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Former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone admitted in a recent interview that U.S. warships carrying nuclear weapons may have sailed through Japanese territorial waters during the 1980s when he was in office.

It is the first time a former prime minister has mentioned the possibility of U.S. “nuclear transit” during the Cold War.

Japan, as the only country ever attacked by atomic bombs, is especially sensitive about nuclear arms.

“It could be considered that (warships carrying nuclear weapons) might have come through (Japanese) waters” during the Cold War era, Nakasone said.

“In the case of the Tsugaru Channel, for example, (nuclear-armed warships) might have to sail through there,” he said, referring to the channel between Honshu and Hokkaido.

“It is impossible for us to confirm that (U.S.) submarines are submerged in waters along the coast of Japan,” he added, saying such nuclear transit would have taken place without his clear knowledge. “I thought we could not do anything.”

On the other hand, Nakasone stressed that Japan never allowed the U.S. Navy to bring nuclear weapons into Japanese ports under the nation’s Three Nonnuclear Principles of not possessing, producing or allowing nuclear arms to be brought into Japan.

It has been swept under the rug whether U.S. ships and bombers carrying nuclear arms have passed through Japanese territorial waters and air space. Administrations, including the one led by Nakasone, a conservative, pro-U.S. politician considered to be an expert on defense and security, have repeatedly denied nuclear transits.

According to declassified U.S. documents from the 1960s, the two countries tacitly agreed to exempt sea and air nuclear transit from the idea of “nuclear introduction” prohibited under the Three Nonnuclear Principles approved by the Diet in 1971.

One secret telegram sent by then U.S. Ambassador Edwin Reischauer to the State Department, dated April 4, 1963, detailed highly confidential talks between him and Foreign Minister Masayoshi Ohira on the interpretation of “nuclear introduction.”

The cable revealed that the two countries confirmed nuclear “transit” is not considered nuclear “introduction,” creating a practical loophole that allows the U.S. military to bring nuclear weapons into Japanese waters and air space if they are not stored on Japanese land.

On the consistent U.S. policy of “neither confirming or denying” the existence of nuclear weapons, meanwhile, Nakasone implied that such a policy could allow the United States and Japan to leave ambiguous the reality of nuclear deployment around Japan, which faced nuclear and conventional threats from the Soviet Union and China.

Asked whether the U.S. policy worked for both countries to deny the existence of nuclear weapons in Japanese waters, he said, “The principle of each country crossed.”

In 1991, then President George Bush made a unilateral decision to withdraw tactical nuclear weapons from naval vessels. Since then, no nuclear-armed ship has visited Japan.

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