On Nov. 21, 1969, President Richard Nixon met with Prime Minister Eisaku Sato in Washington to discuss an extremely delicate issue.
With the reversion of Okinawa looming, the United States was anxious to secure secret permission from Tokyo to continue to have the option of bringing nuclear weapons into Okinawa, even after the islands had been returned to Japan.
But Sato, who had publicly declared that Japan would adhere to the principles of not possessing, manufacturing or introducing such weapons in Japan, was in a bind. Japanese public opposition to nuclear weapons was strong and the last thing he wanted was to inflame domestic opinion.
The result of the Nixon-Sato meeting was a secret agreement that would allow the U.S. to bring in and transit nuclear weapons through Okinawa after the islands were handed over.
If it were not for this secret agreement, political scientists believe, the reversion could not have been achieved as smoothly as it was.
The agreement was not made public until Kei Wakaizumi, a professor of international relations at Kyoto Sangyo University, published his memoirs in 1994, elaborating on his experiences as a special emissary for Sato.
“It is the intention of the United States government to remove all nuclear weapons from Okinawa by the time of actual reversion. However, the United States government also requires the standby retention and activation in time of great emergencies of existing nuclear storage locations in Okinawa,” Wakaizumi’s memoirs revealed. His book was titled “Tasaku nakarishi-o shinzemu-to hossu” (“I wish I could believe there were no other options.”)
Sato and Nixon agreed that the secret paper be kept only in the offices of the U.S. president and Japan’s prime minister and be treated in the strictest confidence between only the very top leaders of the two governments, according to the memoirs.
The agreement confirmed what many Japanese had long suspected, but the government, particularly the Foreign Ministry, had always denied — that the U.S. stored nuclear weapons in and transported them through Okinawa in direct violation of Japan’s nonnuclear principles.
By the time Wakaizumi, who died in 1996, had revealed the existence of the secret Nixon-Sato agreement, many classified documents pertaining to U.S. nuclear weapons in Okinawa during the Cold War were coming to light.
As Robert Eldridge, a specialist in postwar Okinawan-U.S. relations at Osaka University, points out, recently declassified diplomatic cables and top secret memos between U.S. and Japanese officials clearly show that American nuclear weapons were present in and around Okinawa long before the Sato-Nixon summit.
“U.S. aircraft carriers were bringing nuclear weapons into Japanese ports in the 1950s with the tacit approval of the Japanese government and bases on Okinawa were storing nuclear weapons,” the American academic said. “When the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty discussions were taking place in the late 1950s, the continued ability of the U.S. to deploy nuclear weapons was a major point of contention.”
The result of negotiations over the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty in 1959 and early 1960 was an agreement that allowed the U.S. to bring nuclear weapons into Japan without having to first spend time discussing the issue with the Japanese government.
The secret held for two decades until May 1981, when former U.S. Ambassador to Japan Edwin O. Reischauer admitted that a verbal agreement had been made in the 1960 talks that Japan would allow U.S. warships with nuclear weapons access to Japanese ports and territorial waters.
Despite Reischauer’s comments, and those of other U.S. officials who backed him, the Japanese government strongly denied that such an agreement existed.
Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki specifically said there was no such agreement. Foreign Minister Sunao Sonoda, during questioning in the Diet on the issue, blew up, saying that “Reischauer is an uncalled-for meddler who pokes his nose into matters that are none of his business.”
The Japanese government continued to deny Reischauer’s claim, citing a lack of written evidence for a verbal agreement.
Finally, in the late 1990s, the U.S. government declassified material that was touted by scholars and opposition party leaders as the “smoking gun.”
In a document titled “Record of Discussion,” dated June 20, 1959, U.S. and Japanese officials agreed that the section of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty that reads “major changes in the deployment into Japan of United States forces and major changes in their equipment . . . shall be the subjects of prior consultation,” means “the introduction into Japan of nuclear weapons, including intermediate and long-range missiles, as well as the construction of bases for such weapons.”
The treaty itself, with this provision understood by both sides, was signed on Jan. 6, 1960.
“Here, though, we come to another important point,” Eldridge said. “The word used by the Japanese side for ‘introduce’ was not ‘dounyu’ but ‘mochikomu,’ which is usually translated into English as ‘to bring in.’ This allowed the U.S. to store weapons on Okinawa, then under U.S. control, and have nuclear weapons on ships in transit or docked in Japanese ports, as it was understood by both sides that such actions did not violate the meaning of ‘mochikomu.’
“The end result was that both sides could say they were adhering to the letter of the treaty, while continuing to use Okinawa as a nuclear weapons base.”
And Okinawa, with it’s geographically strategic location, was especially convenient for storing nuclear weapons.
“Okinawa’s value is enhanced by the absence of any legal restrictions on American free access to or use of the bases, which permits storage of nuclear weapons,” says a National Security Council report from 1969.
Declassified documents from National Security Archives in 1999 show hydrogen bombs, short and intermediate-range nuclear missiles, and smaller bombs were regularly brought in and out of Okinawa between the early 1950s and 1972.
Which raises the question of where U.S. nuclear weapons were actually stored.
Kadena, in central Okinawa, was a major storage facility for air-based nuclear warheads in the late 1950s and 1960s, as well as nuclear missiles. Iwo Jima was used for storing nuclear weapons used by naval ships; the U.S. Navy wanted a secret base where such weapons could be loaded in a hurry, according to various declassified reports from the U.S. military and the State Department.
In addition to the Okinawan islands, it was learned only in 1999 that Chichijima, one of the Ogasawara Islands, briefly played host to various kinds of nuclear devices, including nuclear-tipped warheads, in the mid-1950s and mid-1960s. Like the Iwo Jima base, the Chichijima facility was designed as an emergency nuclear weapons storehouse that could be accessed quickly by the U.S. Navy.
The secrecy surrounding the U.S. nuclear presence on Okinawa and Japan was encouraged all the more by U.S. policy regarding public questions on the issue, which was to “neither confirm nor deny” — a policy that continues to this day.
U.S. officials say that all nuclear weapons were removed from Okinawa when it returned to Japan in 1972. In addition, while official U.S. general policy since 1993 has been not to carry nuclear weapons aboard surface ships, attack submarines and naval aircraft, the U.S. will not confirm or deny the presence of nuclear weapons aboard a specific ship, submarine or aircraft.
Although many in the U.S. and Japan saw this policy as necessary in the midst of the Cold War, the secrecy of both governments has exacted a high toll in terms of public trust in Japan.
During the mid-1960s, as the Vietnam War escalated and Okinawa became more important, concerns were particularly strong that a nuclear weapons-laden ship would either trigger a nuclear war or be involved in an accident.
In 1989, fears about an accident appeared to have been justified when a declassified U.S. Navy report revealed that an accident involving nuclear weapons had taken place on a warship about 130 km off the coast of Okinawa.
On Dec. 1, 1965, the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga, heading toward Yokosuka after operations in Vietnam, conducted an exercise in which an aircraft was loaded with a hydrogen bomb.
While the plane was being transferred to the flight deck, however, its brakes failed and the plane, with the bomb still attached, rolled overboard and sank to a depth of about 5,000 meters. U.S. media reports indicate that the bomb was later recovered.
The revelation that both an accident had occurred so close to the coast and that the ship continued to Yokosuka with weapons aboard shocked and outraged many Japanese.
In the 1990s, as more documents related to secret U.S. negotiations over the reversion of Okinawa became available, the extent of the U.S. nuclear presence in both Okinawa and Japan, and the extent to which both countries sought to mislead the public, became much clearer, fueling even more anger and distrust.
“The legacy of the presence of U.S. nuclear weapons on Okinawa until reversion in 1972, and the revelations of secret agreements concerning those weapons, have left a deep reservoir of doubt among many ordinary Okinawans of current U.S. military intentions on Okinawa and of the future status of the bases,” Eldridge said.
“While it may seem to be an historical issue, it is directly related to the political challenges facing a host of U.S.-Japan bilateral security issues.”