OSAKA — Decades since Washington and Tokyo reportedly crafted secret agreements to allow U.S. nuclear weapons in Japanese territory, declassified documents from the U.S. detailing its nuclear presence in Okinawa and elsewhere in Japan during the postwar period are slowly coming to light.
When Japan’s three nonnuclear principles of never possessing, producing or allowing nuclear weapons into the country were announced several years later under Prime Minister Eisaku Sato, the words “introduce” in English and “mochikomu” in Japanese were used.
The U.S. was aware of the political fallout in Japan should word of nuclear weapons transiting the country become public. On Jan. 19, 1972, Winston Lord of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff sent the following message to other State Department officials:
“The GOJ now maintains in public that it is unaware of U.S. nuclear transit visits, and would refuse permission for such visits if we should request them. Therefore, if current transit practices were publicly exposed in an authoritative manner, the consequences would surely include: (1) the fall of the Japanese government; (2) enhancement of the credibility of those Opposition leaders most hostile to U.S.-Japan defense cooperation; (3) a corresponding loss of credibility by Japanese officials that have defended U.S.-Japanese security cooperation in the past; (4) massive doubts about U.S. respect for basic Japanese principles.”
The transit of nuclear weapons in and around Japan became a huge concern when the carrier USS Ticonderoga, en route from Vietnam to Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, suffered an accident involving a nuclear weapon on Dec. 5, 1965. An A-4E aircraft loaded with a 1-megaton B43 hydrogen bomb rolled off the carrier with the weapon and pilot aboard and sank in 5,000 meters of water.
The accident was kept secret until 1981, when the Defense Department acknowledged it had taken place, but initially said it occurred more than 800 km from land. However, U.S. Navy documents show the accident occurred about 128 km from Kikaijima in the Ryukyu Island chain.
It is believed the bomb was never retrieved.
No single entry in the newly declassified documents clearly constitutes a smoking gun for U.S. nukes in Okinawa after 1972, when the prefecture was returned to Japan. The documents do suggest, however, that Washington had considered it necessary to place nuclear weapons in the prefecture beyond the reversion.
On April 28, 1969, in a top-secret memo, the U.S. National Security Council outlined key bilateral issues for the Nixon administration, which had just taken office.
On Okinawa’s reversion, it noted there were a couple of issues: “Denial of our present nuclear rights on Okinawa would necessarily impact upon both the capability and the credibility of the U.S. forward-deployed nuclear deterrent.”
Prime evidence for the existence of such an agreement can be found in “Tasaku Nakarishi wo Shinzemu to Hossu” (“The Best Course Available”), the memoirs of Kei Wakaizumi, a former diplomat who said he arranged the agreement along with Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon’s national security adviser at the time.
Wakaizumi, who passed away in 1996, originally published the book in 1994, but few people apart from diplomatic historians took notice.
An updated version appeared after the Democratic Party of Japan took office in September. In it, Wakaizumi introduced what he said was a top secret minute to a joint communique signed between Prime Minister Sato and Nixon on Nov. 21, 1969.
“As stated in our Joint Communique, it is the intention of the United States Government to remove all the nuclear weapons from Okinawa by the time of actual reversion of the administrative rights to Japan; and thereafter the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security and its related arrangements will apply to Okinawa, as described in the Joint Communique.
“However, in order to discharge effectively the international obligations assumed by the United States for the defense of countries in the Far East including Japan, in time of great emergency the United States Government will require the re-entry of nuclear weapons and transit rights in Okinawa with prior consultation with the Government of Japan. The United States Government would anticipate a favorable response. The United States Government also requires the standby retention and activation in time of great emergency of existing nuclear storage locations in Okinawa: Kadena, Naha, Henoko, and Nike Hercules units.
“The Government of Japan, appreciating the United States Government’s requirements in time of great emergency as stated above by the President, will meet these requirements without delay when such prior consultation takes place. The President and the Prime Minister agreed that this Minute, in duplicate, be kept each only in the offices of the President and the Prime Minister and be treated in the strictest confidence between only the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of Japan.”
Over the past several months, U.S. officials have said that all documents related to the question of U.S. nukes speak for themselves. But as the National Security Archives notes, many documents remain classified. Whether they become public, and whether they further prove or disprove the existence of a secret agreement, is no longer a matter of interest to history but to current politics.