Information on US bioweapons tests in Japan met with ambivalent reaction

February 19, 2014 6:33 pm

Information about the US conducting field experiments of biological weapons in the Japanese island of Okinawa in early 1960s has once again attracted the attention of international politicians and experts to the problem of bioterrorism, and provoked mixed reactions across the world.

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According to Japan’s leading news network Kyodo News, who obtained US documents, the American army conducted at least a dozen experiments with biological weapons. These included the release of rice blast fungus over paddies in the Japanese island of Okinawa, which was occupied by US troops in 1945 and administered by Washington until 1972. According to one of the documents, the field tests were carried out “with partial success in the accumulation of useful data.” However, the news agency did not say whether the experiments were conducted on US bases only or outside them as well.

To date, international experts positively characterize bilateral relations of Tokyo and Washington, noting however, that in retrospect, the relationship was actually very contradictory and ambiguous.

For example, the world still has no consensus on the decision of US President Harry S. Truman to use atomic bombs against Japan. Despite the fact that the bilateral alliance in the field of defence, (which was based on the San Francisco Peace Treaty, Security Treaty and the administrative agreement signed in 1950-s), marked the beginning of the new stage in US-Japanese relations, it was dictated by Washington’s desire to gain support in East Asia and was not meant to be equal.

In particular, the military and political sovereignty of Japan has been significantly limited, as the country had no right to provide any bases or permit the transit through its own territory to the armed forces of third powers without prior US agreement. In addition, according to the agreement, Washington had the opportunity, if necessary, to expand the territory of its military bases in Japan with no limits.

According to some historians, Japan was heavily dependent on the US after signing these treaties, but Washington’s desire to further develop relations with Tokyo gradually led to mitigation policies. This, in particular, was reflected in the adoption of amendments to the Administrative Agreement and reduction of the US military presence in the country.

Japan's Okinawa Island

Japan’s Okinawa Island

Meanwhile, the alliance between the two states had a positive impact on Japan’s image in the international arena through the concept of complete demilitarization of the country, and brought economic benefits due to there being no need to maintain their own armed forces. Moreover, Tokyo received a substantial profit from the presence of US military bases and weapons production for the Korean War.

According to observers, in the 21st century Japan took a position of priority within the geopolitical strategy of the United States – co-operation between the two countries has become equal and mutually beneficial. However, some difficulties in relations still remain. The presence of 14 US military bases on the territory of Okinawa with the total area of about 18% of the island is of particular concern of Japanese citizens.

Commenting on the information of the biological weapons tests in Okinawa in 1961–1962, Valery Kistanov, head of the Center for Japanese Research at Institute for Far Eastern Studies, suggested that the publication was triggered by difficulties in relations between Tokyo and Washington, in particular, the negative reaction of the West to the visit of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Yasukuni memorial in December 2013.

“This is how the Japanese are showing their discontent with US behavior. After Abe’s visit to Yasukuni, Washington issued a statement that made clear they were disappointed with this step,” he said.

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In the meantime, Bonnie Glaser, Senior Advisor for Asia, Freeman Chair in China Studies at Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), holds a different view and does not believe that the release of this information was a way Japan showed its discontent for US policy.

“Despite US disappointment with PM Abe’s shrine visit, the US–Japan alliance remains strong. The US is very supportive of Abe’s economic, diplomatic, and defense agenda,” the expert said in an interview with news agency PenzaNews, adding that President Obama will visit Japan in April 2014.

Masashi Nishihara, President of Research Institute for Peace and Security in Tokyo, also believes that the news article has not become a political issue at all.

“It is what happened in 1960s. There are convincing indications that the US Army tested rice blast fungus, but there has been no report on the effect of the fungus upon human beings in Okinawa,” the analyst stressed.

He noted that the Japanese government had not released the news.

“It was reported by Kyodo News, a private news agency. The news did not come because of Japan’s discontent with the US. Also, it has nothing to do with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine,” the expert added.

According to him, Japanese–US relations are – on the whole – going well.

“The alliance has been in good shape. The alliance is well posed to hedge against China’s expansionist naval and air activities. Like any other alliances, our alliance has occasionally tensions, but within control,” he said.

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However, Masashi Nishihara noted that many of the people in Okinawa would like to see the US bases go.

In turn, William Grimes, Professor of International Relations and Political Science at Boston University, suggested that this very desire of Japanese people provoked the publication.

“I am afraid that I do not know very much about the experiments or how the information came out. I doubt that the release of this information has anything to do with Washington’s displeasure with the Yasukuni visit, though. It is more likely that anti-base activists in Okinawa got access to the information and forced the issue,” the expert suggested.

In his opinion, US–Japan relations are excellent at the moment, “possibly the best they have ever been.”

“There is no serious economic friction and the two militaries are working ever more closely. I expect this condition to persist,” William Grimes added.

Wendell Minnick, Asia Bureau Chief at Defense News, does not consider information on testing of biological weapons by the United States as ‘sensational’ either.

“I am not familiar with Cold War bio-weapons testing. There are literally millions of Cold War documents at the National Archives in Washington. Finding the right one can be daunting,” he explained.

Meanwhile, Glenn D. Hook, Professor of Japanese Studies in the School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield, stressed that the US was the administrative authority in Okinawa at the time; the formula use was that Japan maintained residual authority over Okinawa.

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“According to Kyodo, the same tests were also held in the US,” he noted.

Commenting on the relationship of Japan and the United States today, the expert also pointed out the existence of unresolved issue connected with the US military presence in Japan.

“One of the key issues is the proposed closing of the Futenma base in Okinawa, and the construction of a new base in the Henoko district of Nago city. The governor of Okinawa has approved the preparations for constructing the base in Henoko, but in January the result of the mayoral election was the victory of the incumbent, who is opposed to the construction of a new US base. This will continue to be a major issue in Japan–US relations,” Glenn D. Hook said.

Tetsuya Toyoda, Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Associate professor at Akita International University in Japan, Visiting professor at the Far Eastern Federal University of Russia, also believes that the published data cannot seriously affect the interaction between the two states.

“This is just one of many embarrassing stories related to the US military occupation of Okinawa,” the expert said.

According to him, at the moment both countries need a stable economic and political cooperation.

“They share the common concerns about Beijing’s aggressiveness and share the common interests to take a firm posture against Beijing, but do not share the long term view. In the near future, Tokyo might be disappointed by a rapprochement between Washington and Beijing. Tokyo was surprised by President Nixon’s surprise visit to Beijing in 1972. Something of the same pattern would happen in the course of year 2014,” Tetsuya Toyoda concluded.

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