OSAKA — A half century after it was signed, the 1960 Japan-U.S. security treaty remains the foundation for bilateral cooperation, even as the world it was forged in has changed drastically.
Given the treaty’s violent and controversial beginnings and contentious questions it raised that still plague bilateral relations, the 50 years of its history underscores the intense effort on both sides that have gone into maintaining and expanding it.
The world of 1960 was, politically, bipolar. The United States, Western Europe and their allies were locked in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, its Eastern Bloc satellites and communist China. Fears of a nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviets in particular were very real.
It was a time when many in the U.S. built fallout shelters in their backyards and schools conducted air raid drills during which children dived under their desks to protect themselves from nuclear-armed Soviet bombers.
For the U.S. in 1960, Asia in particular, with the exception of Japan, appeared vulnerable to a communist takeover.
The Korean War ended in 1953 with a truce, dividing Soviet- and Chinese-backed North Korea and U.N.- and U.S.-backed South Korea. Taiwan had become a refuge for Chinese who fled the mainland in 1949 after the communist takeover and the U.S. Navy kept a nervous eye on the island, fearing China would invade it.
In Vietnam, Washington worried that another Korea was in the making after communist-backed guerrillas defeated the French in 1954.
While the U.S. saw Japan as an ally and an island of democratic stability in an unstable region, many in Japan were restless and angry with the U.S. military presence, which had continued since 1945, and favored a more neutral foreign policy that was less U.S.-centric.
The Cold War and political changes in Japan during the 1950s brought back to power conservative leaders who had been purged after the war. Among these was Nobusuke Kishi, who had been arrested for war crimes and had actually signed the declaration of war against the U.S. in 1941. But the staunch anticommunist was considered Washington’s man in Tokyo when he became prime minister in February 1957.
Four decades later, declassified documents would reveal the CIA funneled millions of dollars to Liberal Democratic Party leaders in the 1950s and early 1960s, including Kishi, who favored a strong military alliance with the United States.
Kishi became prime minister just weeks after a tragic incident involving a U.S. serviceman created a political crisis between Tokyo and Washington.
In January 1957, U.S. Army Specialist William Girard murdered a Japanese woman in front of fellow soldiers and Japanese eyewitnesses, igniting nationwide protests and a political firestorm. President Dwight Eisenhower waived legal jurisdiction over Girard’s case, angering those in the U.S. who saw the soldier as a victim of an ungrateful nation. A compromise was eventually worked out, but the furor in both countries over the case forced policymakers in both sides to look into revising the 1951 treaty.
For the U.S., it was hoped revision would bind Japan closer to the U.S. by ensuring military protection under its nuclear umbrella. For Japan though, the treaty’s revision meant addressing a number of outstanding concerns that had long created political friction and public opposition to a continued U.S. military presence.
These included questions about the geographic scope of the new treaty, its duration, whether Japan would be obliged to defend Okinawa and, perhaps most controversially, whether the U.S. could bring nuclear weapons into Japan.
Kishi’s terms were that Japan would be expected to defend only the home islands, that the U.S. would seek prior approval before sending forces from bases into Japan into combat, that the treaty would cover 10 years, after which either party had to give one year’s termination notice, and that nuclear weapons would not be stored on Japan.
The U.S. eventually agreed to the terms. By early January 1960 the agreement had been concluded and Kishi prepared to fly to Washington to sign it.
Reaction to the treaty in the U.S. was generally positive, with newspaper editorials welcoming it as a bulwark against communist expansion in Asia and an important pillar for maintaining peace and security. There was little opposition in the Senate.
But it was a different story in Japan.
By 1960, Socialist and Communist party politicians, labor unions and students formed a politically powerful machine that mobilized nationwide protests.
On Jan. 19, Kishi arrived in Washington to sign the treaty after a demonstration in Tokyo that drew 30,000 protesters, some of whom had unsuccessfully tried to prevent his plane from taking off.
Under the treaty, the U.S. agreed it would not act in a manner contrary to the wishes of Japan on issues involving prior consultation under the treaty, which was interpreted by the public to mean the U.S. would not bring nuclear weapons into Japan. But almost immediately after the signing, rumors of a secret agreement giving the U.S. transit rights for nuclear weapons emerged.
Kishi returned to Tokyo having to convince the Diet to ratify it by the end of June, in time for a visit by Eisenhower.
The prime minister’s insistence that the Diet not add amendments but vote on the treaty as he’d signed it touched off a political firestorm. On May 1, 1960, with Eisenhower due to arrive in about six weeks, nearly 600,000 people took to the streets to protest.
That same day, a U.S. spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union, creating fears in Japan that the security treaty could drag the country into a military confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviets.
Undaunted, Kishi and the LDP rammed the treaty through the Lower House in the early hours of May 20.
Public anger swelled again, and on June 10, U.S. Ambassador Douglas MacArthur II and White House Press Secretary James Hagerty, who arrived to prepare for Eisenhower’s visit the following week, were greeted at Haneda airport by 10,000 protesters, who attacked their car and forced them to be evacuated by a U.S. Marine helicopter. Five days later, a demonstration of 70,000 turned violent and University of Tokyo student Michiko Kanba was killed, forcing Eisenhower to cancel his visit.
Finally, on June 23, minutes after the U.S. and Japan exchanged ratified copies of the treaty, Kishi resigned. With his exit, much of the public opposition died down, although resentment and opposition to the treaty would remain strong in certain quarters, especially in Okinawa, which was returned to Japan in 1972 with the condition that U.S. bases remain.
Since 1960, Japan and the U.S. have made a number of attempts to revise and expand the scope of the treaty, most notably in the 1978 guidelines, which were designed to get Japan to assume more responsibility in the event of security threats in Asia, and another set of guidelines adopted in 1997 following intense debate.
The 1997 guidelines enabled Japan to cooperate with U.S. forces in case of an armed attack against Japan and in crises in areas surrounding Japan. The guidelines also enabled Japan to provide rear-area support for U.S. forces.
Following the rape of an Okinawan schoolgirl in 1995 by three U.S. servicemen, an agreement was reached the next year under which the U.S. would return the Futenma air base if Japan provided a replacement facility. The most recent bilateral security-related agreement came in 2006, when Japan and the U.S. agreed to reorganize the bases and transfer 8,000 marines to Guam.
Unlike 1960, there is no similar mass movement today to scrap the treaty. Most critics talk about revising it to reflect current geopolitical or domestic political realities.
In recent years, official opinion polls indicate a majority of the people in both countries support the security treaty, although they also show U.S. support is consistently higher and more enthusiastic.
Seventy-eight percent of the U.S. public said the treaty should be maintained, according to a Foreign Ministry survey last year. In the case of Japan, however, a Cabinet Office survey in 2005 revealed about 55 percent of respondents favored keeping the treaty, and only about 27 percent said it should be strengthened further.
Thus, the security treaty, born in controversy, celebrates its golden anniversary intact and unlikely to be replaced by a younger model anytime soon because despite the problems, Japan and the U.S. basically see it as its supporters in 1960 did, as a cornerstone for peace, economic prosperity and military stability in Asia and the basis for deeper cooperation between both countries.