Prime Minister Eisaku Sato, who won the 1974 Nobel Peace Prize for working out Japan’s three-point nonnuclear policy, asked the United States in 1965 to use its nuclear weapons against China in immediate retaliation should a war break about between that country and Japan, according to newly declassified Japanese diplomatic documents.
In talks with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in Washington, Sato also said it would be possible for the United States to put such an operation into action immediately from the sea — remarks that could be taken as tacit consent to bring nuclear arms into Japanese territory.
The revelation confirms that Sato, prime minister from 1964 to 1972, distrusted Beijing because he was asking the U.S. to be ready to launch a nuclear first strike.
The diplomatic documents are among a raft of roughly 30-year-old papers officially declassified Monday by the Foreign Ministry.
Takahiko Tanaka, a professor specializing in international politics at Waseda University in Tokyo, said Sato’s comments indicate Japan’s intention to deter China by having the United States ready for immediate retaliation against Chinese military action.
But Tanaka also pointed out inconsistencies between Sato’s remarks that could be taken as approving of bringing U.S. nuclear arms into Japanese waters and his later call for the three nonnuclear principles, saying Sato’s words were a “great deception” to the Japanese public, which by and large wanted denuclearization.
Sato made the remarks to McNamara on Jan. 13, 1965, a day after he held a summit with President Lyndon Johnson in which he asked for a guarantee of protection under the Japan-U.S. security treaty.
McNamara mentioned to Sato China’s successful atomic test in October 1964 and said attention should be paid to how the country’s nuclear program developed over the next two to three years, according to a summary of their talks, written mostly in Japanese.
McNamara then pointed out during the meeting with Sato at Blair House, the U.S. president’s guesthouse, that an important issue would be whether Japan would move to develop its own nuclear weapons, the summary says.
Sato, who was on his first visit to the United States as prime minister, emphasized that while Japan had the technical capability to create atomic bombs, it did not intend to possess or use such weapons.
He asked that the United States be careful about making remarks concerning bringing its nuclear arms onto Japanese territory, citing the stipulations of the bilateral security treaty.
But Sato said it would “of course be a different matter in the event of a war.”
“We expect the United States to retaliate immediately using nuclear (weapons),” he said.
Sato also said it might not be easy in such circumstances to create a facility on Japanese land for using U.S. nuclear arms, but that he believed the use of such weapons from the sea would “immediately” be possible.
Sato also mentioned the possibility that, if necessary, Japan could divert to military use the rockets it had been developing for peaceful purposes as part of its space development.
The remark was in response to McNamara’s expression of hope that Japan would develop its defense-related industry and provide assistance to military programs in other Asian countries.
A separate summary of the summit between Sato and Johnson shows Sato asked for a U.S. guarantee that it would protect Japan under its nuclear umbrella. Johnson responded, “You have my assurance.” Sato pledged in 1967 that Japan will not possess or produce nuclear arms, or allow them onto its territory.