Staff writer OSAKA — Last year, Robert Ludan, U.S. consul general for the Osaka-Kobe region, began pursuing an issue that had lain dormant for 25 years: U.S. naval visits to Kobe.

In 1975, the Kobe Municipal Assembly passed a unanimous resolution requiring visiting warships to declare they were not carrying nuclear weapons. The United States, citing its policy of neither confirming nor denying the existence of such arms, refused to comply and none of its warships has visited since.

The Kobe Declaration is an irritant for the U.S. and is politically sensitive for local and national politicians.

U.S. diplomats here have repeatedly stated that the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty gives them the right to request, through the Foreign Ministry, the use of any facility in Japan, and local governments in Japan have no right to set policy with regards to Japan-U.S. security relations.

State avoids showdown

But Japan’s politicians and the Foreign Ministry have not been as direct about the Kobe Declaration. While they reaffirmed the basic tenets of the treaty and the rights of the U.S., they also made it clear they would not force a showdown with Kobe on the issue.

An absence of U.S. warships in Kobe was not an issue until the late 1990s, when the Diet passed a series of legislation to cover the updated Japan-U.S. guidelines for defense cooperation.

But enforcement of the guidelines, which call for the U.S. military’s use of public facilities like ports and airports during emergencies, will require the cooperation of local municipalities that have jurisdiction over such facilities.

Many local governments, during and after the debate on the guidelines, responded by discussing the possibility of passing their own version of the Kobe Declaration out of fears that their towns could be turned into forward bases for the U.S. military.

Ludan and U.S. officials stress that the push to have the Kobe Declaration overturned is not related to the guidelines but to economic reasons.

“With the Kobe Declaration in place, it makes it much harder to attract American businesses to the region,” he said.

But that argument faces opposition from many. Even some in the local American Chamber of Commerce who publicly support Ludan’s efforts said privately the Kobe Declaration is secondary to basic concerns, including favorable tax breaks and the number and quality of facilities such as international schools and clubs, when pondering investment in Japan.

“The Kobe Declaration has little to do with attracting foreign investment. American businesses invest, or do not invest, in Japan based on how much it costs, living standards and what kind of return on investment they expect to see,” said one American executive, speaking anonymously, who works for a major Kobe-based U.S. firm.

Nor does the argument convince those on the Japanese side who wish to keep the declaration in place.

“We need to separate the Kobe Declaration from business issues because the two are not related,” said Taizo Yamashita, of the Kobe Council of Dockworkers’ Unions.

The other argument that the U.S. side has used, without success, is to point to a policy that was adopted in the early 1990s.

Rear Adm. Robert Chaplin, commander of U.S. naval forces in Japan, said that since the late 1980s administration of former President George Bush, “it has been the general policy of the United States not to deploy nuclear weapons on surface ships.”

The reluctance of local governments to cooperate with the U.S. military may have been fortified by a series of crimes and other problems involving U.S. service personnel in Okinawa, which hosts a major slice of the U.S. bases in Japan.

But also in the background may be past secret deals between the Japanese and U.S. governments to bend — if not break — Tokyo’s official policy on the issue of nuclear weapons.

Suspicions justified

In 1997, a series of declassified U.S. reports confirmed long-held suspicions in Japan that the U.S. Navy secretly brought nuclear weapons into Okinawa during the Cold War. The documents, released by the National Security Archive at George Washington University, date from 1969 and show that the Japanese government allowed the transit of naval vessels armed with nuclear weapons.

Although in direct violation of Japan’s stated three nonnuclear principles of not maintaining, possessing or allowing the entry of nuclear weapons into Japan, the late U.S. Ambassador Edwin Reishauer said the Japanese government had secretly agreed that having nuclear weapons on board ships in Japanese waters would not be defined as breaking the nonnuclear principles.

“Since the revelation by U.S. officials that nuclear weapons had been secretly brought into Okinawa, local governments have become wary of promises from either the U.S. or the Japanese central government about military cooperation issues at the local level,” said Tomio Awahara, a Kobe assemblyman from the New Socialist Party.

“In short, no local government wanted to be turned into a mainland version of Okinawa,” a U.S. State Department official in Japan said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Reopening debate on the Kobe Declaration raises fundamental questions about local vs. central government authority on issues regarding the U.S. military presence in Japan, questions that have created political and bureaucratic headaches in the past.

Hiroyuki Nishi, a researcher at Kobe University and an expert on the history of the Kobe Declaration, noted that one of the first issues it raises is that of jurisdiction.

“Kobe’s authority is limited to the port facilities. The Japan Coast Guard, under the Transport Ministry, can grant approval for a ship to enter the harbor. But the city of Kobe has authority over use of port facilities, so therefore, if a ship wishes to dock, it has to have permission from Kobe,” Nishi said.

The U.S. government insists the Kobe Declaration has no legal basis and claims local heads of government only have the authority to manage issues accompanied by port calls.

Technically, they are right. The declaration is a resolution by the municipal assembly, which the city government has followed but has no legal precedent.

Past debates on the Kobe Declaration on the Japanese side show the issue is not as simple as the U.S. claims.

“The Foreign Ministry’s position on the Kobe Declaration is not really clear, although it has said that it doesn’t recognize it. When former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone was asked about the Kobe Declaration in the Diet, he did not clearly deny its legality,” Nishi said.

Of the 18 warships that have visited Kobe since 1975, 17 have submitted documents that state they are carrying no nuclear weapons. The 18th ship, the Protecteur from Canada, which visited in 1998, did not submit a declaration.

However, Kobe officials, after pressure from the Foreign Ministry, allowed the ship to dock because Canada has declared it does not have nuclear weapons. Since the Protecteur, no other military ships have visited Kobe.

The biggest concern the U.S. has about the Kobe Declaration, however, is that its existence will encourage other local municipalities around Japan to adopt a similar declaration.

Many have tried. In spring 1997, Kochi Prefecture attempted to create its own version of the Kobe Declaration. Gov. Daijiro Hashimoto, brother of then Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, attempted to establish a local ordinance that would make Kochi port a nuclear-free harbor and oblige ships to submit proof that they were not carrying nuclear weapons.

That plan fell apart, however, after strong opposition from the local assembly members of the Liberal Democratic Party. A watered-down version of the proposal was offered, but voted down by the Kochi Prefectural Assembly in 1999.

Kochi attempt thwarted

Unlike with Kobe, the central government made its views about Kochi clear. In February 1999, when asked in the Diet about the Kochi proposal, then Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura said that, while the central government recognized that Kobe has made its declaration, a proposal like the one Kochi was considering would infringe upon the central government’s right to conduct diplomacy.

Since 1999, Kochi Prefecture has been quiet on the issue of a Kobe-style declaration. But in other areas of Japan, notably Hokkaido, calls for such a declaration are growing louder.

Kochi, Tomakomai and Otaru are three municipalities that have made it clear they are less than enthusiastic about U.S. warship visits.

Concerned about their role in a potential conflict, an estimated 20 local governments around Japan reportedly have either considered, or are considering, some version of the Kobe Declaration. The purpose is not just to keep nuclear weapons out, but to send a message to the U.S. and to the central government that they do not want to become pawns in a regional conflict.

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