Secret History and a New Departure for Japan

Contributed by Fintan Hoey

On 9 March Japan finally broke a fifty year silence on the existence of four Cold War-era secret agreements it concluded with the United States. These bilateral security understandings have long been mooted, first by investigative journalists, and then by the release of U.S. documents from this period. Therefore the publication of an official investigation into their existence is interesting not so much in terms of historical revelations but what is says about contemporary Japan, its international relations and its attitude toward the past.

The Cold War-era understandings, and the intense secrecy that surrounded them for so long, arose because of the tension between what the Japanese ruling elite felt was critical for their country’s security and the neutralist and pacifist sentiments of the Japanese public. In the aftermath of the Second World War Japan was occupied by the United States. It was disarmed, demilitarised and had a liberal-democratic and pacifist constitution imposed on it; reforms that were largely welcomed by a populace traumatised by war and domestic political repression. America quickly came to regret its earlier enthusiastic utopianism as Cold War tensions developed. When the occupation of Japan came to an end in 1952, and as the Korean War continued to rage, America signed a defence treaty with Japan. This granted the U.S. the right to maintain armed forces in Japan, which it continues to exercise to this day. To say that this alliance has never been popular in Japan would be an understatement: When the agreement was replaced with the more equal Mutual Security Treaty, protests inside and outside Japan’s parliament building brought down the cabinet.

Added into this tumultuous mix was the delicate issue of nuclear weapons. As the only country to have suffered a nuclear attack the Japanese people have a profound and deeply embedded revulsion for these weapons. However with the development of nuclear weapons by the Soviet Union in 1949 and by China in 1964, Japan relied on the U.S. to deter a communist assault. Facilitating this ‘nuclear umbrella’ meant flying in the face of a strong domestic consensus opposed to the deployment of nuclear weapons in Japan.

Given these factors, it is perhaps not surprising that the four pacts (two of which relate to nuclear weapons, one allowed for the rapid deployment of Japan-based U.S. troops to Korea and one involved compensating the United States for its investment in Okinawa when that island was retroceded from the U.S. to Japan) were kept secret. What is surprising is how long it has taken for official confirmation of the agreements, particularly after the end of the Cold War. The answer to that question lies in a mix of bureaucratic inertia and the legacy of decades of practically unbroken rule by the conservative Liberal Democratic Party. The LDP lost the national election last August and were replaced by the Democratic Party of Japan, which can be characterised as centrist, reformist and progressive. The DPJ did not initiate this probe so as to undermine their opponents – the LDP was in power when the pacts were concluded – and appear to be motivated by a desire to increase openness in government. Indeed in addition to welcoming the revelations as a step toward greater transparency, Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio also defended the agreements since they were concluded in the national interest in the context of the Cold War confrontation of the time. His statement that the revelations have no bearing on current U.S.-Japanese relations is harder to swallow. While the DPJ is committed to the US-Japanese alliance, with these disclosures they have sent a clear signal to Washington that such backroom deals, perhaps necessary in the past, have no place in today’s partnership. That is perhaps the most significant aspect of the revelations.

Fintan Hoey is a lecturer in Asian History at Queen’s University Belfast and a PhD candidate at the UCD School of History & Archives and UCD HII where he is completing a dissertation on U.S.-Japanese relations, 1964-72.

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