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Documents reveal past Japan-U.S. nuclear discussion (Part 4): Japan’s aggressive diplomacy for return of Okinawa

By Naotaka Fujita


“The interesting documents are those around the time that top Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) officials visited Prime Minister Eisaku Sato,” says Kyushu University associate professor Takuma Nakashima. “They went to Sato to ask if they could conduct negotiations for the return of Okinawa.” 


In early July 2020, the Asahi Shimbun spoke with Nakashima in Tokyo about classified documents from the late 1960s on Japan-U.S. relations.  The documents were disclosed by MOFA. Nakashima specializes in Japanese political and diplomatic history. One of the documents that Nakashima is referring to is titled “MOFA North American Affairs Bureau, North America Division: U.S. bases in Okinawa and our nation’s security (draft)” and dated Aug. 14, 1967.


At a Security Sub-Committee (SSC) meeting of top-level Japanese and U.S. officials held on Aug. 23, 1967, Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs Nobuhiko Ushiba discussed the situation of U.S. military bases in Japan after the return of Okinawa. The above-mentioned document served as the basis for the discussion. The document was essential to the negotiations led by Prime Minister Sato on the return of Okinawa.


Nakashima focused on the fact that Ushiba and others visited Sato at the Prime Minister’s Office [Kantei] six days before the creation of the document. Nakashima says that “Sato told MOFA not to start negotiations and reportedly said ‘I have (the plan) here,’ hitting his stomach.”


Nakashima heard this story from Sumio Edamura, who was then the head of the North America Division at MOFA. The North America Division nevertheless created this document and entered into discussions with the U.S. Nakashima was surprised that the intent to “denuclearize” was already clear in the document. The issue of nuclear weapons at U.S. military bases was a point of contention until the final stage of negotiations.


The document by MOFA’s North America Division starts with a discussion of “our nation’s nuclear policy.”


The document first says that U.S. nuclear weapons protect Japan from China and the Soviet Union but should not be located in Japan. “Nuclear weapons deployed in our country, which has a limited land mass, are vulnerable to attack from China and the Soviet Union” and “are only valid in their capacity for a first strike.” “If nuclear weapons were nonetheless deployed [in Japan],  it would heighten Japan’s provocation to other countries.” 


The document goes on to emphasize that “our nation’s nuclear policy summarized above should naturally be applied to Okinawa upon ts return to Japan, because Okinawa’s land mass is even smaller than that of mainland Japan.” Ushiba explained at the SSC meeting that this policy “prevents provocation without having nuclear weapons.”


The U.S. side was opposed to the policy. According to a memo of a discussion held after the SSC, Richard Sneider, head of the Japan Desk at the U.S. State Department, told top MOFA officials: If nuclear weapons in Okinawa are removed because they are provocative, then the Chinese Communist Party may demand that (U.S. military bases at) Yokosuka and Sasebo be removed because they are provocative.


Sneider cooperated in the return of Okinawa to Japan. Nakashima offers the following analysis: “Sneider probably advised the Japanese side, when there were no military officers present, that it will not be effective to negotiate nuclear weapons on military terms if they want Okinawa to be returned. There were probably many counterarguments from the U.S. military, who were insistent on maintaining nuclear weapons in Okinawa.”


Documents on the SSC dating from 1967 to 1968, which were released by MOFA, show that Japan’s “militaristic” argument with regard to Okinawa’s “denuclearized” return disappears after August 1967. In contrast, Sato’s “political” argument gains ascendancy.


In a November 1967 summit meeting of Japan and the U.S., Sato confirmed that they have agreed on the timing of the return of Okinawa to be “within three years.” In January 1968, Sato announced the three non-nuclear principles as “our nation’s nuclear policy”: namely, that the country will not possess or manufacture nuclear weapons and will not permit [nuclear weapons] into the country. Sato searched for a compromise toward the 1972 “denuclearized” return of Okinawa and even agreed to a secret understanding that allows nuclear weapons to be brought into Japan in the event of an emergency.


Nakashima is interested in research on the negotiations over the return of Okinawa, where bureaucrats used their wits and connections, and the prime minister negotiated aggressively. Nakashima says that he is “worried as to whether Japanese diplomacy today is as dynamic.”

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