Yukio Okamoto, my “big brother,” mentor and role model, passed away on April 24. It was almost midnight on May 7 when a parliamentarian friend abruptly called to say that Okamoto had reportedly lost his life to COVID-19. It was one of the saddest and longest nights in my life.
For those who may not know of Okamoto, he was a Japanese foreign service officer who served as an adviser to Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto in the 1990s and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in the 2000s. Born and raised in Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture, which is famous for its beaches, Okamoto’s love for the ocean was deep.
It is gratifying to know that many have written so many good things about him. A New York Times reporter wrote a beautiful obituary for him. The Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington published a heartwarming commentary titled “Remembering Yukio Okamoto.” Nikkei Asian Review carried an obituary written by the business daily’s former political editor.
They were all good obituaries, but how they described Yukio Okamoto seems somewhat different from the man I personally knew for the past 40 years. The following is my arbitrary take on him.
Was he a diplomacy analyst? Kyodo News published Okamoto’s obituary with the headline “Diplomacy analyst Yukio Okamoto dies after contracting coronavirus,” adding at the end that Okamoto “also appeared on TV programs as a diplomacy commentator.” These titles are probably the last ones he would have wanted to be called.
Okamoto was always interested in making and implementing policies. He did not appear on TV for the sake of commenting or analyzing as many pundits, including myself, do. He did so only to advocate his policies and to convince the general public that his ideas were the right things for Japan to do.
Was he a maverick? The above-mentioned Nikkei Asian Review article was subtitled “Maverick diplomat ditched bureaucracy but remained an influencer of statecraft.” Okamoto would be offended if he read this obituary. If a maverick means “an unorthodox or independent-minded person,” he definitely believed he was not.
He was a man of ideas, actions and persuasions. He was confident that his methodology was the real orthodoxy. He also knew that those bureaucrats who only follow the precedents cannot make and implement right policies. For him, useless bureaucrats were the real mavericks he deeply despised.
Did he ditch the bureaucracy? On Okamoto’s “abrupt” departure from the Foreign Ministry, Nikkei Asian Review wrote, “Here was one of the best and brightest, in his mid-40s, leaving Japan’s bureaucracy — unrivaled in its ironclad unity and hailed as the “world’s largest collective brain” — to form his own company.” No, he did not.
Okamoto was never satisfied with the promised life of a Japanese bureaucrat. On the contrary, he had been contemplating resigning for years. When he wrote a note of resignation in the fall of 1990, I was the witness. He just wanted to prove that he lived his own life in his own way.
Was he a national security hawk? Yes and no. Yes, he always challenged Japan’s postwar legacy of what I call “Utopian Pacifism.” Okamoto used to criticize Japan’s pacifism since 1945 as being wrong because its “peace” only meant “non-military” and there is no room for a “peace protected by force.”
Although he was a champion of conservatism in national security affairs, Okamoto was not always conservative enough on such sensitive issues as Yasukuni Shrine, “comfort women” or history. Soon after he left government, he warned about the rise of right-wing nationalism in Japan.
In a New York Times interview on March 17, 1991, Okamoto expressed his concern about Japan’s shift to the right and said, “If you overdo it, it will be very easy to swing to the other side.” Many nationalists in Japan knew his center-left position but they still loved and respected the man.
What was his greatest achievement? The Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington called him “a giant in Japan-U.S. relations” and wrote, “Like many in this town, we are deeply saddened at the loss of a friend and mentor who steered the U.S.-Japan alliance over many decades.” Okamoto, however, was hardly just a Japan-U.S. hand.
One of his greatest achievements is that he paved the way for empowering the prime minister’s office in the field of foreign policy. He was probably the first former bureaucrat to become a political appointee and coordinate external affairs for the prime minister. This eventually led to the creation of National Security Council in 2014.
In retrospect, Okamoto was a true patriot who, as his friends in Washington wisely recalled, was “a diplomat who always did his best for his nation.” Therefore, Okamoto’s intellectual curiosity has never been confined to Japan-U.S. relations. He was interested in China, Korea, the Middle East and many other regions and nations.
As for Japan-U.S. relations, he said in the 1991 New York Times interview that “Basically, I am optimistic because of the realities. … All these realities can only mean that the U.S. and Japan will have to stick together, whether we like it or not.” He was right. But now, what about the pandemic’s impact on international affairs?
He must have been mulling over the global state of affairs in a post-COVID-19 era. How abnormal will the coming “new normal” be? What will happen to U.S.-China relations? What should Japan do, when and how? We have many questions, but unfortunately his life was too short. May his soul rest in peace.
Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.