Osaka – Former U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale, who served as U.S. ambassador to Japan from 1993 to 1996, died from natural causes Monday at his home in Minneapolis, his family said in a statement. He was 93.
Mondale, known as “Fritz,” was a stalwart member of the Democratic Party and a long-time senator who served under U.S. President Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1981, before launching his own losing bid for the presidency in 1984.
In 1993, the year after Bill Clinton’s presidential election victory ended 12 years of Republican occupancy of the White House, Mondale was appointed as ambassador to Japan.
“In accepting the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, he described the values he was taught to live by: ‘to play by the rules; to tell the truth; to obey the law: to care for others; to love our country; to cherish our faith.’ As a Senator, an Ambassador, a Vice President, and a candidate for President, he lived and spread those values,” said U.S. President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden in a statement.
Mondale was appointed as ambassador to Japan in August, just a month after Morihiro Hosokawa became the first non-Liberal Democratic Party prime minister in the postwar period. Hosokawa was elected by a coalition of smaller parties that had captured a majority in the July 1993 general election.
From his arrival in September 1993 to his departure in December 1996, Mondale dealt with four prime ministers. During his time in Tokyo, he was involved in tough negotiations over bilateral trade issues, especially those related to semiconductors and insurance.
Those weren’t the only sensitive conversations that marked his tenure. When a mega-earthquake hit Kobe in January 1995, Mondale offered the assistance of the U.S. military to help with disaster relief. At the time, Japan lacked the legal and bureaucratic mechanisms to allow such foreign military aid.
Following the rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan school girl by three U.S. servicemen later that year, Okinawa’s opposition to U.S. bases on the prefecture’s main island skyrocketed and the incident caused a serious crisis for ties between the U.S. and Japan.
The following year, the ambassador helped forge a historic agreement to reduce the U.S. military presence in Okinawa. In April 1996, Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and Mondale agreed to have U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma returned to Japan within five to seven years. The agreement stated that its functions would be transferred to other bases in Japan, with a new heliport to be built within the prefecture off the city of Nago on the northern part of the main island.
But tough opposition among Okinawans to the replacement facility delayed those plans. More than a quarter century after the Hashimoto-Mondale agreement, the facility — located in the waters off Camp Schwab in the Henoko district of the city — has yet to be completed.
Mondale also courted controversy with a statement about U.S. military commitments to Japan. In September 1996, just a few months before leaving Japan, he was quoted by The New York Times as saying that American forces would not be compelled by the U.S.-Japan security treaty to get involved in a dispute over the Senkaku Islands, which are claimed by both Japan and China. U.S. officials were forced to refute Mondale’s assertions, saying that the treaty applied to the Senkakus as well.
In 2008, the Japanese government awarded Mondale the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Paulownia Flowers, one of the country’s highest honors, for his contribution to enhancing friendship and mutual understanding between Japan and the U.S.
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