Could Okinawa Derail U.S.-Japan Relations?

"Averting an alliance crisis over Okinawa was Reischauer and Kennedy’s challenge. Averting another one is ours."

No one shouted this time. A half century ago, the Okuma auditorium in Tokyo was the scene of a dramatic cry for a greater Japanese voice in its alliance with the United States—and a remarkable gesture, from a visiting Robert F. Kennedy, that it might be forthcoming.

This March, at a symposium at Okuma with a different Kennedy presiding, the theme of inclusion rang out again.

The symposium, which featured speakers Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and former President Bill Clinton, honored the legacy of John F. Kennedy in U.S.-Japan relations. The John F. Kennedy Library Foundation organized the event, as well as a joint exhibition co-sponsored by the National Archives of Japan.

Both the exhibition and symposium discussed the Kennedy administration and its legacies in the realms of science and space, civil rights, and counterproliferation.

As I chronicled in a previous article for The National Interest, the Kennedy years were pivotal in U.S.-Japan relations. When the president took office, relations were deeply troubled. In May 1960, the streets of Tokyo swarmed with protesters opposing the renewal of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty.

Many Japanese people feared that the alliance would draw Japan into war with the Soviet Union, and worried about the Americans’ embrace of Japan’s wartime leaders (now their anticommunist LDP allies). Many Japanese people also railed against U.S. control over Okinawa, which it had seized in the war. Locals resented the massive U.S. military footprint and the debauchery and violence committed by American servicemen.

The 1960 protests jolted Tokyo and Washington into realizing that they needed to do more to build support for the alliance among the Japanese people. Kennedy sent Japan scholar Edwin O. Reischauer to Tokyo as ambassador, who argued for an “equal partnership” between the two countries. Leaders on both sides also began planning a U.S. presidential visit to Japan, which would be the first in history.

This is not how it’s supposed to be

In 1962 President Kennedy sent his brother Robert, the U.S. attorney general, to advance the visit. During his week-long stay in Japan, RFK visited farms, factories, and schools, and attended many talks and debates. One afternoon he went to Tokyo’s Waseda University to participate in a debate in the Okuma auditorium.

Earlier that day, a Waseda student leader, Tachiya Yuzo, sat down with faculty planners and discussed the debate format. Tachiya, though deeply critical of U.S. policy, says he was impressed by the fact that the attorney general “was willingly walking into and having a open debate with students.”

The Americans entered the large hall filled with the cacophony of three thousand people. U.S. State Department official Brandon Grove recalled, “There was unrest, booing, stamping feet; rival groups on the floor.” Kennedy began to give a speech, using his interpreter from the U.S. embassy.

Tachiya, standing in a crowd in front of the stage, was shocked. He recalled, “I could see the confusion on Professor Nakajima’s face, who was assigned to host and be in charge of the event proceedings.” So Tachiya shouted, “This is not how it’s supposed to be!” and demanded a proper debate, with Waseda faculty chairing and translating as planned.

Kennedy aide John Seigenthaler described “a skinny little Japanese boy, tense, shouting, shouting, shouting, screaming at the top of his lungs, really red-faced – just completely wrought up emotionally.” Eventually a resigned Kennedy stopped talking and, gesturing to what Seigenthaler called the “little wraith of a kid,” extended his hand and pulled Tachiya onstage. To debate. While Kennedy held the microphone for him, the student hollered a lengthy criticism of U.S. policy, beginning with a demand for the United States to restore Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty.

After Tachiya, Kennedy resumed speaking of shared American and Japanese goals, and of the importance of the exchange of ideas and free debate, which was impossible in Communist societies. Grove recalled that Kennedy’s words and his gesture to Tachiya “really seized the imagination of the people there.” And beyond: the event was televised.

The Japanese people saw, as Seigenthaler put it, “Bob’s guts, and his obvious willingness to let the boy talk.” The event ended with students regaling the Americans with a thunderous singing of Waseda’s school song. The Americans, helped by their interpreter, chimed in gustily.

The drama at Okuma symbolized a broader effort during those years to transform the alliance. The Kennedy administration and their LDP partners created educational exchanges and forums for scientific, cultural, and political cooperation that would engage generations of people on both sides. Through such efforts American and Japanese leaders sought to change U.S.-Japan relations from a narrow military alliance imposed upon (and resented by) the Japanese people into an “equal partnership” embraced by both societies.

Finally onstage

The symposium last month, on that same Okuma stage, showed that indeed much has changed. Instead of showing an outsider shouting to be heard, the symposium on JFK’s legacy showcased partners who today seek each other’s talents and counsel to tackle shared issues of concern.