Members of Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Forces' infantry unit stand to attention. Photo: Reuters/Kim Kyung-hoon
Members of Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Forces' infantry unit stand to attention. Photo: Reuters/Kim Kyung-hoon

UNITED NATIONS—Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will soon visit Pearl Harbor in a gesture of remorse and respect commemorating the 75th anniversary of Imperial Japan’s attack on Hawaii. Recently Abe met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in yet another bid to resolve the long standing territorial dispute concerning the Kuril islands. But the flurry of current diplomacy has largely overlooked a quiet if poignant recollection of the 60th anniversary of Japan’s membership in the United Nations.

In what can be described as nothing less than an extraordinary diplomatic transformation, Japan was invited to join the United Nations just a decade after militarist Japan had been soundly defeated in August 1945 by the Allied powers.

Some of those same Allied states, Britain, China, France and the United States, who had founded the United Nations against Nazi Germany and militarist Japan, now viewed the Tokyo government’s membership in the UN as a political plus in the emerging multilateral arena.

Indeed the political landscape had changed; the winds of the cold war blew from Mao’s China across a bitterly divided and war-torn Korean peninsula. Central Europe saw a military/ideological standoff with the Soviets. Thus a democratizing and pro-West Japan was viewed by the United States as a key piece in the post-war multilateral diplomatic chessboard at the UN.

The year 1956 witnessed a series of momentous geopolitical events which shaped and jolted our world.

In October, the Hungarians rose up in revolt to the Soviets in a heroic and bold revolution. The same period saw the Suez Crisis, with British, French and Israeli forces trying to take back the Suez Canal from Egypt’s nationalistic ruler Gamal Abdel Nasser.

And on 6 November, Dwight D. Eisenhower was overwhelmingly reelected to a second term as President of the United States.

The stage was set when a Peace Treaty with Japan was signed in San Francisco in September 1951. Delegates from forty-eight Allied nations, not including China nor the Soviet Union, signed the document formally ending the war the U.S. occupation and restoring Japanese sovereignty.

Significantly, the Preamble to the Treaty declares, “Whereas Japan for its part declares its intention to apply for membership in the United Nations.”

For a state to gain UN membership, the UN Security Council must first recommend candidates to the full General Assembly for consideration. In the Council the threat of the Soviet veto posed a clear and present diplomatic danger to any applicant to which Moscow held a historic or current political quarrel.

In the Spring of 1952, the State Department considered a number of options and scenarios to facilitate membership. On 21 March a Confidential Memorandum stated candidly, “Our main interest in connection with Japan should be to secure its admission at the earliest possible date.”

Japan made a formal application for UN membership on 16 June 1952.

Indeed the Eisenhower Administration and the adroit leadership of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, served as a diplomatic pathfinder to guide along Japan’s complicated road towards admission.

Membership Surge

The year 1955 saw the UN’s largest membership surge since its founding a decade earlier. On 14 December the Security Council adopted a draft resolution listing sixteen countries which were recommended for admission. Fourteen countries were part of a “package deal” for simultaneous admission. The group included nine non-Soviet applicants; Austria, Ceylon, Finland, Ireland, Italy, Libya, Jordan, Nepal and Portugal. The five Soviet candidates were Albania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Outer Mongolia, Romania.

Nonetheless besides Japan, Finland, Italy and Hungary had been Axis members.

A Soviet veto blocking Japan’s membership ignited a firestorm of criticism in Tokyo.

Tokyo’s Turn

In 1956 it appeared at long last it would be the turn of the Tokyo government to attain UN admission. In late October an agreement establishing diplomatic relations between Japan and the USSR stated that “USSR will support Japan’s request for admission to membership in the United Nations.” Naturally there was the nagging concern that Moscow may tie the admission to a larger “deal” unpalatable to the West.

The diplomatic breakthrough could not come soon enough. On 12 December 1956, the Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution which recommended to the General Assembly that Japan be admitted to UN membership.

Addressing the Council American Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge stated, “The voice of Japan will be a significant addition to the growing participation and responsibility of Asian countries in the United Nations.”

Nationalist China’s delegate T.F. Tsiang presented his case both elegantly and with compassion, especially in the light of the recent Sino/Japanese war, “The Government and people of China ardently hope that Japan will be admitted to the United Nations… The new Japan is profoundly devoted to peace and democracy.”

On Tuesday 18 December the full General Assembly voted on Japan’s admission. Resolution #1113 was adopted unanimously by a roll call vote.

Japan’s Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu ascended the Assembly rostrum to thank the world community.

Thus a month after these tragic events in Suez and Hungary, Japan gained formal membership in the United Nations in New York. In these tense and uncertain times, delegates knew that a democratic and economically revived Japan would serve as a powerful geopolitical bulwark in East Asia.

Japan had emerged from the ashes of war and ignominy to its readmission into the international community. UN membership became the crowning achievement in the Tokyo government’s postwar standing and wider diplomatic legitimacy.

Fast forward sixty years. Japan is a key player in the UN system and remains the organization’s second largest financial contributor. UN Secretary General Ban-Ki-moon, himself a Korean stated, “Japan has shown a strong commitment to the United Nations Charter and made significant contributions to the organization’s work.”

John J. Metzler

John J Metzler is a longtime UN correspondent covering diplomatic, defense and developmental issues. He is the author of a number of books such as Divided Dynamism: The Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China. He is a regular visitor to the region.