Japan left key straits open for U.S. nukes

Kyodo News

Japan has avoided extending its territorial waters to cover five key straits to avoid political disputes arising from the passage of U.S. warships carrying nuclear weapons, according to accounts of former top Japanese officials.

When the boundaries were set in the late 1970s, it was believed the U.S. would have continued to transport nuclear weapons through the channels regardless of whether they were considered Japanese territorial waters or not.

Japan’s territorial waters in the Soya, Tsugaru, Osumi, Tsushima and Korea straits have been set at 3 nautical miles (5.6 km) from shore, instead of the maximum allowable limit of 12 nautical miles (22 km).

U.S. vessels carrying nuclear weapons, including submarines with nuclear missiles, must have passed through the key choke points on their way to the Sea of Japan to act as a deterrent to the former Soviet Union, China and North Korea, according to some former vice foreign ministers. Vice foreign minister is the ministry’s top bureaucratic post, while the minister is usually a politician from the Diet.

If the boundaries had been set at 12 nautical miles, there would have been no areas of open sea in some sections, forcing the vessels to cross Japanese waters and thus infringe on Japan’s three nonnuclear principles of not possessing, producing or allowing nuclear weapons on its territory, they said.

The government set the boundaries in the five straits at 3 nautical miles under the guise of placing priority on free passage through the key channels, the former vice ministers said.

The arrangements were made when the government was discussing territorial limits for the straits while formulating a law enforced in 1977 to set limits up to 12 nautical miles, they said.

At the time, the government believed that the United States would continue to transport nuclear weapons through the channels even if the territorial waters were set at 12 nautical miles in the straits because Japan had already been turning a blind eye in line with a secret pact struck when the bilateral security treaty was revised in 1960, according to the former officials.

A written question was submitted last week to the Foreign Ministry asking whether the accounts of its former top officials are true, but the ministry said more time was needed before responding. It said an answer would hopefully be formulated this week.

The Soya strait separates the northernmost part of Hokkaido and Russia’s Sakhalin Island, the Tsugaru lies between Honshu and Hokkaido, the Osumi is off the southern tip of Kyushu, and the Tsushima and Korea straits separate Kyushu and South Korea.

More ground troops

Japan’s five-year defense policy starting in fiscal 2010 will concentrate on increasing ground troops and upgrading equipment in response to North Korea’s nuclear tests and China’s rise as a major military power, according to a draft of the guidelines.

The central principle of the new National Defense Program Guidelines, to be adopted by the government before the end of this year, is based on reversing cuts in defense spending implemented since 1995 following the end of the Cold War, according to the draft.

The document cites a need to “secure options responsive to changing situations” in international security, alluding to a possible upcoming debate on whether to develop the capability to launch pre-emptive strikes on other nations’ bases.

A defense panel of the Liberal Democratic Party proposed May 26 that the new defense guidelines stipulate the need for Japan to develop this ability. The proposal was made a day after North Korea conducted its second nuclear test.

While Japan maintains a defense-only posture under the war-renouncing Constitution, the government takes the view that the country can strike an enemy military base if a missile attack appears certain.

The guidelines could change substantially if the Democratic Party of Japan unseats the LDP in upcoming general election.