George R. Packard


On his book Edwin O. Reischauer and the American Discovery of Japan

Cover Interview of October 12, 2010

In a nutshell

This is a book about one American’s lifelong mission to explain the real Japan to the rest of the world.  Edwin O. Reischauer, born in Japan in 1910 to Presbyterian missionary parents, played an enormous role in shaping American policy and attitudes toward Japan.  Only George Kennan’s influence on our relations with the Soviet Union is comparable.

Reischauer spent his first 16 years growing up in Japan and absorbing its culture. After graduating from Oberlin College and Harvard, he spent five years in Europe and Japan in the 1930’s as the world careened toward World War Two.  After serving as a code breaker and intelligence officer in the US Army during the war, he returned to Harvard and, with John K. Fairbank, founded the field of East Asian Studies in America.

He faced enormous obstacles.  The image of the Japanese in the minds of most Americans was that of a fanatical, warlike, treacherous, deceitful and subhuman people, happily willing to die for their Emperor.  They were imitators and makers of shoddy goods.  They could never be trusted.

Reischauer sat down in 1945, the year the war ended, and wrote Japan: Past and Present, a short book that completely upset the image of the hated “Japs.”  The book, and its subsequent elaborations, became the core narrative in American schools and universities for the next three decades.

Reischauer’s Japan was not the militaristic, sword-wielding threat of American propaganda films, but rather an ancient civilization worthy of study and admiration.  He found beauty and originality in Japanese culture, and saw Japan’s descent into militarism as an aberration. He became America’s leading expert on the nation and a superstar lecturer at Harvard.  After his first wife died in 1955, he married Haru Matsukata, granddaughter of a former Japanese prime minister.

After massive protests in Tokyo against the US-Japan Security Treaty in 1960, President Kennedy appointed Reischauer ambassador to Japan in 1961.  Over the next five years, Ed and Haru transformed the relationship, using their deep knowledge to end the Americans’ “occupation mentality” and treat Japan as a sovereign equal.

With Kennedy’s death in 1963 and President Johnson’s escalation of the war in Vietnam (1964-66), Reischauer found himself in the excruciating position of having to defend a war that he found indefensible—or resign.

He waffled, and paid an enormous price.  Anti-war students branded him an agent of American imperialism when he returned to Harvard in 1966.

Further troubles awaited him.  As Japan’s exports to America surged in the 1980’s a small group of “revisionists” captivated the American mainstream media with their contention that Japan was out to destroy American industry and win through unfair trade practices what it failed to accomplish at Pearl Harbor. Japan, they argued, was not a peace-loving democracy, not a trustworthy ally, and would never play by the rules. Some predicted we were on the road to another war.  Reischauer became the whipping boy for these pundits.

Reischauer died in 1990 at the height of these attacks on Japan, concerned that his life’s work had been in vain.  Just at that moment, Japan’s economic bubble burst, Saddam Hussein attacked Kuwait, and the US had a new enemy in Iraq.  Japan was all but forgotten.

My conclusion, two decades later, is that Reischauer got Japan right: today Japan is demonstrably a peace-loving, democratic nation, a solid ally and a fair trader.  Its critics have all but disappeared, and China has begun to loom as the new potential enemy.

My book argues that America desperately needs more experts like Reischauer who know the language and culture of the nations we deal with and who can affect foreign policy.

The wars in Vietnam and Iraq could have been avoided if policy-makers had known more about each nation.  Fighting against the Chinese in Korea (1950) could possibly have been avoided if Reischauer’s advice to recognize Communist China in 1949 had been followed.

American embassies in most major nations today are for sale.  Who contributes most to the campaigns of the winning candidate for President walks away with the top prizes: London, Paris, Rome, Madrid and even Tokyo.  Meanwhile, every foreign Ambassador in Washington knows a great deal about American politics and culture and speaks our language.  This is an unacceptable handicap for our policy-makers.