TOKYO — To the government’s critics, it was a long and shocking act of official stonewalling: Agreements long hidden in Foreign Ministry files allowed nuclear-armed U.S. warships to enter Japanese ports, violating a hallowed principle of postwar Japan. Yet their very existence was officially denied.
Now, in a clear break from the past, a new prime minister has ordered a panel of ministry officials and academics to investigate the secret agreements.
The findings, due out this month, are part of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s wideranging campaign to wrest power from the bureaucracy and make government more open than under the conservatives, who ruled Japan for most of the past 50 years.
They also could intensify public debate about the future of Japan’s long-standing security alliance with the U.S., which has bases in the country. Hatoyama, a liberal who took office in September, has called for making the relationship more balanced, starting with efforts to evict an unpopular U.S. base from the island of Okinawa.
That Japan agreed to let nuclear-armed ships enter its ports and waters ceased to be a secret some years ago with the declassification of American documents. Such ships had routinely docked in various Japanese ports since the 1960s, sometimes setting off protests.
But in a nation where memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki drive a fierce aversion to nuclear weapons, a formal admission of the secretagreements would be a stunning reversal, and confirm that previous governments systematically lied to the public.
“The Foreign Ministry repeatedly denied their existence, even in statements before parliament,” lawmaker Muneo Suzuki said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Suzuki held top political posts at the Foreign Ministry, yet although he had heard about the secret documents, he said that even he could not pry them out of his officials.
“The Foreign Ministry should be held deeply accountable,” said Suzuki, who has switched sides and is now a member of Hatoyama’s coalition.
Historical accounts show that Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira, who died in office in 1980, considered going public on the secret pacts, but was advised against it by his aides as politically too dangerous.
Only a few Foreign Ministry bureaucrats have spoken out in recent years.
One, Kazuhiko Togo, said he and other high-ranking officials kept quiet for fear that disclosure of the agreements would trigger riots and perhaps topple the prime minister.
“The political costs were too great,” Togo told the AP.
Even after American officials acknowledged the pacts in the 1990s, leaders of the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party persistently denied them, right up to Taro Aso, the last LDP prime minister before Hatoyama’s Democrats took over.
“They did not exist,” Aso said in a nationally televised response to a reporter’s question last July.
“It all goes to show how far behind Japan is in administrative transparency,” said Koichi Nakano, professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo.
Japanese today are more shocked by the cover-up than by the deed itself, but they remain attached to the nonnuclear principle.
A survey by the Mainichi newspaper, which interviewed more than 4,500 people, found 72 percent of the 2,600 respondents want to stick with the principles, and the number rose to about 80 percent among Japanese in their 20s and 30s. No margin of error was given.
Shoji Niihara, a scholar of U.S.-Japan relations, said Japanese are hoping their new reformist prime minister will redefine Japan’s relationship with the U.S. and work with President Barack Obama in his call for a world free of nuclear weapons.
“There’s a strong feeling that Japan was never truly treated as an independent country,” he said.
Robert A. Wampler, a senior fellow at the National Security Archive, an American group that seeks to declassify historical documents, welcomed Hatoyama’s investigation.
“The longer they denied this, the harder it was for them to come forward and say they weren’t telling the truth. They backed themselves into a corner on this one,” Wampler said in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C.
Bunroku Yoshino, a former Foreign Ministry official who oversaw relations with the U.S., did his part on Dec. 1.
Testifying in a lawsuit brought by a former newspaper reporter, 91-year-old Yoshino reversed his earlier denials and acknowledged signing some of the Okinawa agreements.
“It is a major historical truth,” he said afterward.