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Former PM Ashida had many faces, grandson says

Diplomat, journalist and politician felt state should appeal to public

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

This is second of a three-part series about the life and diplomatic theories of Hitoshi Ashida, who was president and editor-in-chief of The Japan Times from 1933 to 1939, and went on to become prime minister in 1948.


Hitoshi Ashida was born in 1887 in present-day Fukuchimaya, Kyoto Prefecture, to a wealthy farming family. His father, Shikanosuke, was a Diet member, and the son was often regarded as a super-elite diplomat.

The graduate of Imperial University of Tokyo spoke English, French and Russian fluently and earned a doctorate in international law, writing many books on diplomacy and history.

But according to Ashida’s grandson Motoharu Shimokobe, he had many faces.

He was a family man who loved much about his children and grandchildren, and one who could socialize with the local farmers when he returned to his rural hometown, Shimokobe said.

“He didn’t think he was an elite. He used to say, ‘I’m from a “hyakusho” (farmer) family, not a samurai family,’ ” Shimokobe recalled.

Indeed, Ashida was a unique diplomat who kept emphasizing “people’s diplomacy” throughout his life, meaning diplomacy should be based on the national consensus of ordinary people, not the initiative of a handful of politicians, bureaucrats or military leaders.

“He believed (the state) should appeal to the people, which was a unique way of thinking as a diplomat. He had strong liberal, democratic ideas,” said Akira Yajima, a researcher at Osaka University who specializes in Ashida’s life and diplomatic theories.

Yajima said that Ashida was a diplomat at Japan’s embassies in Europe in the 1920s and ’30s, and witnessed the international efforts made after World War I to maintain peace and order by establishing the League of Nations, which was designed to help prevent a recurrence of devastating conflicts.

Thus Ashida — unlike mainstream Foreign Ministry officials — strongly believed Japan should closely cooperate with other countries to maintain world peace, and attached great importance to the League of Nations, Yajima said.

In September 1931, a contingent of young officers in the Imperial Japanese Army tried to blow up a stretch of tracks belonging to a Japanese railway in northeastern China so it could blame the sabotage on local Chinese troops and use it as an excuse to invade China. Japan eventually went on to occupy all of northeastern China and set up the puppet state of Manchukuo there.

Ordinary Japanese didn’t know that the invasion, which became known as the Mukden Incident or the Manchurian Incident, had been engineered by the Japanese army and enthusiastically backed the campaign against China.

Ashida, on the other hand, who was then working at the Japanese Embassy in Belgium, immediately grasped that the whole thing was a ruse by the Japanese military.

He soon decided to go back to Japan and run for a Diet seat, believing the Foreign Ministry had lost control of the army and that he should become a politician to help the government reclaim the diplomatic initiative.

“Being a diplomat was meaningless after (the Foreign Ministry) lost the driving power for diplomacy,” Ashida wrote on Dec. 31, 1941, looking back on his decision.

In January 1933, he started working as president and editor-in-chief of The Japan Times, and began going to the newspaper’s office in Tokyo almost every day.

Why and how he got the position at The Japan Times is unclear, but his diary, published two years ago, shows he consulted closely with high-ranking officials in the Foreign Ministry and even army officials in advance, deciding to take the position only after securing their support.

“I think he wanted to explain Japan’s policy positions to foreigners. The Japan Times was the only paper for foreigners to learn about such things. They couldn’t read Japanese,” Shimokobe said.

Until around 1937, Ashida’s diplomatic theories did not conflict that much with the policies of the Foreign Ministry. But after the second Sino-Japanese War broke out that year, the differences began growing.

Ashida was opposed to Japan’s plan to establish a New Order in East Asia, which he saw as government propaganda designed to justify Japan’s aggression in China. He quit as The Japan Times president at the end of 1939.

Ashida cited his growing duties in the Seiyukai Party as the official reason for his resignation, but Yajima said he believes a confrontation with the Foreign Ministry over the editorial policy of The Japan Times was the real reason.

After Japan launched the Pacific War, bringing the United States into World War II, Ashida wrote much less about his opinions on diplomacy but remained known as a staunch anti-military liberal.

He was among a handful of politicians who declined to join the Imperial Rule Assistance Association, a semi-governmental group formed in 1940 to absorb most of the nation’s lawmakers after their parties were dissolved to empower the military-dominated government.

Yajima said Ashida attached much importance to his job at The Japan Times because he strongly believed in “the people’s diplomacy” and the importance of appealing to the people when forming diplomatic policies.

Shimokobe said Ashida “felt a great joy in working as a journalist,” and that his desire to communicate with ordinary people was deep-rooted.

He was stunned to find an entry in Ashida’s diary from his junior high school days that said: “Japan will not be able to compete with Western countries unless all the Japanese people, even the farmers in the countryside, understand diplomacy and international situations,” Shimokobe said.

“I really was surprised to see a junior high school student was thinking about something like this,” he said.