Japan's nuclear secret

Player utilities

Listen to the Story.

Audio Transcript:

Japan revealed today it violated its own non-nuclear principles established after World War II and lied about it for decades in a secret pact with the United States. Anchor Marco Werman speaks with Professor Andrew Gordon, who teaches Japanese history at Harvard, about the revelation.

MARCO WERMAN: Japan has a particular take on nuclear weapons. As the first and only country ever attacked with nuclear weapons, Japan officially doesn't want anything to do with them. After World War II the country adopted a set of non-nuclear principles. These forbid the country from making, possessing or even allowing nuclear weapons into its territory. Well we now know that Japan's secretly violated its own rules through nuclear cooperation with the United States. That's what a government mandated panel in Tokyo revealed today. Professor Andrew Gordon teaches Japanese History at Harvard. What has been revealed by this investigation?

ANDREW GORDON: Well that the Japanese government has officially acknowledged today is something that's been pretty much known and understood for some time in Japan, which is that after the new security relationship was concluded between Japan and the U.S. in 1960, the Japanese had an official view that there were no nuclear weapons being introduced into Japan. They understood that to include weapons on warships that would be transiting through Japanese harbors. In fact, the United States did have nuclear weapons on those ships and there was an implicit understanding between the two countries that was okay, even though publicly the Japanese government said it wasn't happening. The fact that there was this misrepresentation or untruth being said to the Japanese people by its government, that's what has come out and been officially acknowledged today.

WERMAN: And I guess I'm a little confused why the Japanese government agreed to these secret nuclear concessions to the United States.

GORDON: Well the liberal democratic party in Japan at the time had a strong belief that the security treaty relationship and the protection in the Cold War that Japan got from the United States was important. And they believe that the United States alliance with Japan had to be supported even if it meant contradicting its public position. They were afraid that the Japanese population would have reacted really strongly against the idea that nuclear weapons, even just in transit, were in Japanese harbors. People do take these principles seriously.

WERMAN: What does happen next? Will Japan be sticking to its non-nuclear principles and now excluding U.S. nuclear arms in Naval vessels and aircraft? What would happen in an emergency?

GORDON: The question of what would happen in a future emergency is a live issue. The current U.S. position since 1991, 1992, and current U.S. policy has been that the ships are not carrying nuclear weapons into Japanese ports. As far as the present status quo, I think the Japanese government would basically say we adhere to these principles and so does the United States. But to come up with a statement of what would happen in an emergency I think is task that the two governments have to face going forward.

WERMAN: So we've got this revelation of news about a dismissal of these nuclear principles in Japan. Does it concern you today against the global backdrop with some national players eagerly pursuing nukes while the U.S. and others are urging for a world free of nuclear weapons? Is that a concern to you?

GORDON: Where I come from on this issue as a historian is that governments in democracies that have an obligation to be open with the population should be honest about what they've been doing. And this is a great thing that the Japanese government has come clear on what was going on in the 1960's and '70's and into the 1980's. I don't see it at all problematic that the Japanese government has done this. Actually the United States government still has classified some documents from the '60's that would shed a little further light on precisely how these agreements were made and sustained at that time and I'd like to see the U.S. government come clean on that as well.

WERMAN: And you say it's a good thing because it's a good model for transparency for countries like Iran and North Korea and it sounds like you're saying the United States too.

GORDON: Yes. And I don't have much hope for countries like North Korea and Iran opening their archives of the past or the present, but to the extent that we're taking a moral high ground in international relations, or to the extent that Japan is, I think this kind of openness is good.

WERMAN: Andrew Gordon, professor of History at Harvard and author of "The Modern History of Japan", very good to speak with you, thank you.

GORDON: Well it's a pleasure, thank you very much.