The government fretted over an attempt by the United States to use the historic 1971 meeting between Emperor Hirohito and U.S. President Richard M. Nixon in Alaska for political purposes, according to Japanese documents declassified Thursday.
The diplomatic records reveal a tug-of-war between the United States, which expected more than pleasantries from the Emperor’s talks with the U.S. leader, and Japan, which was wary of the U.S. attempt to use his visit for its intentions.
Then-Foreign Minister Takeo Fukuda, who accompanied the Emperor on the trip — his first abroad as Emperor, expressed dismay at the time, describing the U.S. move as “terribly annoying.”
The Emperor’s political roles are limited under the current Constitution, which defines him as a symbol of Japan and allows him to perform only acts in matters of state provided for in the supreme law.
The meeting took place on Sept. 26, 1971, during the Emperor’s stopover in Anchorage en route to Europe, amid strained ties between Japan and the United States over what was referred to as “two Nixon Shocks.”
They were the announcement in July 1971 of Nixon’s visit the following year to China, with which the country did not have diplomatic ties — a move seen as slighting Japan — and an end to convertibility between the dollar and gold, announced the following month, that could eventually hurt Japan’s export industry.
The U.S. side, concerned about the adverse effects on ties with Japan, had apparently been motivated by a desire to improve bilateral relations quickly.
The talks between the Emperor, posthumously known as Emperor Showa, and Nixon were realized as the U.S. leader traveled to Anchorage to meet the monarch during his plane’s refueling stop en route to his seven-nation trip to Europe.
In a top secret cable dated Aug. 5, 1971, Japanese Ambassador to the U.S. Nobuhiko Ushiba conveyed to the Foreign Ministry that the U.S. proposal for the meeting was “extremely opportune” to promote friendly ties between Japan and the United States at a time when clouds were hanging over their relations.
The ministry responded to the envoy that the Emperor welcomed the chance to meet with Nixon but added that the meeting should be of “pure formality” and must not be political in nature. It also required the attendance of Empress Nagako in the meeting as a condition.
The U.S. side, for its part, proposed giving sufficient time to hold working talks that would involve Fukuda and his U.S. counterpart.
But in a cable dated Sept. 20 the same year, Fukuda complained that the U.S. side made a “proposal lacking in common sense,” as if it had forgotten that the Emperor’s visit to the United States was a “mere stopover.”
“It is terribly annoying to us,” he said.
Fukuda, who would later become prime minister, asserted that the main meeting should be the one between the Emperor, Empress, Nixon and his wife.
Fukuda also warned that if he and his U.S. counterpart attended the meeting longer than necessary, it would not be “desirable” for the United States either, because that would create the impression that its officials tried to draw the Emperor into political talks.
In the end, Tokyo and Washington agreed on a plan to give the first 15 minutes of the meeting to a photo session and chats between the Imperial Couple and the Nixons, 25 minutes to a one-on-one session between the Emperor and the president, and 10 minutes to a session involving the foreign ministers and other members of their entourages.
As it turned out, the talks were well-received by the Japanese media and public, and worked to ease anti-U.S. sentiment.
While the newly disclosed records did not include contents of the meeting, a former Japanese diplomat has said the Emperor and Nixon discussed the president’s planned trip to China in 1972.
The Emperor went on to visit Britain, Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands between late September and mid-October 1971 to nurture international friendship, marking the first trip abroad by a sitting Emperor.