a security crisis during which it may allow US nuclear armed vessels to drop anchor at Japanese ports.