The Japanese prime minister awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974 for his opposition to atomic weapons secretly pleaded with Washington to use nuclear missiles against China in the event of a conflict breaking out in the region, it has emerged.
Documents declassified by the government in Japan have disclosed that Prime Minister Eisaku Sato asked the US to retaliate immediately with nuclear weapons in the event of war. Mr Sato made the plea during talks with then US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara in Washington in January 1965.
China had conducted a successful atomic weapons test three months previously and there was concern in Tokyo that a relatively minor incident in the region might lead to a full-scale military exchange between two nations that still harboured hostility dating back to World War II.
Mr Sato was prime minister from 1964 to 1972, making him Japan’s longest-serving leader, and is best remembered for his opposition to nuclear weapons in a country that still bore the scars of the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In December 1967, he introduced the “Three Non-Nuclear Principles,” which forbade the production, possession or introduction of nuclear weapons onto Japanese territory. During his administration, Japan also joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and his opposition to nuclear weapons was recognised by the Nobel committee in 1974, one year before he died.
Mr Sato’s domestic legacy is unlikely to be tainted, however, by the release of the documents showing that while Japan would not develop its own nuclear weapons, it was happy to ask Washington to use them on its behalf.
“The Japanese government superficially stated that it would not allow nuclear weapons on Japanese territory, but it was tacitly accepted that they were sited aboard US warships stationed in Okinawa,” said Takao Matsumura, a professor of social history at Keio University.
Many Japanese assumed the government’s denials were false and some spoke out when it was announced that Mr Sato was going to receive the Nobel Prize, but the government got around the issue by stating that it did not have the power to search US vessels and that it took Washington’s word that it would not breech Japan’s non-nuclear principles at face value.
“The release of these documents is very important for putting the history of Japan’s approach to nuclear weapons into context, but I don’t think it will change most people’s image of Mr Sato,” he added.
By Julian Ryall in Tokyo
Last Updated: 4:17PM GMT 22 Dec 2008
Source: The Telegraph