The bombshell that former Foreign Ministry official Bunroku Yoshino dropped last month hasn’t had the explosive effect one might expect. Yoshino was in charge of the ministry’s American Bureau at the time the United States handed Okinawa back to Japan in 1972, and in an exclusive interview in the Feb. 8 Hokkaido Shimbun he said that Japan paid the U.S. money under the table for the handover.

Ever since suspicions about this secret payment arose at the time, the government has vehemently denied any payment was made, and continues to do so now despite Yoshino’s very detailed admission. While the major media reported Yoshino’s story, the followup has been virtually nonexistent. One reason for this neglect, though by no means an excuse, is the fact that the news arrived during the Nagata e-mail fiasco in the Diet. One of the ironies of the timing is that the secret payment was the subject of a similar scandal involving a piece of correspondence. In March 1972 an opposition lawmaker presented telegrams in the Diet saying that they were proof of the payment. The government fought back, and Takichi Nishiyama, The Mainichi Shimbun reporter who passed the telegrams to the politician, ended up arrested, fired, and disgraced. Last week, he testified in a suit he has brought against the government for destroying his reputation more than 30 years ago. No news organization covered this testimony.

Given the current controversy over realignment of American forces and Okinawa’s status as the host of those forces, the secret payment would seem to be more relevant than ever. The media’s lack of interest is difficult to understand.

It’s important to remember that the handover of Okinawa and Ogasawara was the watershed event in Japan’s rise from the ashes of the Pacific War, and had something to do with the late Prime Minister Eisaku Sato being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974. Yoshino’s confession turns the accepted history of those two matters inside out.

The secret money was actually quite small, even for the time: $4 million. Yoshino said this was made part of the $320 million that Japan agreed to pay for the removal of nuclear weapons from Okinawa, an amount that Yoshino says the Japanese side accepted without really understanding how the U.S. arrived at it. Why was the Japanese government so intent on keeping such a paltry sum secret?

Yoshino says that his main task at the time was to make sure the Okinawa agreement was passed by the Diet. Sato had been boasting publicly that Japan would not have to pay for the islands, but then the U.S. State Department said that it would not pay to dismantle some facilities, even though international law compelled it to. Secret negotiations went nowhere, and the government believed that if it were known that Japan agreed to pay the $4 million to dismantle the facilities, lawmakers would be furious at this unexpected cost and the agreement would not pass smoothly.

So Sato decided to pay, but keep it secret. Cables related to these negotiations fell into the hands of Nishiyama through a Foreign Ministry secretary with whom he was having an affair. The government used the scandal surrounding the affair to discredit Nishiyama and the Mainichi in the public’s eyes.

It now sounds like nothing more than diplomatic bumbling. But the coverup was deeper. At the time, the United States was hemorrhaging money to pay for the Vietnam War while becoming increasingly concerned about rising Japanese exports, since America was their preferred destination. They weren’t going to let Sato have Okinawa just like that.

The Japanese people were told that Sato was working to keep Japan nuclear-free, but in the mid-1960s, he told U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk that, while the Japanese people didn’t want nuclear weapons, if China developed a bomb then Japan should, too.

The United States didn’t want China or Japan to have a bomb. By maintaining bases on Okinawa and including Japan under their nuclear umbrella, the Americans correctly believed Japan would abandon its quest for an atomic arsenal. Letting the Japanese have the islands back was no big deal, but they would have to pay for it in the long run. In return, Sato got to play the hero. He pledged to never make, possess, or allow on Japanese territory nuclear weapons, and he shared the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in getting Japan to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. We now know that America brought nuclear arms to Okinawa even after the handover, and Sato knew it. In a 2002 book commemorating 100 years of the prize, the Nobel committee admitted that awarding Sato the Peace Prize was, in hindsight, the biggest mistake it ever made.

The chickens are coming home to roost. Nishiyama, whose reputation has been partly redeemed by Yoshino’s admission, told Tokyo Shimbun that the secret payment set a precedent for Japan’s subsequent omoiyari (sympathetic) policy toward U.S. bases and “sowed the seeds for the poisonous grass that has grown so rampantly.” That’s a rather florid way of putting it, but the attitude he describes seems to fit the present situation. Japanese negotiators are reportedly shocked that the United States is asking them to shoulder 75 percent of the cost of moving soldiers from Okinawa to Guam.

The Japanese government has paid the United States a lot for the privilege of standing under its nuclear umbrella. Saving face can turn into an expensive habit once you start. Right now, there’s probably a bureaucrat in Moscow looking at a map of those Northern Territories that Russia occupies and Japan wants back, tapping away at his calculator.