Situated among boiling sulfur pits and magma-blackened rocks, the hot-spring resort of Hakone, 100 km west of Tokyo, provided a suitably apocalyptic backdrop for secret nuclear talks held by the United States and Japan in November 1961. The meetings, attended by U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s secretary of state, Dean Rusk, and Japan’s foreign minister, Zentaro Kosaka, had repercussions for the U.S. Air Force missileers then recently dispatched to Okinawa — and they offer a disturbing glimpse into Tokyo’s attitude to U.S. atomic weaponry just 16 years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The issue of nuclear-armed U.S. Mace missiles had first been broached by Kosaka when he met Rusk at the Hakone Kanko Hotel on Nov. 4. Apparently unaware that the Americans were just about to put the finishing touches to the first Mace launch site at Bolo Point on the main island of Okinawa, the Japanese foreign minister asked Rusk to keep the presence of the missiles on Okinawa as quiet as possible.

“Announcing the deployment creates very strong repercussions in Japan, obliging the government to answer interpellations in the Diet,” read the official memorandum of their conversation.

Rusk assured Kosaka that he would pass the request to his higher-ups in Washington — and it seems he was true to his word. Bill Horn, a crew member with the 498th Tactical Missile Group on Okinawa, recalls the air force adopted measures to hide the missiles from public view, including draping the rockets in tarpaulin sheets and transporting them only at night. He also remembers what happened when his crew ordered uniform patches from an off-base tailor embroidered with the words “Tactical Missile Group.”

“Right away, Robert McNamara (Kennedy’s secretary of defense) put the squash on those patches. We were told to make them disappear. We were to be known only as the ‘TMG,’ and nobody was supposed to know what the letters stood for. But it was a farce — we were hiding in plain sight.”

The Hakone memoranda and missileers’ accounts hint at the deep tensions within the heart of the Washington-Tokyo alliance. While Japanese public opinion was overwhelmingly antinuclear, Japan’s leaders were, at best, ambivalent to nuclear weapons and, in some cases, incontrovertibly pronuclear.

During the U.S.-led postwar Allied Occupation of Japan, American authorities had effectively censored all media discussions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the end of the Occupation, in 1952, was accompanied by a flood of stories about survivors’ ongoing struggles with radiation sickness. The public’s anger was reinforced in 1954 when the 23 crew members of the Lucky Dragon #5 fishing trawler were irradiated mid-Pacific following a U.S. H-bomb test explosion on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. In protest, 30 million Japanese people — more than a third of the population — signed a petition demanding the end of atmospheric nuclear tests.

However, successive Japanese governments, including the one in which Kosaka served, did not share its electorate’s sentiments. Allegedly flush with CIA dollars dispensed to ensure the nation remained a bulwark against the spread of Asian communism, Japanese leaders were eager to reassert their authority on the postwar stage — even if it took nuclear weapons to do so.

In fact, the day before Kosaka met Rusk, Prime Minister Hayata Ikeda — the so-called father of Japan’s postwar industrial growth — had wondered out loud with the secretary of state whether it might be a good idea for Japan to possess some nuclear weapons of its own. Ikeda seemed to care little that his veiled request for the U.S. to nuclear-equip Japan was in direct defiance of its war-renouncing Constitution — and Rusk shimmied around Ikeda’s proposal with an awkward joke before explaining that the U.S. was opposed to nuclear proliferation of any kind.

America apparently had no qualms stationing nuclear weapons under its own control on Okinawa — but it was uncomfortable with the notion of Japanese fingers on their triggers.

Shoji Niihara, the researcher at the forefront of U.S.-Japan nuclear relations who first uncovered the Hakone memos at the U.S. National Archives in Maryland in 2001, said: “The Japanese government were so subservient-minded. High-ranking officials really might have thought that nuclear weapons were the guardian of the U.S.-Japan military alliance.”

Tokyo’s two-faced approach to maintaining an antinuclear stance in public while secretly supporting the Bomb behind closed doors was once again on display in Hakone when, on Nov. 4, Kosaka discussed U.S. plans to resume atmospheric nuclear tests in the Pacific. Despite such tests having caused the fatal Lucky Dragon incident (and, unknown to the public, the potential irradiation of more than 850 other Japanese fishing vessels at the same time), Kosaka said his government had “no quarrel with the military necessity of the action.” Instead, he worried that U.S. airborne explosions might slow growing anti-Soviet feelings in his country. The memorandum clearly recorded Rusk’s reply: “The United States does understand and respect Japan’s special psychological problem.”

More than any other, it is this phrase that cuts to the core of U.S.-Japan atomic relations. Rusk’s failure to acknowledge that the root of Japan’s trauma lay in U.S. hands is equaled only in callous hypocrisy by the Japanese government’s repeated attempts to pretend it knew nothing about U.S. nuclear policy in order to maintain face with its public.

“The Japanese government didn’t want to confirm officially the presence of U.S. nuclear weapons on Okinawa because they hoped to avoid any responsibility for them. This kind of thinking has made a big rift between them and the ordinary, antiwar Japanese public,” says Niihara.

Throughout the 1960s, neither the government of Japan nor the U.S. admitted that there were nuclear weapons on Okinawa. According to Niihara’s research, it was only in 1971, when the two countries were negotiating for the return of the island, that America finally publicly admitted to their presence. The reason for this sudden honesty? Washington wanted Tokyo to cough up tens of millions of dollars for the weapons’ removal.

In 1971, with the U.S. economy sluggish and Japanese finances booming, it seems that the need for Cold War confidentiality had been outstripped by a more pressing priority: the need for cold hard cash.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.