Former PM bluffed on Japanese nukes

Mainichi Shimbun, Friday 6 August 1999

Former Prime Minister Eisaku Sato secured nuclear protection for Japan from the United States in 1965 by bluffing about Tokyo's readiness to develop its own nuclear weapons, a Washington-based researcher said.

According to Miki Kase, a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Sato in December 1964 told then U.S. Ambassador to Japan Edwin Reischauer that Japan might develop nuclear weapons.

On Dec. 29 that year, shortly before visiting Washington, Sato told Reischauer that Japan was capable of developing nuclear weapons at low cost.

Sato was quoted by the ambassador as saying, We have to educate the Japanese public (to accept nuclear armaments).

The statement followed China's first successful atom-bomb test in October 1964.

A shocked Reischauer immediately telegraphed details of Sato's remark to the State Department, which was preparing the agenda for the meeting between the prime minister and then U.S. President Lyndon Johnson in January 1965.

Reischauer said in the telegraph that Sato's idea of the best security against nuclear weapons was for Japan to have some of its own.

In a State Department memorandum prepared for the meeting, Kase found a special section devoted to preventing Japanese Nuclear Weapons Program.

It emphasized the significance of stopping the program, as further proliferation of nuclear weapons would multiply the risks of nuclear war for us all.

Washington was clearly rattled by the idea of Japan having its own nuclear weapons.

In an attempt to dissuade Japan from developing nuclear weapons, Johnson gave Sato a verbal assurance during the meeting that the United States would extend its nuclear umbrella to the Far East.

Sato, in return, told Johnson that it was not Japan's policy to fight fire with fire.

However, a report compiled by the U.S. government following the January meeting warned that both India and Japan might decide shortly to develop their nuclear weapons because of the existence of Chinese atomic bombs.

It is believed, however, that Sato, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974 for his introduction of non-nuclear policy in Japan, bluffed his way through to get the U.S. promise of nuclear protection for Japan.

Michio Royama, professor emeritus of Sophia University and a former member of a Cabinet Information Research Office panel on nuclear armaments from 1967 to 1970, said the statement might have been a shrewd diplomatic tact by Sato to get the deal he wanted.

None of Sato's mindset at that time was pro-nuclear armaments, said Royama. Sato was an able politician who was capable (of pulling off a stunt like that).

It was important for Sato to get Johnson's pledge to extend the nuclear umbrella to Japan, said Kase.