The U.S. ambassadors chosen for Japan have long reflected Washington’s dedication to Tokyo, as each successive nominee has drawn Tokyo government and media speculation of how bilateral ties will evolve.
Historically, the top envoys from the United States played significant roles in both opening up Japan to the West and reintroducing the nation to global society following World War II.
California lawyer John Roos arrived in Tokyo last month to carry the torch of American diplomacy in the Far East, after being chosen by President Barack Obama, marking 150 years since the first U.S. chief of mission presented his credentials to Emperor Meiji in 1859.
Following are questions and answers regarding U.S. ambassadors to Japan: When did the U.S. establish its first consulate in Japan?
March 31, 1854, marked the end of some 200 years of Japan’s “sakoku” isolation under the Tokugawa shogunate, when Japan signed a treaty with U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew C. Perry. The agreement set the stage for Washington to open trade negotiations with the shogunate, and also secure ports for American ships to rest and replenish supplies.
The first chief of mission was Townsend Harris, who presented his credentials to Emperor Meiji on Nov. 5, 1859, according to the U.S. Department of State. Harris, named a minister resident, opened the first U.S. Consulate at Gyokusenji Temple in Shimoda in today’s Shizuoka Prefecture. The mission was later relocated to Zenfukuji Temple in Azabu, Tokyo.
Harris is also known as one of the first people to drink cow’s milk in Japan, where the habit was not common. A monument titled “Gyunyu no Hi” (“Monument of Cow’s Milk”) in Gyokusenji Temple honors his contribution to dairy farming in Japan.
Who was the first U.S. ambassador to Japan?
Luke Wright assumed the first post of ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary. He presented his credentials in May 1906.
While there were objections within the government, which was still wary of the U.S. presence, to allow a consulate in the capital, the embassy had been relocated by 1890 to the Akasaka district, its current site.
Ikuo Kinoshita, a lecturer at Aichi Prefectural University, said the embassy and its officials “played the mediator role between Japan and the Western world” during the initial years of operation.
Following the war, the U.S. exercised power as a “leader of the free world” and via the embassy Japan was brought under the bilateral security alliance and gained economic prosperity, Kinoshita added.
Kinoshita, an expert on international affairs who authored “Reading History of Diplomacy from Embassy Distribution,” said the presence of the embassy and the chief of mission remain crucial even after the end of Cold War, considering the new threats Japan faces, particularly from North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
How much rent does the U.S. Embassy pay?
It was revealed in 2005 that the U.S. hadn’t paid rent for the embassy land since 1998, when former Speaker of the House Tom Foley was serving as ambassador.
According to an agreement reached in 2007, the U.S. now pays ¥7 million annually for the 10-year period from Jan. 1, 1998, to Dec. 31, 2007.
The rent increases to ¥10 million per year for the period between Jan. 1, 2008, to Dec. 31, 2012, and to ¥15 million per year for the period between Jan. 1, 2013, to Dec. 31, 2027.
The amount is only a fraction of the rent in nearby buildings.
How secure is the U.S. Embassy?
The embassy security is considered airtight, with police on constant patrols and monitoring every approach. People walking near the mission, driving or dropping someone off are routinely and promptly challenged.
There is a “koban” police box at the main gate, and any protest rallies, including one in 2003 against the U.S.-led war on Iraq, are quickly disbursed.
However, on March 24, 1964, a mentally deranged Japanese youth climbed over the walls of the embassy and assaulted Ambassador Edwin Reischauer with a knife. The 19-year-old stabbed him in the right thigh, requiring an emergency operation at nearby Toranomon Hospital.
Reischauer, who was born in Japan, said through the embassy press attache that he literally felt himself to be Japanese-American after receiving 1,000cc of blood during the operation.
But the transfusion later inflicted him with hepatitis from which he never recovered.
Coincidentally, the first-ever live telecast from Japan to the U.S. took place the next day, with Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda going on NBC’s “Today” show to apologize directly to the American people for the attack. The stabbing also led to the resignation of the chairman of the National Public Safety Commission.
What sort of difficulties do ambassadors face in Japan?
Roos is the 28th U.S. ambassador since Wright and the 41st chief of mission if counting from Harris. Some, like Roos’ immediate predecessors Thomas Schieffer and Howard Baker, came at a time of cordial relations strengthened by the close friendship between President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
Being an ambassador at times of hostility is obviously not easy.
Joseph Grew, who served as ambassador from June 1932, immediately terminated his mission after Japan declared war on the U.S. on Dec. 8, 1941. But according to the Office of the Historian at the U.S. Department of State, he was subsequently interned by the government and wasn’t able to leave Japan for six months.
Grew’s departure took place on June 25, 1942, after Japan and the U.S. agreed to exchange diplomats and their families. The ambassador was swapped for Japanese officials at Lourenco Marques, a city in modern day Mozambique.
The U.S. Embassy was reopened on April 28, 1952, with Robert Murphy, who later worked as an adviser in the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations, assuming the post of ambassador.
Who is the longest-serving U.S. ambassador to Japan?
After presenting his credentials in June 1977, the late Sen. Mike Mansfield served until his mission ended in December 1988. Upon leaving Japan with his wife, Maureen, after 11 years, he said he felt “a strong satisfaction that U.S.-Japan relations are stronger and more vital than they have ever been.”
What comes next for ambassadors after they complete their mission?
Old soldiers never die, and some manage not to fade away. One example is Schieffer, who has announced he will run next year for governor of Texas. Former Vice President Walter Mondale, who served as ambassador between 1993 and 1996, continues to have influence on U.S. politics today.
Some, like Reischauer, remained a dominant presence in U.S.-Japan relations.
In 1981, 15 years after ending his stint in Tokyo, Reischauer made headlines by disclosing a secret bilateral pact that allowed U.S. warships and military aircraft carrying nuclear arms to stop over in Japan. The statement still causes controversy in Tokyo, where the government has yet to officially acknowledge the deal’s existence.
How are ambassadors chosen?
Experts say there are roughly two types of appointments.
The first are the heavyweight political veterans with lengthy resumes, including former White House Chief of Staff Baker and Mondale. Schieffer and Roos form the other category, those who were appointed because of their close personal ties with the president.
Meanwhile Japanese ambassadors to the U.S. have been traditionally elite veteran Foreign Ministry officials, mostly those who served as vice foreign minister before heading to Washington. However, some experts say the Democratic Party of Japan could depart from this practice and send political appointees in the future.
Will the role of U.S. ambassador change under DPJ rule?
The DPJ has hinted a change in plans on relocating U.S. bases in Japan, saying it will seek an “equal” partnership with Washington based on mutual trust. Analysts say this could complicate matters for Roos, who will be the first envoy to negotiate with the DPJ-led administration.
But Aichi Prefectural University’s Kinoshita said there will be no need for the new ambassador to panic, because diplomacy will still be run by Foreign Ministry bureaucrats.
“Foreign policy under the DPJ will be made under the leadership of bureaucrats, and as long as that’s the case, there won’t be much change,” he said.