Foreign Policy Blogs

Complicating the Narrative of Non-Nuclear Japan

Recent reports from the Japan have, once again, complicated the history of Japan’s seemingly steadfast commitment to its Three Non-Nuclear principles – non-production, non-possession, and non-introduction of nuclear weapons on Japanese soil. (It is important to note that this is not the end-all, be-all of Japan’s nuclear stance: the four pillars of Japan’s nuclear policy incorporate these principles to form a more robust framework to address nuclear non-proliferation.)

As a recent set of documents released this week by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) reveals, shortly after then Prime Minister Satō Eisaku vowed to the three principles in a landmark address on December 11, 1967, policymakers in the Foreign Ministry were far from sold on the idea, and further explored other deterrence options, including housing American nuclear weapons on Japanese soil. This is important pretext for the recent disclosure by a special MOFA panel (charged by Foreign Minister Okada Katsuya) of the so-called mitsuyaku dealings, or “secret agreements” forged in the 1960s to allow American ships carrying nuclear warheads to dock in Japanese ports in “emergency situations” – a clear violation of the “allowing entry” tenet of the three principles and, some would argue, a calculated deception of the Japanese public. (Gavan McCormack gives you all the background you could possibly need here.)

In one revealing passage from the disclosed documents (a passage that the Japanese dailies have invariably highlighted in their coverage), high-level policymakers within the Foreign Ministry assert that “even with the anti-nuclear principles there is still a possibility of nuclear attack…From the standpoint of total deterrence, as is the case with West Germany, the presence of American nuclear weapons [on Japanese soil] could stave off any threat.”

While this policy suggestion is glaring enough on its own, what is truly remarkable is that this document, and a host of others like it, were being circulated throughout the Foreign Ministry within a year of PM Satō‘s landmark commitment to the three anti-nuclear policies. As these documents, originally published by the Foreign Ministry International Documents Division in May, 1968 under the title “Regarding Japan’s Security Guarantee”, make clear, security hawks in Japan were far from settled on the idea, and were actively doing their part to undercut it. This push-back presumably opened the door for the furtive negotiations between the American and Japanese governments to allow nuclear weapons to be docked off shore.

The history of the negotiations regarding Japan’s nuclear posture in this period are of course far more complicated than this. (Helpful treatments of this history are Gavan McCormack (2010) “Ampo’s Troubled 50th here; Kamiya Matake (2002) here; Kurt Campbell and Sunohara Tsuyoshi (2004) “Japan: Thinking the Unthinkable” here; and Mike Green and Katsuhisa Furukawa (2008), Japan’s New Nuclear Realism here.) Determined to acquire the island of Okinawa from the American military, but also well-aware of the threats in his neighborhood (China revealed its nuclear capability shortly before his statement), Prime Minister Satō was forced to strike a balance between deterrence and peace. Vigorous currents of pacifism still flowed while Cold-War tensions in Asia heightened. The general consensus is that Prime Minister Satō arrived at the non-nuclear principles as a compromise: legally non-binding but morally imperative. (Mr. Sato’s 1974 Nobel lecture, wherein he articulates his vision of a nuclear free world, is available here.) In so doing, however, he left some of these policies abstract and ill-defined, which no doubt planted the seed for the opaque inner-workings of the American nuclear umbrella’s operations in Japan.

The take away from this most-recent declassification of documents is that the history of Japan’s nuclear stance is, and has been, less than stable – and will likely continue to weave a tortuous narrative moving forward. Though the threats have changed over the years, the voices within the security establishment calling for a bolstered deterrence strategy has persisted. One can only imagine the internal negotiations that have taken place within the Foreign and Defense Ministries since North Korea’s tests in October 2006 and May 2009. This idea becomes doubly important when one factors in Japan’s important role in non-proliferation negotiations as the only nation to have experienced the horrors of nuclear holocaust. This is not to say that Japan loses its moral high-ground in these negotiations by revealing lapses in their non-nuclear stance. Rather, it shows that nuclear diplomacy is far more complex, and subject to the influence of more actors and stakeholders, than we can easily imagine. This is a point worth highlighting in the current climate of NPT’s, START, and the rogue regimes of Iran and North Korea.

It comes as little surprise that these documents would be released now: Foreign Minister Okada has worked energetically to elucidate the inner-workings of his ministry’s nuclear policies in the postwar era, and the current set of documents comes as another part of this prolonged initiative. As Mr. Okada has stated, “In the past, prime ministers and foreign ministers of this country repeatedly denied the existence of the secret agreements and that eroded the public’s trust in the government’s foreign policy.” Building trust is commendable, but he should be wary of straining ties with some in Washington (read: Robert Gates), who feel that he is undermining regional security and the US-Japan Alliance in the process. He has addressed these issues candidly at his blog (here and here).

The immediate implications of the recent upheaval in the non-nuclear Japan narrative are less than clear. Public opinion regarding Japan acquiring nuclear weapons remains staunchly opposed (missile defense seems to be a different story, though). However, Foreign Minister Okada’s undusting of Japan’s nuclear policies has done little to spark a discussion of nuclear policy in Japan. Japan’s contributions to the NPT debate in Washington this past spring fell flat and the domestic fallout from the mitsuyaku affairs was minimal. This latest episode is likely to be the same: the history of the nuclear debate might have changed but the status quo will endure, which might just be a good thing.



David Fedman

David Fedman is a PhD student in the History Department of Stanford University where he focuses on modern Japanese and Korean history. He lives in San Francisco, California.