Editorial: The U.S. nuclear umbrella, past and future

Eisaku Sato, the former prime minister of Japan, originated the nation’s three non-nuclear principles of not possessing, not producing, and not permitting nuclear weapons to enter the country. This position was widely appreciated and honored with a Nobel Peace Prize.

However, documents recently declassified by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs reveal that Mr. Sato made the following demand of the U.S. secretary of state in January 1965, three months after China conducted a successful nuclear test: If war should break out with China, we expect the United States to immediately retaliate with nuclear weapons.

  While proclaiming its three non-nuclear principles, Japan relies on the “nuclear deterrence” of the United States. Perhaps the gap between the nation’s ideals and its reality in regard to nuclear weapons, which continues to today, began with Mr. Sato’s demand in the midst of the Cold War when he paid his first visit to the United States as prime minister.

Though the United States had asked Japan to take on “efforts for defense,” the Japanese public was extremely sensitive to matters involving nuclear weapons. It can be assumed, then, that the prime minister felt he had no choice but to assert a firm policy of non-possession while, at the same time, asking the United States to guarantee the nation’s protection in the event of an emergency.

Mr. Sato also made a questionable remark when he revealed his assumption that “nuclear weapons could be employed immediately from the sea.” This remark is tantamount to allowing vessels deployed with nuclear weapons to visit Japanese ports, despite the prohibition against nuclear weapons on Japanese territory.

The notion of “from the sea” arguably infringes on one of the three non-nuclear principles, that of “not permitting nuclear weapons to enter the country.” Yet this point has had a lasting impact over the years as the United States has come to interpret port calls and deployments of any U.S. vessel in Japanese waters as not in breach of this principle.

The Japanese government has frequently contended that the United States “has never brought nuclear weapons into Japanese territory,” but such an assertion is unconvincing. Although the three non-nuclear principles are set forth in explicit terms, they have been made murky by such reasoning.

A symbolic dilemma has emerged concerning the principle of “not permitting nuclear weapons” into the country. When the cause of this dilemma is considered, the sigh of frustration by former Hiroshima Mayor Takashi Hiraoka can still be heard. “People in foreign countries point out that Japan preaches to others about abolishing nuclear weapons while, at the same time, it relies on U.S. nuclear arms for its own security,” Mr. Hiraoka once said. “When I tell them that the citizens of Japan are doing their utmost for peace, they aren’t convinced and dismiss this as double-talk.”

In the Peace Declaration the former mayor delivered in 1997, he urged the Japanese government to develop a national security policy in which the nation need not rely on the U.S. nuclear umbrella. The situation, however, has not changed. Though certain municipalities have made moves to impact this state of affairs--such as the “Kobe System” which saw the Kobe city government refusing entry to Kobe port to vessels carrying nuclear weapons--these efforts have not grown to any significant degree.

  The world, though, has changed since the end of the Cold War. The prospect of nuclear terrorism has emerged as a major peril and well-known figures in the world, such as former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, now call for nuclear abolition. U.S. President-elect Barack Obama, too, has demonstrated his desire to move toward the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Provided Japan develops a credible diplomacy to secure peace, would relying on U.S. nuclear arms still remain desirable? The vision of a “Northeast Asia Nuclear Weapon Free Zone,” which has been studied by non-governmental organizations both in and outside Japan, may be a viable path forward.

After several decades, we are forced to reflect on the blunt reality of diplomatic deeds backstage. By examining the facts of history with dispassion, we can hopefully steer the proper course into the future.

(Originally published on December 24, 2008)

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Sato asked U.S. in '65 to use nukes if Japan went to war with China (Dec. 23, 2008)