Okinawa-gate: The Unknown Scandal

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Yoshikazu Tsuno / AFP / Getty

U.S. military personnel walk by U.S. Air Force stealth fighters at the Kadena Air Base, in Kadena, Okinawa, Japan.

Freedom of the press is a constitutionally guaranteed right in Japan — as long as you stick to what the authorities want you to write. How does a developed democratic country manage to rank lower in last year's Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom index than Ghana or Bosnia? Just ask Takichi Nishiyama, whose promising career as a star political journalist at a national daily ended in 1971, when he came across what should have been a career-making scoop — official documents revealing that the Japanese government had gone around a deal approved by Japan's legislature and secretly paid the U.S. $4 million to ends its occupation of Okinawa in 1972.

Okinawa Prefecture, the subtropical island chain at the southern tip of Japan, was the site of one of the bloodiest battles between the Japanese Imperial Army and the U.S. Even after U.S. forces left mainland Japan in 1952, Okinawa remained in U.S. hands as an important Cold War military hub. Under President Richard Nixon and Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku Sato, Washington agreed to return Okinawa to its rightful owner, in a secret deal that required Tokyo to pay millions of dollars in compensation and costs involved in the handover. Even though there was suspicion that the lump sum of $320 million demanded by the U.S. was inflated, Japan accepted the deal to ensure Okinawa's speedy return.

Nishiyama's story initially instigated publicity, but only for a few weeks. Soon after the story came out, Nishiyama's source, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs clerk, claimed that she and Nishiyama had been conducting an extramarital affair, and that he had forced her to deliver the classified documents. (Nishiyama claims that she volunteered them.) Suddenly the story about the Japanese government's deception transformed into a national sex scandal. Nishiyama and his source were arrested and convicted for violating a civil servant law. The Japanese media unanimously sided with the courts, preferring to illustrate the sordid details of their love affair rather than dig deeper into the political scoop of the decade. The disgraced journalist put away his pen and went in a 30-year self-imposed exile helping his father run his fruit business.

In the quarter century since, declassified U.S. documents attest to the existence of hidden pacts in addition to Nishiyama's finding, and senior government officials and additional investigations by independent researchers have revealed that Nishiyama's finding had been just the tip of the iceberg. Yet, despite mounting evidence, the Japanese government continues to deny the existence of any secret pact. "In this time of change, when the Japan-U.S. military alliance is going through transformations and Japan is pushed to play a bigger role, the last thing the government wants to do is bring this sensitive issue to the forefront," says Masaaki Gabe, an international politics professor at Okinawa's Ryukyus University, who has been studying the case. Thirty-five years after the handover, Okinawa, which constitutes less than 1% of Japan's surface area, still hosts 75% of U.S. forces in Japan. Tokyo continues to shoulder the cost for maintaining the bases, in spite of its own gargantuan budget deficit — 170% of its GDP. Says Gabe: "Admitting to the secret pacts would be to admit that the U.S.-Japan alliance strategy was built on illegitimate grounds, and call for closer scrutiny of the current relationship."

Now, at age 75, Nishiyama, has come out of hiding to seek vindication. In 2005, he filed a damage suit against the government seeking compensation and an apology. The case was recently thrown out on the basis of a statute of limitations, but Nishiyama, who recently wrote a book about the Okinawa pact, has a few scores to settle. "The handover treaty is the prototype of the current alliance,” he told TIME. “The public need to have all the information they need to make sound judgments on where they want the alliance to head." Nishiyama takes issue not just with the government but with the Japanese media, which he says are responsible for creating a politically apathetic public. In a recent press conference, the veteran scribe rounded on his colleagues who "committed journalistic suicide" when they chose to do their muckraking in his bedroom rather than in the corridors of power. "The defenders of democracy continue to suck up to power instead of fighting it." Nishiyama would agree with Reporters Without Borders, which insists Japan still has a thing or two to learn from Panama and Montenegro about the free press.