Tokyo: Tense exhibition of classified wartime documents

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Replicas and copies of treaties introduced in history textbooks are displayed, among other articles.

The Diplomatic Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Minato Ward, Tokyo, is home to about 100,000 diplomatic documents, records and treaties that range from the Edo period (1603-1867) to post-World War II. The documents are preserved in the main building and the annex that stand opposite the Iikura Guest House near Tokyo Tower used by the foreign minister to host important guests. Documents and telegrams stamped as highly confidential are on display in an exhibition room in the annex, conveying the tense atmosphere of those days.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The annex of the Diplomatic Archives houses an exhibition room.
The Yomiuri Shimbun
The telegram disclosing the decision on Nixon’s visit to Beijing was strictly confidential.

“Henry Kissinger, advisor to the U.S. president, visited Beijing from July 9 to 11 and met with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. U.S. President Richard Nixon will visit Beijing at an appropriate time before May 1972 at the invitation of Zhou.”

The above message was included in a telegram sent at 11:45 p.m. local time on July 15, 1971, by the then Japanese ambassador to the United States to the foreign minister to let him know about the contents of a call from the U.S. secretary of state. With “Strictly confidential, urgent” written in Japanese on it, the telegram was reportedly distributed only to secretaries to the prime minister and the chief cabinet secretary, as well as some senior foreign ministry officials.

The description of the telegram reads, “The shocking development of the relationship between U.S. and Chinese leaders was a complete surprise for Japan and was called the ‘Nixon shock.’”

In addition, replicas and copies of treaties signed from the late Edo period to the Showa era (1926-89) are exhibited, including the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Peace and Amity signed in 1854. The original copy held by Japan was destroyed during the Edo Castle fire and the one currently displayed is a duplicate of the original held by the United States. It is said that the copy was given by the United States.

Usually, the originals of treaties are not open for public viewing due to efforts to preserve them, though they are sometimes displayed for special exhibitions. In one such exhibition for the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic ties between Japan and China that is being held until Dec. 27, visitors can see the originals of the Japan-China Joint Communique and the Japan-China Treaty of Peace and Friendship. Sixteen relevant diplomatic records are also being exhibited for the first time, providing a valuable opportunity for visitors to experience the reality of the diplomatic history they learned at school.

“Diplomatic documents have existed between wars. I hope visitors see the history of diplomacy, which is one side of a coin whose other side is war,” said Kiyoshi Wada, 62, the director of the archives.

Amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and increasing tension between Taiwan and China, the history of diplomacy might help guide us through.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The signed original document of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance concluded in 1902. This photo was taken with special permission.

Diplomatic Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

1-5-3, Azabudai, Minato Ward, Tokyo

Hours: Open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
(Closed on Saturdays, Sundays and national holidays)

Admission: Free

The archives opened in 1971 and the annex was added in 1988 to house an exhibition room and other facilities. In the main building, visitors can access and view the collection of historical materials. The Diplomatic Archives also oversees the compilation of Documents on Japanese Foreign Policy, of which 226 issues have been published since 1936.