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Testing Times for the Japan-US Alliance: “Secret Pact” Revealed

Rajaram Panda was Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for profile
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  • March 16, 2010

    Even as he seeks an “equal” relationship with the United States, Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio has also reiterated that the Japan-US security alliance will remain the cornerstone of peace and stability in Asia. Though the issue of the relocation of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma has received a great deal of attention in recent months, analysts have often interpreted this as a subtle move by Hatoyama to redefine Japan’s foreign and security policy, with the ultimate goal of making it more independent. Even as the Futenma base issue is likely to remain unresolved for quite some time in the absence of an alternative, thereby leading to the maintenance of the status quo, a fresh issue centred on the existence of a secret pact between Japan and the United States allowing US-nuclear armed vessels into Japanese territory has given a shot in arms for the DPJ government to not only attack the LDP but also accuse the United States of playing a dirty trick in Japan’s security matters.

    A panel of members from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), Japan, unearthed documents kept hidden all these years which mention a secret meeting between Japanese and US officials in 1963 to establish a secret bilateral pact under which Tokyo allowed US-nuclear armed vessels into Japanese waters. This document served as the basis for the secret pact signed in 1960. In the same year, a revised Japan-US security treaty was signed, according to which Washington will consult Tokyo before the “introduction” of nuclear weapons into Japan.
    According to the MOFA panel of experts, then US Ambassador Edwin O. Reischauer told then Foreign Minister Ohira Masayoshi in April 1963 and Prime Minister Sato Eisaku in 1964 that the United States interpreted “introduction” as not including cases in which US military vessels carrying nuclear weapons passed or made port calls in Japanese territory. Subsequently when the bilateral security treaty was revised, it is believed that Japan intentionally avoided confirming what “introduction” actually meant. This is now being interpreted as “tacit approval” by Japan based on the secret pact. The panel could not find the actual text of the document signed on 6 January 1960 but a draft text compiled shortly before it was signed was discovered. The Hatoyama government is digging deep into this issue not only to embarrass the LDP but also the United States, which suits the DPJ’s foreign policy goals at least for the present.

    Though successive LDP governments, which had ruled for over half a century, had full knowledge of the secret pact at least up to 1989, it was kept under wraps all these years. It was only in June 2009 when former Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Ryohei Murata revealed that “each foreign minister was briefed (on the secret agreement) in writing by the vice minister.” The documents made public by the panel of experts of the MOFA on 9 March 2010 confirmed that senior MOFA officials briefed successive administrations at least up to the Cabinet of former Prime Minister Kaifu Toshiki in 1989. The panels revealed that the briefing document was created on 27 January 1968 by then Foreign Ministry American Bureau chief Togo Fumihiko and contained a detailed account of the American interpretation of the secret agreement.

    The briefing document is significant because successive prime ministers and foreign ministers had noted in the margins the date and time they received the document with the word “read” or “verbally briefed”. The last entry is dated 24 August 1989 by then Vice Foreign Minister Kuriyama Takakazu, who noted that Kaifu and foreign minister Nakayama Taro were briefed. No further notings had been made since 1993 when a non-LDP government assumed power for a short period of nine months.

    One argument is that the gap between 1989 till the present was probably because the Cold War ended in 1991 and the common “enemy” – the USSR – no more existed and President George H.W. Bush may have halted deployment of nuclear weapons on US vessels in 1991.

    The pact ran counter to Japan’s three non-nuclear principles of not possessing, not producing and not introducing any nuclear weapons. In fact, these three non-nuclear principles were elucidated by Prime Minister Sato Eisaku for which he won the 1974 Nobel Peace Prize. However, it was also during his term that the “secret pact” is believed to have been signed.
    Around this time Sato was negotiating with the United States for the return of Okinawa. The United States was concerned that if Okinawa is returned to Japan, Japan’s three non-nuclear principles would also apply to Okinawa, thus severely undermining America’s nuclear deterrent capability in the region. Therefore, the United States prevailed upon Sato to agree to its request to bring nuclear weapons back into Okinawa in case of an emergency. Sato was reported to have replied: “If they inform us it’s necessary because of an emergency, then we will say ‘yes’”.

    Having floated the three non-nuclear principles concept in a speech to the Diet in 1967, Sato, who was in power from 1964 to 1972, realized that the ban on allowing entry of US vessels armed with nuclear weapons into Japan’s territory was a “mistake” in view of Japan’s vulnerability. Sato’s comments noted above came a month before he met then President Richard Nixon in Washington to discuss the return of Okinawa. Ahead of his meeting with Nixon, Sato told the US ambassador to Japan, Armin Meyer, that Japan adopted “unnecessary” non-nuclear principles. He also held out the possibility of Japan acquiring nuclear arms but at the same time said the United States would be embarrassed if Japan were to arm itself with nuclear weapons. He therefore consented to say “yes” if the United States sought to reintroduce nuclear weapons in Okinawa. According to declassified diplomatic documents in the United States, Sato said at a summit meeting with then President Lyndon B. Johnson in January 1965 that Japan should arm itself with nuclear weapons if China goes nuclear. Three months earlier, China had conducted its first nuclear test. Later, in January 1969, Sato told US ambassador to Japan Alexis Johnson that Japan’s three non-nuclear principles were “nonsense”. Nevertheless, throughout the negotiations with Johnson, Sato did not deviate from his stated stance of “autonomous diplomacy”, a political slogan he was committed to early on from his term. Yet, Japan was then, and is still now, not sufficiently armed given that the nuclear issue has a negative perspective in the country.

    Another dimension to the secret pact and Okinawa transfer issues is the revelation of the fact that Japan secretly shouldered $4 million that Washington was supposed to pay to restore farmland in Okinawa that had been used by US forces. The United States had committed to paying the costs of land restoration in the Japan-US agreement returning Okinawa to Japan. It transpired later that the stated $4 million was included in the $320 million cost of the return of Okinawa officially borne by Japan.

    In another embarrassment, the Finance Ministry found a document suggesting that Japan donated over $100 million in yields from a deposit with a US bank to the United States under the secret pact on the 1972 return of Okinawa to Japan. According to the discovered record, Japan deposited $60 million with a US Federal Reserve Bank through the Bank of Japan, and declined to accept $112 million in yields on it over a 25-year period. Successive LDP governments refused to acknowledge the existence of such a deposit. So far, no document has surfaced showing that the deposit was aimed at paying for the return of Okinawa. The Hatoyama government may further embarrass the LDP if it can lay its hands on any such document in the future.

    The evidence of a backroom deal was first reported by a journalist, Nishiyama Takichi, working with Mainichi Shimbun> way back in 1971, who had obtained evidence from a female official in MOFA with whom he was romantically involved. While the woman was arrested and found guilty in the court, Nishiyama was convicted for violating the National Public Services Law. In the absence of a Right to Information Act, Nishiyama is handicapped. Yet, now 78, Nishiyama has again approached the court for information disclosure about the existence of the secret pact. The verdict is due on 9 April 2010. If the verdict goes in favour of Nishiyama, DPJ’s stance over the LDP on the issue would have been vindicated. Forty years after Okinawa was transferred to Japan, there are many narratives and interpretations of the declassified documents from the United States but the Japanese people now want to know the truth from their own documents. Therein lies the challenge for the Hatoyama government to reveal the truth.

    The revelation of the “secret pact” is bound to trigger a national debate. The truth is that the “secret pact” did indeed exist, though it was kept secret and the official bureaucratic position was that the pact did not ever exist.
    As it transpires, Hatoyama has to answer several questions. Is he going to use this lapse on the LDP’s part to tarnish its image before the Japanese people? Will he feel emboldened to undermine the security alliance with the United States while seeking an “equal” relationship? Will there be clamour in Japan for more transparency on disclosure of public information and how would Hatoyama face such a situation if it emerges? Will reform in the bureaucracy plug such loopholes that have characterized Japanese political system in the post-war years? These are some of the issues that Hatoyama must be prepared to face in the coming months. Yet, the most likely scenario is likely to be the maintenance of the status quo — that the Japan-US alliance will remain strong as before for many years, that the security order in East Asia will continue to be determined by continued US presence in the region, and that the “secret pact” controversy is just a passing cloud in the mutually beneficial relationship between Japan and the United States. With elections for the Upper House due in July 2010, some noise will be made to keep the controversy alive but these in no major way are likely to impact upon the existing power balance in East Asia.