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Sixty years ago this month, as the protest demonstrations raged over the ratification of the revised Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, then-Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi argued for the dispatch of the still-relatively new Self-Defense Forces to maintain order as he was losing confidence in the National Police Agency to do so. However, Munenori Akagi, director-general of the Defense Agency, vigorously opposed it.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Akagi, who was a member of Kishi’s own faction of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, saved Japanese democracy that day. In other words, had the military intervened, Kishi’s handling that year of the ratification process in the Diet — seen as highly undemocratic — would have been legitimized by extra-parliamentary means, his image as a “reactionary” further solidified, and the appearance of, if not actual, political use of the SDF been undertaken, much like authoritarian nations in Asia at the time.

It might seem ironic that someone who received the support of the Imperial Rule Assistance Association during his 1942 successful election bid (and was later purged during the Occupation), was a close associate of Kishi, and a veteran politician who headed the Defense Agency — the predecessor to today’s Defense Ministry — would have sought to stop the prime minister from pursuing that course, but Akagi, who had previously served as chief Cabinet secretary, had his reasons.

The security treaty demonstrations were one of the major turning points in the history of post-World War II Japan. While the new treaty cleared the Diet, it led to the postponement and subsequent cancellation of a U.S. presidential visit, and the eventual resignation of Kishi and his Cabinet.

As someone who has studied and written about the history of the SDF and worked closely with them for much of the past 25 years, I would also argue it was a turning point in its history in that the SDF was not used as a bludgeon to enforce a poorly mishandled domestic political problem. Had it been, the image of the SDF, which had officially come into being a mere six years before, could have been tarnished forever.

Kishi was becoming increasingly desperate as the demonstrations grew in numbers and intensity in mid-June (organizers put the numbers at 330,000 protesters, while police estimates were 130,000). U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower was scheduled to arrive on June 19 — the same day the treaty would pass the Upper House automatically as the chamber had not acted on it — having visited the Philippines, Taiwan and Okinawa before. Protesters prevented Eisenhower’s press secretary, appointments secretary and U.S. ambassador to Japan from departing Haneda, roughing up their vehicles (but not their persons). A U.S. Marine Corps helicopter from Hardy Barracks had to go in and evacuate them.

The Japanese government was highly embarrassed, and the U.S. government quite mad about the treatment its representatives received and the fact the police did little to protect them.

It was a few days after this on June 13 or 14 — Akagi did not remember exactly — when Kishi called him to come over to his private residence in Nanpeidai, Shibuya Ward, and asked him to consider deploying the SDF.

Akagi was expecting the request, but also fearing it. Ever since the “Hagerty Incident” at the airport, the “internal security ministers’ discussion group,” an informal gathering of Cabinet members with responsibility for crisis management, had raised the issue of using the SDF. Some of the leading figures in the party — Finance Minister Eisaku Sato (Kishi’s younger brother), and Minister of International Trade and Industry Hayato Ikeda (who later succeeded Kishi) — were actually the most vocal about it, repeatedly asking Akagi if it were possible to deploy the SDF.

Bypassing government protocol, LDP Secretary General Shojiro Kawashima secretly went to the Defense Agency (then located in Hinoki-cho, where Tokyo Midtown is today) to meet with Akagi and appeal to him as well. It was probably difficult for Akagi to refuse his fellow faction member, 14 years his senior. But he did.

During this time, Akagi had decided to provide food, accommodations and vehicles from surrounding areas to the police being mobilized from around the country. But he was dead-set against using the SDF to put down disturbances.

In his 1971 memoirs ("Ano Toki, Sono Toki"), he explained that “if the SDF were used, it would have to destroy the protests in one fell swoop. To do so, the SDF would obviously have to be heavily armed, equipped with machine guns. This would mean that Japanese were killing their fellow countrymen. This would, if anything, inflame the already bad situation. On the other hand, if I sent them out without any protection, they would be more vulnerable than the riot police. And then the public debate would be that the SDF is useless.”

There were other reasons as well. Akagi was concerned about the “politicization of the SDF,” that they were being used for political reasons. At the time, the pending Eisenhower visit was being criticized domestically and within the ruling party as Kishi’s bid to extend the life of his administration. If the SDF were used to at this time to quell the demonstrations for a visit seen in this way, it would not reflect well on the SDF, he reasoned. It is unclear if Akagi explained all this directly to Kishi when the latter made his request.

Outside his home, the protesters were chanting “Down with Kishi” and doing their snake dance, probably adding to the tension of the moment. Kishi had his arms folded as he listened to Akagi respond that he mustn’t deploy the SDF. After a few moments of silence — which seemed much longer to Akagi — Kishi quietly agreed and did not use the SDF then or when the situation worsened on the evening of June 15, when University of Tokyo student Michiko Kanba died outside the Diet.

The next day, Kishi decided to request the postponement of Eisenhower’s visit to Japan and the crisis basically came to end without the SDF having to be used against the demonstrators. As a result, the still-developing SDF was able to avoid a highly damaging situation in which it lost the support of the public and instead worked over the years to gain that respect and trust, such as assisting with the hosting of the 1964 Olympics and participating in the games, not to mention all the efforts it has made in disaster relief domestically and abroad, and peacekeeping.

Akagi, who lived until 1993, wrote later in life that he still got a cold sweat when he thought what would have happened had the SDF been used then. He was probably not the only one.

Robert D. Eldridge is a former political adviser to the U.S. Marine Corps in Okinawa and co-author of "The Ground Self-Defense Forces: Search for Legitimacy," co-editor of "The Japan Self-Defense Forces Law," and co-translator of "Japan’s Military Might."

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