Building the Japan-US Alliance, 1951–72: A Diplomatic Reassessment
A narrow focus on the left-right divide that defined the “1955 setup” of postwar Japanese politics has created an oversimplified view of the Japan-US security relationship during the Cold War era, according to historian Takuma Nakashima. Drawing on recently declassified documents, the author reexamines three key episodes in the development of that relationship.
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The Japan-US security arrangements forged in the 1950s were the keystone of Japanese foreign policy during the Cold War era and the foundation on which the current Japan-US alliance was built. How did these arrangements take shape and evolve into their current form?
These days when people discuss the process by which the security arrangements evolved into the Japan-US alliance of today, they are apt to highlight post–Cold War developments—particularly the Gulf War of 1990–91, in which Japan came under sharp criticism from the international community, and the changing security situation in East Asia. Certainly these are important factors. But I believe we need to begin by taking a closer look at the flashpoints surrounding the relationship in the Cold War era, for, to a large degree, the issues our leaders grappled with in the 1950s are the same questions we are grappling with today: What form should Japan-US security cooperation take? How can Japan partner with the United States without sacrificing its autonomy?
Unfortunately, the upheavals of the post–Cold War era have had a tendency to overshadow the critical role of earlier developments. In the following, I trace key principles of the current bilateral alliance back to three chapters in postwar history that determined the shape of the Japan-US security arrangements: the initial talks that paved the way for the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty and security agreement; the diplomatic and political struggle over the revised Japan-US Security Treaty of 1960; and the negotiations for Okinawa’s reversion in 1972.
Beyond the 1955 Setup
If we are to gain a clear understanding of the processes driving the development of the Japan-US security arrangements during the Cold War, we need to stop looking at history solely through the polarizing lens of that era’s ideological battle lines.
What comes to most people’s minds when they think of Japanese politics in the Cold War era is the alignment of political forces into a conservative ( hoshu ) or rightwing bloc represented by the Liberal Democratic Party and a progressive ( kakushin ) or leftwing block represented by the Japan Socialist Party—a party system referred to as the “1955 setup.” The 1955 setup, with all its implications of right-left confrontation, figures prominently in accounts of contemporary Japanese history and appears as a major heading in Japanese high school textbooks. However, as I have argued elsewhere, there was no neat left-right dichotomy in Japanese politics. The habitual emphasis on the 1955 setup obscures the fact that both the ruling conservatives and the progressive opposition encompassed a wide range of policy views.
Young people born in the 1990s and later are particularly apt to oversimplify the postwar political scene, imagining a stark dichotomy between a conservative LDP that supported the Japan-US Security Treaty and a leftwing opposition—led by the JSP and the Japanese Communist Party—that rejected it. Unfortunately, the schools are providing fewer opportunities than ever for students to learn about the diversity and complexity of postwar Japanese politics.
This oversimplified picture of postwar politics has given rise to the mistaken impression that the conservative forces that controlled the Japanese government under the so-called 1955 setup were fully in accord with the US government on the subject of the security arrangements. Certainly it is true that the ruling LDP supported the Japan-US Security Treaty, but there were serious policy differences between the Japanese and US governments during that time. In accounts of Japanese postwar history, the domestic right-left dispute over the security arrangements tends to loom so large that it overshadows the intergovernmental issues and the way in which the two sides settled them. This is unfortunate, because these conflicts and their resolution have important implications for the Japan-US relationship going forward.
As we contemplate the choices that lie before us, it would behoove us to pay a little more attention to the choices that brought us to this point. This is my basic aim in revisiting the negotiations leading up to the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, the revised 1960 Japan-US Security Treaty, and the negotiations for Okinawa’s reversion in 1972.
The 1951 Peace Talks: Autonomy and Responsibility
The basic blueprint for the Japan-US security arrangements was drawn up in 1951 in conjunction with the negotiations for the Treaty of Peace with Japan, which ended the Allied Occupation and restored Japanese sovereignty. Against the backdrop of the Korean War, which broke out in June 1950, the security relationship between the United States and Japan inevitably emerged as a key issue as Japanese and American policy makers contemplated the future role of an independent Japan.
The thrust of Japanese scholarly accounts of these negotiations has changed with the times. In the 1960s, with the Japanese economy booming and rearmament a highly divisive political issue, there was a tendency to portray the negotiations as a battle of wills between Special Representative John Foster Dulles, who sought Japan’s wholesale rearmament, and Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, who wished to limit Japan’s defense capability and place priority on economic recovery. This view (represented by Masataka Kosaka) reframed Yoshida’s decision as an economic one, facilitating Japan’s recovery and subsequent rapid growth.
In the 1990s, following the end of the Cold War, a new orientation among Japanese scholars began to appear, with the focus broadening from the rearmament issue to American demands that the military be granted complete freedom in its use of Japanese bases. Accounts of the peace negotiations written during this period recount the peace process with an emphasis on Yoshida’s submission to those demands, including the 1951 security treaty’s controversial “Far East provision,” which allows the United States to utilize its forces in Japan “to contribute to the maintenance of international peace and security in the Far East.” In this way, scholars like Narahiko Toyoshita sought to trace lingering issues surrounding the US bases to the peace treaty negotiations of 1951. Both perspectives reflect the special concerns and issues of the time.
Today the dominant issues in the Japan-US alliance are those of Japanese autonomy and the allocation of responsibilities between Japan and the United States, and this emphasis naturally informs my own perspective. What I find particularly interesting from this standpoint is the fact that those two issues both emerged as early as the initial peace negotiations of 1951. Those talks are the first recorded instance in which Japanese demands for equality are met by US insistence that Japan assume greater responsibilities for protecting the free world.
Dulles and Yoshida met on January 29, 1951, to discuss the terms of a peace treaty that would restore Japan’s sovereignty. Following the conference, Kumao Nishimura, director of the Treaties Bureau in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, recorded the substance of the conversation as recounted by Yoshida. According to Nishimura’s notes, the two engaged in the following exchange (italics added):
Yoshida: I want you to draft a treaty that Japan can ratify without sacrificing its amour-propre [self- esteem]. I want the peace treaty to restore Japan’s independence. I want to securely establish Japanese democracy. . . . Japan wants to cooperate in strengthening the free world once it has become such a nation.
Dulles: You say you want to regain your independence and become a member of the free world, but how does Japan intend to contribute to strengthening the free world? America is fighting for the world’s freedom. How will Japan contribute to that fight as a member of the free world ?
Yoshida: When you ask what sort of contribution we’ll make, I gather you want to know whether Japan is willing to rearm. . . . Rearmament would debilitate Japan’s autonomous economy. . . . The resurgence of militarism is still a real danger.” 
This discussion can be cited as evidence of Yoshida’s refusal to yield to American pressure to rearm, or it can be cited in support of the idea that, in his haste to conclude a peace treaty, he failed to address issues of base operation. For my part, I find the passage interesting in that it illustrates a fundamental difference in the two men’s vision of independence. While they agreed on the goal of a sovereign Japan, Yoshida felt independence meant regaining self-esteem by achieving parity with the United States, while Dulles felt it meant rearming and helping to keep the world free.
Once the terms of the 1951 Japan- US Mutual Security Treaty became known, Yoshida’s judgment came under fire from conservatives and progressives alike. Both right- and left-leaning politicians criticized the blatantly unequal provisions of the treaty. Underlying their objections was a sense that the agreement would not enable Japan to achieve true political autonomy even after sovereignty was officially restored.
In the years that followed, Japanese politicians and policymakers would continue to wrestle with the very issue of amour-propre —a sense of national pride—that Yoshida raised at this early point in the peace negotiations. It was against this background that the administration of Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi launched a push for a substantially revised treaty, an effort that precipitated a domestic political crisis.
The 1960 Revision: A Bid for Equality
One of the most memorable junctures in Japan’s postwar history—particularly when viewed through the lens of the 1955 setup—was the domestic crisis surrounding the revision of the security treaty in 1960. Leftist forces, unhappy about the US military presence in Japan and the broader implications of a security partnership with the United States amid the tensions of the Cold War, sought to block renewal of the security treaty in any form. The movement climaxed in fierce clashes inside the Diet and massive demonstrations outside. In one of Japan’s most widely used high school history textbooks, Shosetsu Nihon shi (A Detailed Account of Japanese History; Yamakawa Shuppansha), the section on the 1960 revision of the security treaty features a prominent photo of demonstrations outside the Diet, conveying the ferocity of the ideological conflict that came to a head around that time.
But the diplomatic documents of the time present a different picture. These materials help one appreciate the depth of the policy divisions between Japanese and US officials at the time.
In 2010, the Japanese government launched a program to provide full public access to the official records pertaining to the 1960 security treaty revision and the 1972 reversion of Okinawa. These records clearly indicate that dissatisfaction with the Japan-US security arrangements under the 1951 treaty was not limited to the left. Throughout the 1950s, policymakers in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were exploring ways to rectify the inequality of the Japan-US relationship under the existing treaty.
In a MOFA communication dated July 21, 1955—barely three years after Japan regained its sovereignty—an official writes, “It must be recognized that Japan now has the right to participate in bilateral defense agreements on an equal footing.” That August, Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu traveled to the United States and submitted to US officials a now-famous proposal calling for a new treaty and the withdrawal of US forces from Japan. In an interview with the author, former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, then a rank-and-file LDP Diet member known for his rightwing nationalist ideas, claims to have personally lobbied Shigemitsu prior to his departure, and the thrust of the arguments Shigemitsu made while in Washington have much in common with the views Nakasone was airing at the time. In short, Shigemitsu’s famous proposal reflected not only MOFA’s thinking but also a viewpoint shared by many conservative politicians.
Prime Minister Kishi later recalled his own reasons for seeking a substantial revision of the treaty in an interview provided for an oral history project (italics added).
Under the old security treaty, America was the overwhelmingly dominant party. Since Japan did nothing for its own defense, the US military was essentially occupying the whole of Japan, even though the Allied occupation was officially over . As long as that situation persisted, Japan-US relations could not be said to rest on a rational foundation. That’s why a change was absolutely necessary.
That said, only 10 years had passed since the end of World War II. In reaction to the war, the Japanese people had enthusiastically embraced pacifist values. Although MOFA initially considered pursuing a mutual defense treaty modeled on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, it abandoned the idea for fear of triggering a major backlash from the opposition parties and the public. Instead, it set its sights on rectifying the inequalities of the existing agreement via a mutual security agreement applying only to territories under Japanese administration and thus compatible with the postwar Constitution. Incidentally, in discussing Japan-US security cooperation, MOFA documents from the period frequently rely on the term taisei —system or arrangement—a word choice that reflects the ministry’s desire for a framework built on a more equal relationship.
In 1960, after intensive negotiations, the two governments finally concluded the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between Japan and the United States of America. The new document eliminated the passage in the 1951 treaty (Introduction) that assigns the United States responsibility for Japan’s defense; omitted a provision permitting the US military to assist in putting down internal disturbances; and clarified the duration of the treaty. In so doing, it rectified the legal inequalities built into the 1951 arrangements.
Kishi did not achieve all he wished, however. He had also hoped to make progress on the reversion of Okinawa, which remained under US administration, but Washington was adamant about retaining control of this strategic base. Furthermore, in return for Washington’s acquiescence on the terms of the revised treaty, Kishi was obliged to conclude a secret agreement allowing the US military to launch overseas combat operations directly from Japanese bases in the event of a contingency on the Korean Peninsula. For these reasons, the revision of the security treaty left certain “self-esteem” issues unresolved—issues that surfaced afresh during negotiations for the reversion of Okinawa.
Reversion of Okinawa: Amour-Propre Revisited
In the “1955 setup” view of the postwar years, the key issue surrounding the reversion of Okinawa was whether to retain the US bases under the Japan-US Security Treaty. The LDP sought the reversion of Okinawa premised on continuation of the treaty and retention of US bases, while the JSP and other leftist forces called for abrogation of the treaty and withdrawal of all US forces upon reversion.
However, if we examine the record on the reversion negotiations between Tokyo and Washington, a different theme emerges. The Japanese government wanted the terms of the revised Japan-US Security Treaty to apply to Okinawa without modification. It also sought to scrap previous agreements concerning the use of Japanese bases as staging points for combat operations on the Korean Peninsula. But the US side was insisting on completely free access to and use of the bases in Okinawa, privileges no longer recognized under the revised 1960 security treaty.
Specifically, the US government wanted full discretion to use the bases as needed to stage combat operations in South Korea, Taiwan, or Vietnam. Since the Japan-US Security Treaty required advance consultation with the Japanese government prior to the use of Japanese bases for such operations, this meant assigning Okinawa special legal status exempting it from the treaty’s requirements. Washington also demanded the right to keep the nuclear weapons it had deployed in Okinawa, although this directly contravened the “three nonnuclear principles” that Prime Minister Eisaku Sato had outlined in a speech to the Diet in 1967. During the course of 1969, MOFA negotiated strenuously with the US government regarding these points.
We cannot fully perceive the importance of the bilateral differences if they are viewed with either a leftist or rightist slant. From the left end of the political spectrum, the differences appear to be of little significance, since the two governments were in agreement on the basic premise of maintaining the existing Japan-US security arrangements. From a strictly conservative viewpoint, meanwhile, it is difficult to understand why the Japanese government would so strenuously resist American demands for guarantees regarding free use of the bases in Okinawa or insist on the removal of nuclear weapons. In fact, the position adopted by the Japanese government and the conservative LDP took careful account of the strong pacifist, antinuclear sentiment that prevailed among the voters and the opposition parties—a testimony to the influence the leftist opposition wielded over the government during this time. This is a dynamic one can easily lose sight of if one dismisses the policies of the perennial opposition—that is, the call for abrogation of the Japan-US Security Treaty and withdrawal of US forces—as fanciful idealism.
How did all of this eventually play out? Regarding the US military’s use of Okinawa bases to stage combat operations in third countries, MOFA steadfastly refused to provide a carte blanche. The legal logic on which MOFA (more particularly, the Treaties Bureau) based its arguments was difficult for the Americans to counter, and they ultimately yielded to Japan’s insistence that the terms of the Japan-US Security Treaty should apply equally to Okinawa. Thus, it was agreed that the United States would consult the Japanese government prior to any such deployment. In return for this concession, however, the Japanese government agreed to share responsibility for the security situation in the region by permitting the use of the bases in Okinawa for combat operations in South Korea and Taiwan if necessary. In fact, the Japanese government publicly acknowledged this responsibility as a matter of policy in the joint communiqué issued by Prime Minister Sato and President Richard Nixon in November 1969.
With regard to the presence of nuclear weapons, both sides were obliged to compromise. In a May 1969 document titled Nation Security Decision Memorandum 13, National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger indicated that the administration was prepared to consider withdrawing the weapons. But as the Department of State and MOFA were hammering out an agreement concerning the staging of third-country operations, from September to November, US military officials dug in their heels on the deployment of nuclear weapons, and the negotiations were in danger of breaking down. To break the impasse, Washington finally agreed to remove its nuclear missiles from Okinawa. However, a secret “agreed minute” signed by Prime Minister Sato and President Nixon, stipulated that US military could deploy nuclear weapons in Okinawa in an emergency.
Once again, the significance of these negotiating positions is easily lost on those who view the process from the left-right dichotomy, since neither party to the reversion negotiations ever entertained the idea of removing the bases or abrogating the Japan-Security Treaty. To properly assess the outcome of the negotiations leading up to Okinawa’s reversion, we need to examine not only the political battle lines within Japan at the time but also the key points of contention between the Japanese and US governments.
The basic issue of self-esteem and national pride, first articulated by Yoshida during the negotiations for the San Francisco Peace Treaty, reemerged during the Okinawa reversion talks in the Japanese government’s resistance to US demands for free use of the bases in Okinawa. At issue specifically was the need to maintain the full legal parity achieved under the terms of the 1960 security treaty by applying the terms to Okinawa.
The Campaign for Consolidation
In the time leading up to Okinawa’s reversion, there was much talk in Japan of “ hondo nami reversion”—that is, reversion “at the same level” as the mainland, meaning the rest of Japan. This phrase encompassed two different ideas. One was the equal application of Japanese laws and treaties—most particularly the Japan-US Security Treaty—to Okinawa, a goal vigorously pursued by the government in the reversion negotiations, as we have seen. The other idea was reduction of the burden of the US bases to a level commensurate with that borne by the rest of Japan. This was a goal fervently sought by the people of Okinawa and by Japan’s opposition parties.
It was not until 1971 that a final reversion agreement was ratified by the Diet. In the meantime, the Japanese government came under pressure from the opposition and the public to scale back the US military presence in Okinawa. MOFA decided it would seek to open separate negotiations with Washington for partial withdrawal of US military forces from Okinawa, using the euphemism “consolidation of bases.” However, judging from the diplomatic record, Washington had absolutely no interest in such negotiations.
Among the Japanese diplomatic documents made public in January 2015 is a memo that recorded the talks between MOFA and the US Embassy in Tokyo in June 1970 in the midst of the reversion negotiations, in which MOFA explained the need to scale back (“consolidate”) the US military bases in Okinawa by about 30%. There was considerable press coverage of the document when it was made public, including a good deal of criticism regarding the numerical target MOFA had proposed. But given Washington’s hostile response to the whole idea of cutbacks, a 30% reduction in military installations can be seen as quite an ambitious target to propose at that time.
It was only after the Sato-Nixon summit in November 1969, in which the two leaders agreed to Okinawa’s reversion in 1972, that MOFA was able to get the consolidation issue on the table. The top priorities for the Japanese side were the return of Naha Air Base (now Naha Airport) and the Makiminato (Machinato) housing area (now the Naha Shintoshin commercial district)—major pockets of US control in the midst of the urban and civilian space of the capital city. Instead of arguing that these facilities were unnecessary, MOFA made its case from the standpoint of public welfare. It also called for withdrawal of units and facilities deemed extraneous to the mission of the US military in Japan under the security treaty, including a Voice of America broadcast facility, the US Army Intelligence School, and the Seventh Psychological Operations Group.
MOFA presented the United States with a compelling legal and political case, but progress was slow. In fact, Naha Air Base and Makiminato housing area were not transferred to Japanese control until the 1980s.
Refocusing on Diplomatic History
Our brief survey of the initial peace negotiations, the security treaty revision, and the reversion of Okinawa suggest that the Japanese government’s determination to be treated as an equal by the United States—while manifesting itself in different ways—was a common thread during this critical period in the history of the Japan-US security relationship. We may also infer that it was an important aspect of Japan’s broader diplomatic quest to regain full sovereign rights in the wake of World War II. Unlike the legal question of equality, however, the issues of autonomy and responsibility remained points of contention even after the reversion of Okinawa, and they have remained important themes of Japanese diplomacy.
Accounts of postwar Japan are typically organized around clear-cut phases in the nation's internal development: defeat, construction, and rapid economic growth. This historical framework has become firmly entrenched in the national consciousness. But there is another important trajectory that deserves recognition—namely, the diplomatic process by which Japan, following its defeat and occupation, recovered its national sovereignty, achieved closure, and assumed its position as a respected member of the international community.
My purpose in focusing on this narrative is not to burnish the reputation of the government and the LDP in the area of diplomacy and foreign policy. I have attempted to highlight both the achievements of various Japanese administrations during the Cold War and the business they left unfinished. The purpose is to provide a comparative context in which to understand and assess Japan’s foreign policy today. Young people today have all too little exposure to the political and diplomatic history of postwar Japan. Judging from my own observations, most Japanese high schools do not allocate sufficient time to this important period in our history. As a result, most of our young people complete their formal education with only a rough outline of the postwar period and an even sketchier picture of postwar diplomacy.
I worry that the lack of exposure to an accurate and balanced view of our past achievements could contribute to the rise of extreme and radical views concerning Japan’s relations with other countries. There has been a pronounced tendency in recent years to depict Japan as a lackey of the United States, and such a lopsided emphasis cannot produce an accurate and balanced view of history. At various times the United States, with its global power declining, has all but pleaded with Japan to assume greater responsibility for its own security. Moreover, if we shift our gaze from security to the realm of economics and trade, we get a very different picture of the bilateral relationship. An objective examination of key policy disputes and the way in which they were settled is fundamental to a sound understanding of the history of Japan-US relations.
I believe that postwar Japanese history is due for a new interpretation, one less conditioned by Cold War political ideology and more cognizant of the interplay between domestic politics and external dynamics. Such a reassessment will surely provide us with valuable historical context for understanding the foreign policy issues facing Japan today. With luck, it may even lead to a revival of interest in the field of diplomatic history.
1. See “Kowa mondai ni kansuru Yoshida shusho to Daresu Bei taishi kaidan, Nihongawa kiroku” (Conference between Prime Minister Yoshida and Ambassador Dulles concerning the Peace Treaty, Japanese Records), Institute for Advanced Studies, Sekai to Nihon Database, Sanfuranshisuko heiwa kaigi kanren shiryoshu (Historical Materials Relating to the San Francisco Peace Conference), http://www.ioc.u-tokyo.ac.jp/~worldjpn/documents/indices/JPUS/index-sf.html .
2. Yoshihisa Hara, ed., Kishi Nobusuke shogenroku (The Testimony of Nobusuke Kishi), (Tokyo: Chuo Bunko, 2014), p. 144.