120. Memorandum From the Department of State’s Country Director for Japan (Sneider) to the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs (Bundy)1


  • Japan: Partner in Possible Disarray

The Japanese may be brewing up one of their periodic domestic convulsions reminiscent of 1960, after the lengthiest post-war period of stability and quiescence. The three major ingredients of the Kishi riots are again surfacing—a wobbly and tarnished conservative government, an increasing public tolerance of extra-legal opposition activity, and a potential coalescing issue involving relations with the U.S.—the [Page 272] Okinawa problem. The trend is not yet decisive but the next few months will be crucial.

I. The Internal Problem

There is on the surface little reason for the current domestic stir-rings: the economy is booming, perhaps even excessively; the Sato Government policies have been sound and effective both domestically and abroad; and there are no dramatic and major fractious problems between the U.S. and Japan, since even on Okinawa there is so far broad common ground between the two governments on policies and actions.

But, the mood in Japan belies these hard facts, and there is disarray where there should be order. Politically, pressure for change is in the air. Sato is under attack from within and outside his party and increasingly incapable either of controlling his vying bureaucracy or exercising effective leadership in the country. After almost four years in power, Sato finds his party rivals trying to push him out by discrediting the very policies they essentially agree on. Sato’s hold over the Liberal Democratic Party may well depend upon the swing of a few seats in the June Upper House elections—a most precarious and ridiculously unfair political barometer.

The left has moved to the attack. Militant student groups, starting with the Enterprise visit, have pushed their extra-legal tactics on many fronts with little censure. A particularly disturbing new element is Komeito participation in the mass demonstrations—formerly the monopoly of the left. The opposition has patched together a newly-found unified front on some issues as Okinawa, where they can coalesce against the status quo but not on what should be done. But, even the opposition has its divisive forces with the Komeito moving leftward to seize upon declining left-Socialist support.

For the root causes of this growing disarray, one must look primarily, but not entirely, inside Japan. The margin of Japanese self-confidence has never been large and today seems shrinking. Sato has been unable to provide the firm, but gentle, guiding hand Japan seeks from its leaders. In pushing his electorate to face up to the defense issue and the responsibilities of Asian leadership, Sato has also disturbed the mystical consensus and stirred the public to face issues it would prefer to ignore. On the economic front, much headlined Japanese and U.S. balance of payments and trade problems have caused the Japanese to cast a worried eye at the state of their own economic health. And, the Japanese are aware that Japan’s posture in Asia has suffered from failures to deliver in timely fashion reasonable assistance to Indonesia and Burma and more generally from its awkward diplomacy in Southeast Asia. The consequence has been to introduce an element of uncertainty into the domestic scene, and for the Japanese, uncertainty is perhaps the most unpalatable of all conditions of life.

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II. U.S. Involvement

Contributing to the current discontent has been the assumption of many that Sato was acting not in Japan’s own interests but at U.S. behest. But, more important, a good number of Japanese are having second thoughts about American staying power in Asia. U.S. balance of payments difficulties, the Tet offensive, the Pueblo incident, domestic disorders and the President’s March 31 speech are all cited as evidences of American weakness. In separate private conversations, the Governor of the Bank of Japan Usami, Foreign Minister Miki and a leading conservative friend of the U.S. each revealed doubts about the constancy and successful prospects of our Vietnam and Asian policies. As one Tokyo paper put it: “Some say U.S. foreign policy can hardly be trusted because of its fickleness … Her foreign policy is constantly swinging with the whims of public opinion.” Uncertainties in our economic policies—particularly on the trade side—are another bone of contention. Unexpected changes in U.S. policy without advance consultation have also become a club in the hands of the opposition who deride Sato’s ability to influence his major ally.

These frustrations with the U.S. have inevitably turned more and more Japanese to brooding about the need for an “independent” Japanese foreign policy—e.g. escaping from what Miki has called “excessive dependence” on the U.S. This is not new. It is a theme which has reoccurred periodically throughout the post-occupation era, particularly at times of internal stress or when the turns in U.S. policy catch the Japanese Government by surprise.

“Independence” when it comes down to hard cases, however, is usually exercised in only very limited terms. The Japanese have so far fallen back on such secondary measures as overreacting and magnifying minor U.S.-Japanese differences, showing uncooperativeness on petty matters when the stake seems very small, and on resurrecting the old warhorse—China policy, despite the fact that its China policy reflects Japan’s own national concerns and not American dictation. The hard fact is that Japan cannot escape from its economic and military dependence on the U.S. without a fundamental and costly policy change. This change, the Government and the vast majority of Japanese are unprepared to undertake. When the Japanese take a second hard look, they find that no amount of optics or whistling in the dark can override this dependence or the inherent inequality in the U.S. and Japanese position. This circumstance, however, only deepens the Japanese frustration.

III. Prospects

The key to the present malaise in Japan lies principally in the political fortunes of Sato. It is too early to count him out and he proved in the January 1967 Diet elections that his survival factor is greater than [Page 274] his foes reckon. He is still aided by the absence of a logical successor although Miki may be gaining strength. But, he may be on the skids this time and then the very absence of a logical successor could prolong and deepen the political and psychological crisis in Japan. The July Upper House election could well be the moment of decision, but the political crisis could be prolonged until the Liberal Democratic Party presidential elections scheduled for December.

Until the political succession is settled, we should expect little respite from either the indecisiveness of present Japanese policy or the nitpicking querulousness cropping up on more and more issues involving us. For the most part, these actions are likely to be more annoying to us than harmful. Sato and the Foreign Ministry bureaucrats can be depended upon to hold the line against irresponsible behavior on Vietnam, Korea and other key issues, although positive cooperative steps will be harder to come by. Even on Communist China, the Japanese are locked into present policies and may well even agree to a carefully screened China differential in COCOM.

The one potential exception is Okinawa. So far, the GOJ has behaved most responsibly in this area. But, the Japanese could quickly get off the reservation were there a conjunction of major difficulties in Okinawa, resulting, for example, from agitation against the B–52s or an election defeat for the conservatives,2 with a failure of Sato’s opponents in his party, particularly Miki, to resist the political temptation to make common political cause with the left on Okinawa.

IV. U.S. Policy

Based on past experience, the safest bet for the U.S. at present is to pull back a safe distance until the Japanese conservatives unscramble their political problems. Even if we wanted to influence the course of intra-factional maneuvering within the LDP, we could not and would only buy ourselves much more trouble. Furthermore, whether or not Sato wins out, the main currents of Japanese policy are likely to emerge unscathed and, we will again be in a position to deal with a stable, more secure Japanese Government.3 Our planning for major new initiatives should thus be directed toward the winter of 1968–69.

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At the same time, our relations with Japan are so broad that inevitably we will continue to be drawn into at least the periphery of Japan’s domestic problems. Under the best of circumstances, dealing with Japan in its present mood will be no picnic. Among other problems, personal political ambitions will tend to impinge too often on policy decisions—as is presently the case with Miki.

In dealing with the day-to-day problems, I would prescribe the following mix:

Being prepared to press the GOJ and to go to Sato directly, if necessary, when the stakes are sufficiently high on such issues as Vietnam and Korea.
Forbearance and patience, but not supineness, on minor issues particularly some of the recently over-magnified trade problems.
Avoiding, whenever possible, actions likely further to unhinge Sato’s position and lead to a successor campaigning deliberately on an “independence” ticket. (A case in point is the proposed import surcharge.)
Expecting and asking little in terms of Japanese positive actions at least in the next few months, particularly if the proposed action is likely to be difficult domestically. (More specifically, this means little immediate progress in convincing Japan to extend its Asian responsibilities or to face up to key security issues. This also has bearing on the NPT issue, where the Japanese are now wandering all over the place but will undoubtedly end up supporting and signing the treaty.)

In dealing with the broader Japanese problem of frustration with their dependence on the U.S., there is essentially very little we can and should do, except to soften—as we have—its impact and public image. Two specific steps are proposed:

Consultation whenever possible, particularly to minimize the risks of catching the Japanese by surprise.
Making clear that on China policy the Japanese are their own masters, while reaffirming our commitment to consult the Japanese well in advance on any change in U.S. China policy.

The trickiest issue by far in the next months to handle will be the Okinawa problem. Neither we, but more particularly the GOJ, are now in a position to come to grips with reversion. But Miki hopes to use our commitment to “joint and continuous review” to push this issue along. The best we can hope for in these discussions is some sort of optics covering up the lack of real progress. Much more important will be U.S. policy actions to dampen down current agitation in the Ryukyus and strengthen the election prospects of the Okinawan conservatives. All of this adds only another dimension to the current cause celebre in the Ryukyus—the B–52 operations and the labor problem.

  1. Source: Washington National Records Center, OSD/OASD/ISA Files: FRC 330 73 A 1250, Okinawa 452. Secret.
  2. According to a Department of State intelligence assessment, the prospects for the conservative OLDP to retain control of the executive and legislative branches of the Ryukyus government were already questionable. The party was hurt by U.S. deployment of the B–52s on Okinawa and by the growth of the opposition coalescing around the reversion issue. (Intelligence Note No. 266, April 12; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 19 RYU IS)
  3. At this point there is a handwritten question mark in the margin probably made by Bundy.