The Best Course Available: Book Review

After returning from Okinawa, I wanted to do as much reading as possible on Okinawa to learn more and try to solve some of the questions that arose during my trip, as well as before and after. My school is quite small, and Okinawa-related books in our library are limited. I requested some books through inter-library loan, and in the meantime checked out one of the books I could find–The Best Course Available, a detailed account by Kei Wakaizumi, a secret negotiator on behalf of Prime Minister Sato Eisaku regarding the 1972 reversion of Okinawa to Japanese control.

The original Japanese version of this book was published in 1994, with the English published in 2002. The English version is not a translation per se, but rather an English version written by the bilingual author. The English version is 359 pages (including notes) and quite detailed, but apparently the Japanese version is even longer and more detailed.

In 1969, academic expert on international relations Kei Wakaizumi offered his services to Prime Minister Sato to conduct secret negotiations with the US in order to achieve a “nuclear-free, mainland-level reversion” of Okinawa by 1972. On the surface, he was successful, but the reversion included a secret promise to allow the introduction of nuclear weapons into Okinawa “in time of great emergency”(pg 236), and anyone who has been to Okinawa knows that in terms of base presence, it is nowhere near “mainland-level”. I feel that the struggle for many Okinawan people remains the attempt to achieve parity with mainland Japan, and a great deal of resentment arises from the fact that the Japanese government seems determined to ensure that conditions in Okinawa remain eternally inferior.

In 1969, Nixon had just been elected President of the United States, and Henry Kissinger was appointed head of the National Security Council. Wakaizumi conducted extensive, secret negotiations with Kissinger over several months leading up to the November 1969 summit between Prime Minister Sato and President Nixon, even going so far as to write a script for the two heads of state to act out during the first day of the summit, during which they were to discuss the reversion of Okinawa.

While the official communique released after the summit declared that Okinawa would be returned “in a manner consistent with the policy of the Japanese government”(pg 198), presumably including the application of the “three non-nuclear principles” (defined by Prime Minster Sato in his 1974 Nobel Peace Prize Lecture as the policy “that we shall not manufacture nuclear weapons, that we shall not possess them and that we shall not bring them into our country”). However, immediately after finishing their discussion, President Nixon, following the script written by Wakaizumi and Kissinger, invited Sato to a small room adjacent to the meeting room on the pretext of wanting to show him some pieces of art. (The reason for using this “small room” was to hide the secret nuclear deal from the interpreters, which as an interpreter I find quite amusing.) They then closed the door and signed a top-secret document declaring that “in time of great emergency the United States Government will require the re-entry of nuclear weapons and transit rights in Okinawa with prior consultation with the government of Japan”(pg 236). The US originally intended the wording to be “prior notification,” but Wakaizumi worked hard to get it changed to “prior consultation.” Of course, the document also states that “The government of Japan…will meet these requiremets without delay when prior consultation takes place,” making the use of “consultation” rather than “notification” a matter of form and not substance.

The reason for this secrecy was to avoid a public uprising from a Japanese population vehemently opposed to nuclear weapons at a time when universities were already in a state of disfunction due to massive student protests (Sato apparently considered these student protests “the hardest or most trying event of his seven years and eight months in office.” They recalled the protests of ten years earlier, also against the US-Japan security treaty, which forced the cancellation of President Eisenhower’s planned visit to Japan and ended up leading to the fall of the Kishi Nobusuke administration.) The Japanese government (that is to say, the LDP) has consistently followed a policy of accomodating US demands while frequently feigning ignorance or lying outright to the Japanese people. A recent example is the 2012 deployment of MV-22 Osprey on Okinawa, which people suspected long in advance, but which the Japanese government denied until immediately prior to the actual deployment. Another example is the fiction that Futenma Air Station will close “within five years” if base construction at Henoko proceeds smoothly–something the US has denied outright, but which the Japanese government keeps dangling in front of Okinawa in an attempt to obtain approval of the Henoko base construction.

Since I already knew about the secret nuclear agreement, the most surprising thing about this book was the textile issue, which kept popping up with surprising tenacity. It seemed that just when talks about the nuclear issue were getting tense, someone would always say, “but the really important issue is textiles!” During his election campain, Nixon captured the southern vote by promising to force Japan to voluntarily restrict exports of textiles to the US in order to protect the US textile industry. This was clearly the primary issue from the US perspective, far more important than the reversion of Okinawa or the issue of nuclear weapons there. Not so much for the sake of the US textile industry, but rather to protect Nixon’s image and prestige. A section heading in Chapter 10 emphasizes “textiles were indeed the stumbling block,” and Chapter 12, “The Textiles Question,” is entirely dedicated to the issue. Apparently President Nixon “warned (irrationally) that unless an agreement on textiles were reached between the two countries by October 15, 1971, he would invoke the ‘Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917,'” and Japan just barely made the deadline, “formally plac[ing] restrictions on Japan’s trade” “despite fierce opposition from the entire [Japanese] business community”(pg 328).

I was a bit perplexed by what a large portion of the book was taken up by the textile issue. However, readers such as myself, likely much more interested in Okinawa and nuclear weapons than in textiles, will be consoled by the fact that Wakaizumi himself was just as perplexed and frustrated by the persistence of the textile issue, which he describes as causing both sides to pay a price “seemingly out of all proportion with the actual economic significance of the textiles problem [itself]”(pg 329).

Riveting as it may be to read a thrilling account of political intrigue after the fact, we must wonder what kind of secret agreements are being carried out between the US and Japanese governments right now. Or maybe there isn’t really all that much to wonder about. Despite all the efforts to maintain secrecy about the nuclear deal in 1969, the truth of the reversion was suspected by many. Yara Chobyo, Okinawa’s first elected postwar leader, observed accurately, “The absence of any clear indication that reversion will be completely nonnuclear is undoubtedly a ruse allowing for the introduction of nuclear weapons during an emergency”(pg 306). If people realized the truth, what was the point of the secrecy and lies? I still struggle to understand the answer to this question.

Wakaizumi, Kei. The Best Course Available. University of Hawai’i Press, 2002.


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