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The recent news about the possible appointment of former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel as U.S. ambassador to Japan has touched off a flurry of media reports, especially in Japan, as to what it could mean — not only for bilateral trade and security relations, but also for the role of both countries in East Asia.

Considering what Emanuel might do, and how he will fare if he does get the nomination, forms part of a long tradition of public speculation based on a keen interest in, and concern for, who gets the post. For years, the U.S. envoy to Tokyo has been seen in Japan as a litmus test of how the presidential administration views Japan and which areas of mutual concern it may wish to prioritize.

In 2001, Masaru Ikei, a professor of diplomatic history at Aoyama Gakuin University, outlined four criteria once used for choosing an ambassador. First, the choice was someone of importance. Second, it was a person who had knowledge about Japan. Third, it was someone with influence in Washington. Finally, it was somebody who really wanted to be in Japan.

Masaru Nishikawa, a Tsuda University professor whose research areas include American politics and U.S.-Japan relations, says that those criteria are still taken into account today when choosing an ambassador, but that different presidents emphasize different areas.

“For example, the appointments of Caroline Kennedy (appointed by President Barack Obama), Thomas Foley (appointed by President Bill Clinton) and Walter Mondale (also appointed by Clinton) sent a signal that ‘Japan is important to the U.S.,’ as they were all political celebrities,” Nishikawa said.

Kennedy, who served as ambassador between 2013 and 2017, is the daughter of former President John F. Kennedy and a member of one of America’s most prominent political families. Foley, ambassador between 1997 and 2001, had been speaker of the House of Representatives. Mondale, meanwhile, served as vice president under President Jimmy Carter before serving as ambassador from 1993 to 1996.

Caroline Kennedy, appointed by U.S. President Barack Obama, served as ambassador to Japan from 2013 to 2017. | POOL / VIA REUTERS
Caroline Kennedy, appointed by U.S. President Barack Obama, served as ambassador to Japan from 2013 to 2017. | POOL / VIA REUTERS

In contrast, Nishikawa said, the nominations of John Moore Allison, U. Alexis Johnson and Edwin O. Reischauer were based on their knowledge of Japan and their experience with the country. Allison, a career diplomat who had worked and studied in Japan before World War II, was ambassador from 1953 to 1957 under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Johnson, another career diplomat who had served in Japan before the war, was ambassador from 1966 to 1969 under President Lyndon Johnson.

Reischauer, who served as ambassador under Kennedy and Johnson from 1961 to 1966, was one of the United States’ most influential ambassadors to Japan and one of its most personally connected. Born and raised in Tokyo, Reischauer became a noted East Asia scholar at Harvard University before being tapped by Kennedy to serve as ambassador.

Sapporo University Professor Emeritus Shoji Mitarai, who interpreted for Reischauer when he visited the city in August 1989 and is the author of a book on the former ambassador, says Reischauer’s knowledge of Japan and its people was crucial because he took up the post at a particularly difficult time.

“One of Reischauer’s greatest contributions was to calm the waters of the U.S.-Japan relationship and promote a better understand of Japan in the U.S. and the U.S. in Japan. Due to the 1960 student-led demonstrations against the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, Eisenhower had been unable to come to Tokyo in June 1960 for a planned visit,” Mitarai said.

Prior to becoming ambassador, Reischauer had written in an article in Foreign Affairs magazine in October 1960 that the whole security treaty incident revealed a weakness of communication between Western democracies and the opposition elements in Japan. This communications gap, he said, required Americans to establish a dialogue with all sections of Japanese society, English-speaking business people and conservative political leaders.

“Reischauer said something to the effect that, through dialogue, we (the U.S. and Japan) needed to exchange our views about the world situation as well as the U.S.-Japan relationship,” Mitarai said.

Reischauer would return to the U.S in 1966, where he resumed his scholarly work and retained much influence over American perceptions of Japan. Many of his students, including Pulitzer Prize-winning historian John Dower, went on to become prominent Japan scholars in their own right.

Thomas Foley, seen with Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi in August 1998, represented U.S. interests in Japan from 1997 to 2001. | REUTERS
Thomas Foley, seen with Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi in August 1998, represented U.S. interests in Japan from 1997 to 2001. | REUTERS

Another influential postwar ambassador was Mike Mansfield. The former Senate Majority Leader was a powerful figure in Washington who served as ambassador from 1977 to 1988 under Carter and President Ronald Reagan. He became famous for saying that the U.S.-Japan relationship was the most important bilateral relationship in the world bar none, and would help cement a warm relationship between Reagan and Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone.

The United States’ more recent ambassadors, however, have not been as high-profile as Reischauer, Mansfield, Mondale or Foley. Tetsuo Kotani, professor of global studies at Meikai University and a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, says that while the post is still important, a symbolic ambassador is no longer needed.

“Recent ambassadors were all strangers to the Japanese. But, for example, John Roos (ambassador from 2009 to 2013) turned out to be very helpful during Operation Tomodachi,” he said, referring to the U.S. effort to assist in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of March 2011.

“Kennedy was indispensable in realizing Obama’s visit to Hiroshima in May 2016,” he said.

“Roos and Kennedy sometimes represented Japanese views and exercised their policymaking influence in Washington. In that sense, we need practical ambassadors who can work in the interests of U.S.-Japan relations.”

The post has been vacant since Donald Trump’s appointee William Hagerty left in 2019. Nishikawa says that this has not caused any problems for U.S. relations, noting that although the ambassadorship is still a very important position, the overall U.S.-Japan relationship is robust and has been institutionalized to the point where the personality of an individual ambassador is no longer a significant factor.

However, having a political celebrity may have the effect of reassuring Japanese people who are looking for a strong signal from Washington on the importance of the relationship.

Nishikawa added that Emanuel’s close relationship with Biden and name recognition were likely essential factors in his nomination, even though he has almost no foreign policy experience.

“Professor Ikei’s point about influence in Washington D.C. is still important for a U.S. ambassador to Japan,” Kotani said. “Emanuel is a big shot there, but not a Japan hand. He can influence the president but may have different preferences than Tokyo.”

Thus, if Emanuel does get the nod, his legacy is unlikely to be like that of Reischauer, who founded a Japanese studies institute at Harvard, nor Mansfield, who launched a foundation for promoting U.S.-Asia relations in Washington. Rather, it could have more in common with recent ambassadors such as Roos and Kennedy, who are remembered for specific contributions during their tenure, but were not U.S. congressional veterans, career diplomats or Japan scholars.

Walter Mondale, alongside Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, was ambassador when an agreement on the return to Japan of the land used for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa Prefecture was announced in April 1996. | KYODO
Walter Mondale, alongside Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, was ambassador when an agreement on the return to Japan of the land used for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa Prefecture was announced in April 1996. | KYODO

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