Interview with Kenichiro Sasae, Japan’s new ambassador to the U.S.: Building trust is key to nuclear disarmament

by Kohei Okata, Staff Writer

Kenichiro Sasake, 61, vice minister of Foreign Affairs, has been appointed ambassador to the United States. Mr. Sasae, who is originally from Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, will take up his new post in mid-November. He sat down for an interview with the Chugoku Shimbun and discussed his views on Japan-U.S. relations, with a focus on U.S. nuclear policy and American troops stationed in Japan.

How do you view President Barack Obama’s policy on nuclear weapons?
President has expressed a desire to pursue a world without nuclear weapons and has exercised strong leadership in advancing nuclear disarmament in the world in a philosophical sense. The first huge step has involved reductions in the nuclear arsenals held by the United States and Russia. But movement on such issues as missile defense has ground to a halt. It is important to create momentum for further reductions.

How can we assist the United States with its nuclear arms reduction efforts?
Through the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI), initiated by Japan and Australia, we have been making concrete requests to the nuclear weapon states to reduce their nuclear arsenals. It may seem too simple, but the way ahead will involve taking every opportunity to encourage movement toward disarmament while building trust among the players. Japan’s appeals hold power because they are heartfelt calls based on actual experience.

Change that is too rapid, however, could pose a threat to security. I know the people of Hiroshima have mixed feelings about this, but the reality is that Japan has no other choice than to rely on the U.S. nuclear deterrent for its security. While taking current conditions into account, it is important to lessen overall dependence on nuclear arms at the global level.

Japan chose not to support a statement which calls for making nuclear weapons illegal.
When we realistically consider the best way to advance the abolition of nuclear weapons, the statement may not have won the full support of the government. In terms of the entire Asia-Pacific region, the trend has been a military buildup, particularly in China.

Will you request that President Obama visit Hiroshima?
If a visit to Hiroshima is possible, this would be very desirable. It is on our policy agenda.

Regarding U.S. forces in Japan, low-altitude flight drills of U.S. military planes are a concern in the Chugoku region.
U.S. cooperation is needed to prevent noise pollution from occurring. Whether the noise is beyond a tolerable level is a decision that must be made on a case-by-case basis.

The MV22 tilt-rotor Osprey transport aircraft is suspected of violating agreed rules of flight.
Following discussions and adjustments made by Japan and the United States, sufficient security measures have been put in place. As for possible breaches of the terms of agreement, we are studying each incident. If a violation has occurred, it must be addressed.

As a result of crimes committed by American soldiers, there are mounting calls for improving the administration of the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement.
We should look at the issue from the viewpoint of preventing such crimes from recurring. We are aware that opinions are divided over this issue, but we haven’t made the decision to begin pursuing a revision of the agreement.

What is the key to reaffirming Japan-U.S. relations after some strain over the relocation of the Futenma Air Station in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture?
Looking at the big picture, Japan-U.S. relations are basically sound and stable. Based on our agreement, the Futenma Air Station will not be a permanent facility and will be relocated to Henoko [in Nago, Okinawa Prefecture]. In the meantime, we should move forward with the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan and lessen the burden on Okinawa. It is vital that we proceed with this step by step. We should resolve the pending problems in a calm manner, without becoming emotional, and work towards our common goals.


Kenichiro Sasae
A graduate of Hiroshima University Senior High School and the University of Tokyo, Mr. Sasae began working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1974. After serving as head of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau and holding other posts, he assumed the post of vice minister in August 2010.

(Originally published on November 4, 2012)