Hiroshima Memo: Time to change the double standard of Japan’s nuclear policy

by Akira Tashiro, Executive Director of the Hiroshima Peace Media Center

On August 6, 1971, 38 years ago, Eisaku Sato became the first sitting prime minister to take part in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony. Amid the heavy wind and rain of a departing typhoon, I stood in a corner of Peace Memorial Park and listened to the prime minister speak before the Cenotaph for the A-bomb Victims.

“Twenty-six years ago, Hiroshima suffered annihilation as the result of an atomic bomb,” Mr. Sato said. “This experience was a lesson for the whole of humanity on how we must live in this nuclear age. The earnest desire of the people of Japan is that such a tragedy must never be repeated.”

“As the only nation in the world to have endured an atomic bombing,” he continued, “Japan has, since the end of the war, based its identity as a nation on eradicating war and building an international order of peace so that the risk of humanity’s very extinction can be removed.”

Mr. Sato made a passionate appeal in front of the crowd of A-bomb survivors and citizens attending the ceremony. At that moment, I could never have imagined that the same person had urged the United States, six years before, to immediately retaliate with nuclear weapons in the event Japan became engaged in war with China. This position by the prime minister, conveyed in talks with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in 1965, recently came to light.

During the ceremony, an unexpected incident occurred where a young woman approached Mr. Sato as he was offering a wreath of flowers at the Cenotaph for the A-bomb Victims. Expressing her opposition to the prime minister’s participation in the ceremony, she reportedly shouted, “What have you done [about nuclear weapons] since the war ended? You don’t belong here!” At the time, no one but those directly involved in the Sato-McNamara talks knew the contents of the diplomatic documents, which were declassified in December 2008. Though the people present at the ceremony didn’t offer any support to the woman’s protest at that time, if they had known about Mr. Sato’s appeal to Mr. McNamara, there may have been more sympathy for her words.

Mr. Sato was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974, two years after his tenure ended as prime minister. To this day, he is the sole peace laureate from Japan. His recognized achievements through his leadership of seven years and eight months include establishing the three non-nuclear principles and shepherding the return of Okinawa to Japan.

People in the A-bombed cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki felt some discomfort, though, over Mr. Sato being selected for the prize because it came at a time when retired Admiral Gene LaRoque of the U.S. Navy made the controversial remark that U.S. vessels had carried nuclear weapons into Japan. Thus, A-bomb survivors’ organizations, peace groups, and other parties considered Mr. Sato “the main culprit” behind promoting a policy of national security based on the “nuclear umbrella.”

In his comments after receiving the award, Mr. Sato preached the necessity of nuclear deterrence, stating, “As nuclear weapons have become recognized as a common form of arms, we cannot continue to express disdain for them. It is time that the role of nuclear weapons, in preventing the outbreak of war, be fairly evaluated.”

While the Japanese government appeals for the abolition of nuclear weapons, its reliance on the U.S. “nuclear umbrella” persists. This stance predated the Sato administration and has not changed since. In addition, in regard to the three non-nuclear principles, the principle of “not permitting nuclear weapons to enter the country” has lost bearing in Japan and has not been applied internationally, at least not in the case of U.S. nuclear vessels.

I suspect the Ministry of Foreign Affairs disclosed the contents of the Sato-McNamara talks because they presumed there would be no strong backlash from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, since the antipathy toward nuclear weapons among the public has largely disappeared. At the Cabinet meeting on January 9, the Japanese government expressed its view on the declassified documents in which Mr. Sato’s remarks can be interpreted as a tacit agreement to permit nuclear weapons to enter Japan. The government’s view was in line with previous statements: “The remarks cannot be deemed permission for nuclear weapons to enter Japan. There is no basis for the claim that these remarks conflict with the three non-nuclear principles.”

If the government wants its words to be convincing, it must endorse a non-nuclear policy which moves the current policy forward. The three non-nuclear principles must be made legally binding and a proactive political agenda devises a national security policy that does not rely on the U.S. “nuclear umbrella.”

It is past time for Japan to rise above the double standard of its nuclear policy: “We are making efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons from the earth. But, in the meantime, please protect us with nuclear weapons.” A policy of this sort deprives the A-bombed nation of trust in the eyes of other nations. 

The new Obama administration, inaugurated on January 20, will shift gears toward nuclear disarmament in a significant way. As an ally of the United States, Japan should now strengthen its call for nuclear disarmament and abolition, rather than seeking continued refuge under its “nuclear umbrella.” The citizens of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and across Japan must add to our efforts by conveying the voices of the A-bombed cities to the Japanese government.

(Originally published on January 19, 2009)

Related articles
Motives behind release of documents on “nuclear retaliation” (Jan. 24, 2009)
Editorial: The U.S. nuclear umbrella, past and future (Dec. 27, 2008)
Sato asked U.S. in '65 to use nukes if Japan went to war with China (Dec. 23, 2008)