George R. Packard


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

Cover Interview of October 12, 2010

A close-up

I found Reischauer’s life to be profoundly interesting, and perhaps even tragic, as a human interest story.

His younger sister, Felicia, was born deaf and mute, and Ed had to help take care of her for the rest of his life.  His older brother, Robert, also a brilliant scholar, was killed by a stray Chinese bomb in Shanghai in 1937.  His missionary parents were forced to abandon their life’s work in Japan with the outbreak of war between the two nations they loved.

Reischauer married Adrienne, the love of his life, and a fellow Oberlin graduate, while they were both graduate students.  They had three children. Adrienne developed a heart condition at age 39 that crippled her for an agonizing five years before her death in 1955.  Reischauer, at 45, was left to bring up three teenagers.

As Ambassador, Reischauer was the victim of a bizarre knife attack at the entrance to the embassy by a deranged Japanese youth.  Japan’s best American friend nearly bled to death, and then was given massive blood transfusions that infected him with hepatitis C.  This virus gradually destroyed his liver and ultimately killed him at the age of 79.

In the 1970’s, he was harshly denounced by some of his own students for his defense as Ambassador to Japan of the war in Vietnam (even though he had personally opposed the war).  Finally, he was criticized for being too “soft on Japan” during the trade frictions of the 1980’s.

Ed Reischauer died fearing his life’s work had been a failure.  Yet he never felt sorry for himself, never abandoned his faith in the Japanese people.  And in the end, I argue, he was vindicated in that faith.