When Japan’s Prime Minister Eisaku Satō met President Richard Nixon in 1969, he was already enjoying something of a charmed political career marked by the success of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, steady economic growth, political stability, and increasing international respect. Satō wanted to top it off with another huge win: the reversion of Okinawa to Japan.
Satō calculated—correctly—that the reversion of Okinawa would be a huge political victory. And he knew that Nixon wanted to reduce US military obligations around the world. So, at least on that narrow issue, it seems like everything should have gone smoothly when Satō and Nixon met in November 1969. But things did not go smoothly. Why?
First, the reversion raised real problems because it demanded an answer to some serious questions. How much of Okinawa would remain under US control as military bases? And what exactly was going on at those bases? And, how much control would Japan really have over Okinawa if huge parts were still controlled by the US?
In particular, how would US bases be reconciled with Satō’s non-nuclear policies—specifically the principle that Japan would not allow the introduction of nuclear weapons onto its territory?
Different Policies of the Two Sides
Satō wanted a non-nuclear Okinawa after reversion, but US foreign policy demanded something different. First, the United States had hundreds—maybe thousands—of nuclear weapons on Okinawa, and its policy of deterrence involved hiding its nuclear arsenal so that the Soviet Union would think twice about attempting a first strike.
A key aspect of deterrence was confusing the Soviets with many targets, especially hard-to-find targets. The strategy was to give the impression that US nukes could be anywhere—in missile silos, in bombers in the air, and on submarines—anywhere.
So, the US nuclear policy did not gibe with Satō’s nuclear policy. If the US strictly followed Satō’s policy, then the Russians would know that anything on Okinawa, or in Japanese territorial waters, was free of nuclear weapons. That would make all those assets useless for deterrence.
At one level, Satō’s non-nuclear policy was somewhat contradictory. In order to allow Japan to remain lightly armed and non-nuclear, he wanted a firm commitment from the United States to defend Japan. That included the threat of nuclear retaliation, should an attack on Japan occur.
But remaining under the US security umbrella also meant turning a blind eye to US ships and aircraft with nuclear-strike capabilities in Japanese territory. And the reversion of Okinawa brought those contradictory issues to the fore because the question wasn’t just about bending Japanese policy for a single US base but soon for an entire archipelago, an entire prefecture.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Rise of Modern Japan. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Conditions for Reversion of Okinawa
The problem was so intractable that it was resolved only in a secret protocol, which both governments denied even after it was leaked some 30 years later. The US agreed that it would not store nuclear weapons on Okinawa, but it might reintroduce them in an emergency.
In such circumstances Japan would be consulted, but the US ‘would appreciate a favorable response’. And Japan would ‘meet these requirements without delay when such prior consultation takes place’. In essence, the US will ask permission, while fully knowing that Japan will say ‘yes’.
To make the negotiations even more complicated, Nixon brought up the question of Japanese exports. This smelled a little bit like blackmail—at least to Satō. You want your islands back? Well, how about some ‘voluntary’ restraints on textile exports? The textile question also seems to have caught Satō off guard. He had not laid the groundwork with economic advisers or business interests back in Japan for any concessions on trade.
When You Misunderstand the Euphemism
But Satō wanted the talks about Okinawa to be successful, and so he gave Nixon a standard Japanese response: ‘zensho shimasu’, or ‘I’ll do my best’—which in Japanese means ‘no’, but Nixon took it as ‘yes’. So, Nixon was convinced that he had settled the textile issue, using Okinawa for leverage. And as you can imagine, that misunderstanding did not bode well for the Nixon-Satō relationship.
Now, misunderstanding euphemisms is a problem in US-Japan relations but it’s not exclusive to them. The Economist magazine once published a translation guide, explaining that when an Englishman says, ‘What a bold idea’, what he really means is ‘you are insane’. And, ‘I will consider it’ actually means ‘I have already forgotten what you said’.
In the Nixon-Satō case, some officials on the US side knew that Satō was just offering up a euphemism to close the deal. But that didn’t get through to Nixon, who was convinced the textile issue was settled.
In late 1969, Satō announced an agreement on the return of Okinawa. To capitalize on his success, he called snap elections, and his ruling Liberal Democratic Party won big, capturing an almost 60% majority in the lower house of parliament.
But what about Nixon? Where’s his textile agreement to shore up the South Carolina vote? At this point, things began to unravel quickly. Nixon was convinced Satō had agreed to voluntary export restrictions. And when those restrictions didn’t materialize, Nixon threatened retaliation.
His tone became rather hostile. At one point, he insisted that he could restrict textile imports under the 1917 Trading with the Enemy Act. That interpretation of the law meant that Japan was an enemy power, but simultaneously an ally: one with US military bases, and possibly even US nuclear weapons.
Common Questions about the Reversion of Okinawa to Japan and Its Consequences
The most important problem regarding the reversion of Okinawa was Satō’s non-nuclear policies, which contradicted US policies. In other words, if Okinawa became part of Japanese territory, it would be problematic for the United States to keep its nuclear weapons in this region.
Satō and Nixon had two different views and policies about Okinawa. Satō wanted it non-nuclear, while US policies demanded otherwise. The United States could not fully follow Satō’s policies, as those would not help prevent the Soviet Union from attempting a first strike.
The issues about the reversion of Okinawa were solved in a top-secret protocol. The United States agreed not to stockpile nuclear weapons there, provided Japan would allow the US to reintroduce to them in case of emergency. Furthermore, in return for accepting the request for the reversion of Okinawa, the United States demanded that Japan apply voluntary restraints on textile exports.