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Old deals sowed seeds of unresolved problems

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Third in a series

Forty years after the U.S. returned Okinawa to Japan after a 27-year occupation, the public agreement ensuring American bases would remain after reversion and the secret agreement allowing the U.S. to reintroduce nuclear weapons continue to create anger in Okinawa and problems for the Japan-U.S. security alliance.

But as declassified U.S. cables and other documents related to the negotiations that led to the 1971 agreement to return Okinawa to Japan clearly show, opposition in Okinawa to the U.S. bases long before 1972 was the major factor that forced both Washington and Tokyo to act. They also made clear the U.S. desired to remain in Okinawa after the reversion and retain the right to bring in nuclear weapons.

“At the time of the reversion discussions, America was extremely concerned about keeping its bases, especially Kadena Air Force Base. But the U.S. was also worried about whether it would be allowed to keep nuclear weapons in Okinawa after reversion,” former Okinawa Gov. Masahide Ota said recently.

Okinawa’s bases were key to the U.S. Cold War deterrence strategy in Asia, against North Korea in the 1950s, Vietnam in the mid- to late 1960s, and China throughout the period.

Since the end of World War II in 1945, Okinawa had been run by American military governors, deputy governors and high commissioners. They could overrule the Okinawan chief executives (equivalent of governor) or the Okinawan legislature.

By the early 1960s, opposition in Okinawa, and Tokyo, to continued U.S. rule was growing, and negotiations toward returning Okinawa took their first step forward in 1965 at a summit between U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson and Prime Minister Eisaku Sato.

According to an official statement following their meeting, the prime minister expressed his hope that “administrative control over these islands (Okinawa and the surrounding islands) will be restored to Japan.”

But it took until spring 1969 before reversion discussions went into full swing. Top-secret cables from the National Security Council from April of that year warned the Pentagon and the CIA that reversion needed to happen sooner than later.

“Pressures in both Japan and Okinawa for reversion are intense and growing. (The U.S.) embassy reports ‘even the conservative leadership now finds the pressures irresistible.’ If the Japanese and Okinawa public conclude the reversion might be long-delayed, U.S.-Japan relations would be seriously prejudiced, the Security Treaty could be endangered, and potentially violent demonstrations against our bases would be a real likelihood,” the April 1969 NSC cable said.

Assuming that reversion was going to take place, U.S. negotiators offered the newly inaugurated administration of U.S. President Richard Nixon three negotiation strategies.

According to the cable, the first strategy was to maintain the status quo and not set a date for reversion. The second was get Japan to agree to certain U.S. military rights that year, 1969, in exchange for a U.S. agreement of a reversion date, which was suggested as 1972. The third option was to agree to a 1972 reversion date first, and then negotiate conditions of the reversion. In the end, the U.S. appears to have basically settled on the second strategy.

Negotiations were particularly sensitive, the NSC said, due to Okinawa’s special importance.

“Okinawa houses the most important U.S. military base system in the Western Pacific. Its value is enhanced by the absence of any legal restriction on American free access or use of the bases, which permits storage of nuclear weapons,” the April 1969 cable said.

Whether nuclear weapons would be allowed in Okinawa once it reverted to Japan would be the most contentious aspect of negotiations.

Sato had announced his three nonnuclear principles, which stated Japan would not acquire, produce or introduce nuclear weapons in the country. But the meaning of “introduce” was to be the key that would seal a secret deal to allow U.S. nukes back into Okinawa.

U.S. and Japanese officials had, in previous years, held thorough discussions on the meaning of “introduce” nuclear weapons.

As early as June 1960, right after the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty was signed, official U.S. documents state consultation withJapan is needed when nuclear weapons are introduced. However, as would later be made clear by the U.S., the definition of “introduce” did not mean transiting nuclear weapons through Japanese waters or territory.

Public opposition to allowing U.S. nuclear arms to remain in Okinawa or be transited through Japan remained strong throughout the 1960s, as worries of a nuclear accident constrained policymakers on both sides.

Unbeknown to the public, their fears about nuclear transports had proved justified in December 1965, when the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga, passing through the waters about 150 km southeast of Kikaijima in the Kagoshima-Satsunan island chain, was involved in an accident.

During a training exercise, an aircraft loaded with a 1-megaton hydrogen bomb attached rolled off the carrier deck and sank to an estimated depth of 5,000 meters. Neither the pilot nor the bomb were ever reported recovered. The Pentagon kept the incident secret until 1981.

Public documents show that throughout 1969, policymakers discussed options for allowing nuclear weapons to remain in Okinawa in some form, ranging from permanent storage to temporary storage to allowing only transit rights. It was this last option that Nixon was willing to agree to if other elements of the Okinawa accord were satisfactory.

In November 1969, Nixon and Sato met in Washington, where they agreed “that the mutual security interests of the U.S. and Japan could be accommodated within arrangements for the return of the administrative rights over Okinawa to Japan.” It was agreed that reversion would take place by 1972 and that the U.S. would retain its bases in Okinawa.

What was not revealed was a secret agreement, signed in a small side room away from public scrutiny, to reintroduce nuclear weapons into Japan if the U.S. decided it was necessary.

The existence of the secret agreement was rumored for years, but even after Kei Wakaizumi, a former Kyoto Sangyo University professor who had been involved in the reversion negotiations, published it in the mid-1990s, the Japanese government continued to deny its existence. Not until 2009 would its existence be confirmed by a committee established by the Democratic Party of Japan and led by then University of Tokyo professor Shinichi Kitaoka to look into the matter.

The agreement, as published in Wakaizumi’s book, says that “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.” In return, Japan promised to meet those requirements without delay when such prior consultation takes place.

Ex-Gov. Ota said told The Japan Times there are very likely more secrets about Okinawa’s postwar history and negotiations regarding its return to be revealed. “I’d estimate that only about 10 percent of the secret government documents related to Okinawa and its return have been made public,” he said.

In the end, the reversion treaty gave the U.S. mostly what it wanted, which was continued land for its bases and an agreement, if necessary, to bring back nuclear weapons into Okinawa. Japan got what it wanted, which was Okinawa’s return and, in 1974, Sato was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his three nonnuclear principles.

But the accord left a bitter legacy in Okinawa, one that continues to hinder efforts to resolve the contentious relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and plans to expand bilateral defense cooperation.

“Effective use of our Okinawan bases depends on the acquiescence of the local population, and there are indications this acquiescence has been gradually eroding,” wrote U.S. negotiators pushing for a reversion accord in a 1969 top-secret cable. And this statement remains just as relevant four decades after.

Ota said today’s problems over Futenma and the U.S. military presence can be traced back to the reversion agreement.

“The agreement was too different from Okinawan hopes to be nuclear-free like the rest of Japan. Now, 40 years later, people in Okinawa are asking what reversion meant, and what is Okinawa to Japan,” he said.

“At the 20th anniversary of reversion in 1992, Okinawans said it hadn’t really been ‘returned.’ At the 30th anniversary in 2002, they said the real situation was akin to the postwar occupation period. Now, at the 40th anniversary, we see articles in Okinawa’s newspapers almost every day saying Okinawa is being structurally discriminated against. Thus, the number of people seeking a more self-reliant, even independent, Okinawa is increasing,” he said.