A former Japanese official admitted yesterday that Tokyo secretly paid the US to relocate bases in Okinawa when it was returned to Japan in 1972, reigniting debate over US troops in the country.
Okinawa was seized by the US in 1945 in one of World War II's bloodiest battles and still hosts more than half of the US troops stationed in Japan.
The US returned Okinawa to Japan in May 1972 under a deal negotiated between US president Richard Nixon and then Japanese prime minister Eisaku Sato, later a Nobel peace laureate.
Japan, which had soared from the ashes of war into a major economic power, agreed to pay Washington US$320 million to compensate for the loss of the subtropical island chain and fund its withdrawal.
But a Japanese official involved in the negotiations said yesterday that Sato secretly authorized US$4 million to help the US relocate military bases.
"A payment of US$4 million was included in the overall payment of US$320 million to the United States which was agreed to in 1971," Bunroku Yoshino, former director general of the American Affairs Bureau at the foreign ministry, said.
Half of the 87 US bases were shut down with the US withdrawal. The secret pact funded the relocation of some of the 45 closed military facilities to existing US camps in Okinawa, he said.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, the spokesman for the Japanese government, denied the 87-year-old Yoshino's remarks, which were made earlier to Japanese media.
"I have been told that no such secret pact existed," Abe said on Thursday.
The former negotiator's admission that Japan helped the US military stay in Okinawa comes amid renewed tension over the troops, who are based in Japan as the country was barred from keeping armed forces after the war.
Okinawan leaders are fighting a plan reached last year by Japan and the US that would pull out 7,000 of around 20,000 US troops from the province to Guam.
The activists, who accuse US troops of crime and noise and taking up top real estate, say the withdrawal does not go far enough. Some had hoped that the 1972 withdrawal would lead to a complete pullout of US forces.
The US says it is respectful of concerns in Japan, its closest Asian ally, and is willing to change the realignment plan in consultation with the Japanese government.
"The attitude of the government, which didn't even disclose the agreement with the United States, is making the current problem difficult to solve," said Kosuke Uehara, a former member of parliament from Okinawa.
"Incumbent lawmakers must demand from the government" a clear explanation, he said, as quoted by the Okinawa Times.
The secret pact had been reported in the 1970s by the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper. Both a reporter for the daily and a secretary who allegedly leaked documents to him received suspended prison terms for exposing state secrets.
The journalist, Takichi Nishiyama, who is now retired, last year filed a damages lawsuit seeking to clear his name after he said declassified US government documents supported his original report.
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