46. Telegram From the Embassy in Japan to the Department of State1

3802. For Bundy from Ambassador.

Not since the crisis over the U.S.-Japan security treaty in 1960 has any issue so seriously affected the climate of Japanese-American relations [Page 87] as the bombing of North Vietnam. The government has publicly expressed its understanding of U.S. policy and has given us “moral support,” but public opinion has been overwhelmingly critical. Even government leaders, realizing the political danger of getting too far out of line with public opinion, have tended to be somewhat equivocal in their statements of support, being careful to emphasize hopes that we will terminate or at least temporarily suspend bombing the North and sometimes implying personal doubts as to the wisdom of U.S. policy.

This adverse Japanese reaction appears to be fundamentally a result of fear that Japan might become involved in the war if it further escalates. So long as the fighting remained safely small-scale and remote in the paddy fields and forests of South Vietnam, Japanese interest in it was slight and almost academic, since there seemed little likelihood of Japan becoming involved, but the bombing of the North has put the war in an entirely new light. In a sense it is to them a new war, “started” by the American bombing of the North and made possible by the U.S. military presence in Southeast Asia. Viewing the problem in this light, the easy way to terminate the war seems to them to be to stop the bombing and eventually to terminate the U.S. military presence in the area.

Such simplistic attitudes are possible in Japan because of the ostrich-like pacifism of the Japanese during the past twenty years. Reacting in shock against the horrors of the war they lost and safe behind the U.S. defense screen, they have refused to look realistically at the security problems of the world and have built up the myth that peace in Japan has been the product of their “peace constitution,” not the U.S. defense posture in the Far East. Such attitudes make it possible for many of them to feel that in the present situation the presence of American military bases in Japan is a greater threat to Japan’s continued peace than are Communist expansionism and intransigence.

These attitudes have been strengthened by the reporting of the Vietnamese situation over the past several years. While the North can put on a unified appearance of sweetness and light, from the South there has come a steady stream of news reports (both Japanese and Eastern) of coups d’état, government corruption and misrule, dissatisfaction and unrest among the people, American ineptness in AID programs and in relations with the government, and a rising tempo of civil war. Since the fighting is seen largely from the SVN side, the reporting concentrates on government cruelty and disasters, while VIET Cong terrorism and reverses are hardly mentioned.

The GVN, and other Vietnamese who do not want a Viet Cong victory, have not made their voices heard in Japan, and the attitudes of the Thai and other SE Asians who support the GVN are virtually ignored.

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In addition there is a natural sympathy in Japan for the apparent “underdogs” in the bombings, since they are racially, culturally and geographically closer to the Japanese than are the caucasians who come from afar, armed with superior weapons.

A final factor in the Japanese emotional response to the Vietnamese situation is their ready identification of the American position with that of the Japanese armies in China before and during the Second World War. Almost to a man the Japanese think of the United States as having become bogged down in a hopeless war against the nationalistically aroused people of Vietnam.

Because of these basic emotional responses, spurred on by a lot of leftist progaganda and invective, which are inevitable in Japan given its present intellectual makeup, it is not surprising that a highly unfavorable view of the Vietnamese war has emerged. The bulk of the Japanese attribute the war basically to a dogmatic American anti-Communist crusade, which has forced us to embrace militarists and unsavory dictators as our allies and has driven the nationalistic masses into the arms of the Communists to defend their freedom. The Japanese feel that instead of stressing economic and social advances, the United States, increasingly under the influence of militarists, has decided on a solely military solution, thus forcing continued fighting on the war-weary people of Vietnam and leading ourselves down the road to inevitable defeat. In this unhappy situation, all they feel that they can do is to deplore American policy and see to it that Japan’s increasingly undesirable military association with the United States does not get it involved in this unnecessary and unjust war.

Not all Japanese, of course, have reacted in this way. A considerable number of conservatives strongly support our policies, and even more of them, while doubtful of the wisdom of the course we have taken, are ready to support us verbally as committed allies. (This is more or less the position of the government.) The bulk of articulate public opinion, however, is clearly against us. It is frenetically so on the far left but even in the middle of the political spectrum is quite clearly condemnatory, even if more sorrowfully and rationally so. The criticism is strongest among intellectual groups, which tend to be Marxist-oriented, and therefore is probably somewhat over-represented in the extremely adverse reactions of newspapers and magazines (radio and television are somewhat more moderate), but these attitudes are obviously shared to some extent by the man in the street. The only available public opinion poll has shown a drop since January of this year from 49 percent to 40 percent in those favoring alignment of Japan with the free world and a corresponding rise from 22 to 32 percent of those favoring neutralism. Similarly, the number of persons naming the United States as one of their three favorite countries has dropped from 52 percent to 38 percent since last December and those naming [Page 89] the United States as a country they dislike has risen from 4 percent to 8 percent.

The Embassy, USIS and the consulates have done their best, all up and down the line, to counter the adverse reaction in Japan and to gain better understanding of the real situation in Vietnam and U.S. policy there. We have received a great assist in this from Walt Rostow during his recent visit.2 Intellectually we have met with some success, and there is a growing awareness of the U.S. point of view, which has perhaps blunted the attack somewhat, but the basic emotional response remains unchanged and is probably unchangeable over the short run. Our policies in Vietnam are unpopular because they stir up fears, and the Japanese people are as yet emotionally unprepared to consider the alternatives realistically and honestly. It is our judgment that the reaction will remain basically adverse and we shall continue to lose ground in Japanese-American relations so long as the war continues in its present indecisive form. Only a rather clear-cut success for American policies is likely to reverse the trend.

One good thing could come out of the present situation. For the first time since the war the Japanese people have become thoroughly aroused over an international crisis not immediately affecting themselves. Their reactions are understandably naïve, but their concern may be a first step in an educational process which may lead in time to a more realistic attitude toward defense and international peace and to the assumption of greater responsibility in economic development in Asia.

Otherwise the results of the situation seem entirely adverse to American interests:

The central Japanese fear of involvement in an escalating war because of U.S. bases in Japan means that there will be dangerously volatile public opposition to the direct use of our bases in case the war does escalate to that stage.
The left has been given a popular cause which it is diligently exploiting to win new support and possibly repair some of its recent intellectual and political disarray. There is even danger (increased by the accession of the left-wingers to leadership in the JSP) that the Communists and Socialists might return to a program of common action.
Rising Japanese desires to play a more active and constructive role in Southeast Asia seem to have been temporarily dampened.
Slight indications on the part of political leaders of a readiness to face the defense problem more realistically may have been temporarily discouraged.
Growing demands for the return of Okinawa have been further fanned by the present excited mood of the public.
Embassy efforts to create more understanding and a better dialogue with the left and with the intellectual community have been set back.
All American-Japanese relations have probably suffered to some extent and bi-lateral frictions (fish, textiles, air routes, etc.) have been somewhat exacerbated by the public mood.

The Japanese reaction to the Vietnam situation is, of course, only a minor consideration compared to many others in reaching decisions on Vietnam policy. It should be remembered, however, that over the long run the attitude of Japan toward the U.S. and toward neighboring Asian areas is of the greatest importance to the U.S. Therefore we 1) must make every effort to achieve a more understanding and sympathetic response in Japan to our Vietnamese policy, 2) should bear Japanese reactions in mind in arriving at our decisions on Vietnam, and 3) should take into careful consideration the present adverse reaction to U.S. policies in handling our other contacts and negotiations with the Japanese so as not to further worsen an already dangerous situation by inept moves or overly rigid positions in other fields (such as fisheries, textiles, air routes, cultural exchanges, etc.).

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1964–66, POL 27 VIET S. Confidential. Repeated to Saigon, London, Seoul, Taipei, Hong Kong, Vientiane, Bangkok, Manila, Djakarta, New Delhi, Paris, Moscow, the High Commissioner of the Ryukyu Islands, and CINCPAC for POLAD.
  2. During a 10-day visit in April, Rostow met with Japanese officials and gave several public speeches to explain the situation in Vietnam. (Reischauer, My Life Between Japan and America, p. 286)