Edwin O. Reischauer, U.S. ambassador to Japan (1961-66), set the bar very high for all of his successors. Born and raised in Japan by missionary parents, when U.S. President John F. Kennedy called him into diplomatic service, he was already a prominent scholar who pioneered Japanese studies in the U.S.
It was an unlikely career move for an intellectual who wrote his doctoral dissertation about Ennin, a previously obscure Japanese monk who kept a diary about his travels in Tang Dynasty China in the ninth century.
This biography is a vivid and passionate homage to a charismatic man of extraordinary talent and vision written by one of the most prominent figures in contemporary U.S.-Japan relations. Author George Packard, president of the U.S.-Japan Foundation, served as Ambassador Reischauer’s special assistant (1963-65) and played a key role in helping his boss reach beyond the cocoon of embassy life.
What makes this book an exceptional contribution is the author’s overview of evolving U.S.-Asian relations in the 20th century, helping readers understand the context Reischauer operated in and influenced.
In the summer of 1941 while working at the U.S. State Department, Reischauer unsuccessfully opposed imposition of an embargo against Japan and warned about the possible mistreatment of Americans of Japanese ancestry. During World War II, he supervised language training and code breaking and shaped the U.S. Occupation by arguing against the prosecution of Emperor Hirohito and other punitive policies.
In 1946 Reischauer published “Japan: Past and Present,” an accessible introduction to the country, a society he often said was as familiar to Americans as the “dark side of the moon.”
In this and subsequent publications he tried to break down wartime distrust and stereotypes, while conveying his enthusiastic admiration. He dismissed common assertions about Japan’s unique national character and reliance on imitation, while parting company with other scholars in emphasizing the positive aspects of modernization during the Tokugawa Period (1603-1868) and the Meiji (1868-1912) Era.
For Reischauer, history “was not a tale of large impersonal forces shaping human events. History was made by individuals . . . full of contingency and random forces.”
Known for his critical views of Marxism and embrace of modernization theory, he remains a controversial figure among scholars. Despite his aversion to communism, however, he was an early advocate of normalizing relations with China, more than two decades before the Nixon administration finally did so.
Reischauer assumed his Tokyo posting in the aftermath of the violent street protests of 1960, staged by opponents of the ratification of the revised U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. Instant celebrity status and widespread adoration enabled him to transform sullen hostility into “exuberant friendship.” He sought to promote an “equal partnership” and “sensitize the U.S. military commanders to Japanese political realities, particularly on the issue of Okinawa.”
It is telling that half a century later, these remain critical issues in U.S.-Japan relations. He was also involved in the finessing of Japan’s three nonnuclear principles — no production, possession or introduction of nuclear weapons in Japan.
Reischauer claimed to have an oral understanding with then Foreign Minister Masayoshi Ohira that port visits by naval vessels equipped with nuclear weapons were not in violation of this ban, an issue that remains controversial. In 1966 he forced the removal of nuclear warheads that the U.S. Marines were storing on a barge at Iwakuni base near Hiroshima by threatening to resign because it was a blatant violation of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty.
The two chapters focusing on Reischauer’s tenure as ambassador provide a fascinating glimpse behind the curtain. Initially, he reveled in his public role, but the job wore him down, especially after he was seriously wounded in a stabbing incident. As a result of blood transfusions he contracted hepatitis C and suffered poor health thereafter.
Being ambassador, he wrote, is like “walking on hot coals. You have to move fast not to burn your feet, but the next place you put your foot down is another hot coal.”
Reischauer saw his biggest achievement as facilitating the normalization of relations between South Korea and Japan. Packard argues that Reischauer’s greatest failure was refraining from criticizing the Vietnam War. Despite his early opposition, as a diplomat he felt duty-bound to abide by his government’s policy.
Unfairly, according to Packard, on returning to the U.S. in 1966, Reischauer became the “symbol of wrongheaded U.S. imperialism in Asia — a (Cold War) Warrior and anticommunist who was responsible for the misguided U.S. policy.”
Packard mounts a vigorous defense denying Reischauer’s complicity, but acknowledges that he was slow to publicly condemn the Vietnam War. In the 1980s, as U.S.-Japan relations deteriorated over growing trade imbalances and the U.S. media revived fear of the “yellow peril,” revisionists asserted more sinister interpretations of the Japanese threat and challenged the more benign image promoted by Reischauer.
Aside from Chalmers Johnson, Reischauer dismissed the revisionists as opportunistic journalists cashing in on trade frictions. Packard is especially withering in his criticism of James Fallows, dismissing him as superficial and unqualified, while the “most absurd” title goes to Karel von Wolferen, author of “The Enigma of Japanese Power” (1989).
Although Reischauer never publicly responded, Packard writes, “he was surprised and saddened by the apparent success of the ‘revisionists’ who once again portrayed Japan as hostile, threatening, enigmatic and unknowable.”
Toward the end of this insightful book, Packard speculates about how Reischauer would have dealt with a host of contemporary problems. He believes that Reischauer would have called for withdrawing most U.S. troops from Okinawa Prefecture, closing U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and shifting its functions to Kadena Air Base, and sharing other military bases with Japan’s Self-Defense Forces. But, one wonders, could he have swayed Washington?
Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.