Michael Dames




America desperately needs more experts like Reischauer

Cover Interview of

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.

“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.”

The wide angle

The book highlights the hubris and conceit of American foreign policy.

We seem to believe that we can dictate to other nations, and spread our democratic “way of life” at the point of a gun (as in Vietnam, Iraq and now Afghanistan). We have created a military establishment that has a major voice in foreign policy matters, far larger than that of the State Department. The Pentagon budget is out of control. The “military-industrial complex” that President Eisenhower warned us about has taken charge.

I argue that knowledge and understanding of foreign languages and cultures and civilian leadership are critical to successful policymaking—Ed Reischauer exemplifies that proposition.

Reischauer stood up to the military in Japan and played a key role in moving to return Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty. Beyond that, he showed that serious scholarship can inform and improve policymaking.

The book also points up the dangers of specious intellectual theories that distort policy choices.

During the height of the anti-Vietnam war protests (1965-75), many scholars and students of East Asia bought into the Marxist line that Japan was suffering from the long period of feudalism in the Tokugawa Era (1603-1868) and that it should undergo a social revolution before it could become a real “democracy.” In this view, the Emperor should have been executed or at least deposed after Japan’s defeat in World War Two, and the Socialists and Communists should have come to power.

This, as Reischauer knew, would have made Japan a Soviet satellite like Poland. Japan’s economic miracle, which inspired similar growth in its Asian neighbors, would never have happened, and the creation of a strong middle class, which in turn deepened the roots of democracy, would not have occurred.

Emperor Hirohito and now his son, Emperor Akihito, have both been forces for stability and democracy in Japan. Reischauer played a key role in combating this Marxist theory, both as a scholar and a policymaker.

I first got interested in Japan when I was sent by the Army to join an intelligence unit in Tokyo, and trained in the Japanese language. Later, back at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, I encountered Reischauer and his books.

I wrote my Ph.D. thesis on the anti-treaty protest movement in Japan of 1960. This caught Ambassador Reischauer’s eye and he invited me to be his special assistant in Tokyo (1963-65). Observing him in action, I thought this book needed to be written.

I then became a journalist, and later Dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (1979-93). For the past 12 years I have been president of the US-Japan Foundation, a job that has finally given me time to re-assess Reischauer’s role and, in spare moments, to write this book.

October 13, 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.

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


There are eerie similarities between our attitudes toward Japan in the 1980’s and our attitudes toward China today.

The Chinese are heirs to a proud civilization that has been humiliated by the West for the last two centuries, and are now recovering their traditional role as the leading power (“central kingdom”) in East Asia. They are rapidly building up their military, and aggressively exporting products to our market at artificially low exchange rates.

Fortunately, we have learned some lessons from our dealings with Japan in the 1980’s. In the tradition of President Kennedy’s appointment of Reischauer as his ambassador to Tokyo, President Obama has wisely chosen Jon Huntsman, who speaks and understands Chinese, to be his ambassador to Beijing.

Still, we have inherited a role in the Chinese civil war through our support of Taiwan. And some elements in the US military seem to think that the Western Pacific is and should be “an American lake.”

Containing China is no longer an option. Finding ways to bring it peacefully into the international system is our best option. In our policies toward China, we and the Japanese are not playing a zero sum game; both of us need to do everything possible to make that happen.

If Reischauer were alive today, he would advocate taking immediate steps to curb the current arms race with China, launch a massive program to educate a new generation of Chinese and American students about each other and our different histories and cultures, and schedule regular meetings at the highest levels between Chinese and American officials to sort out the issues that divide us.

Reischauer would find and proclaim “absurd” the journalists who predict an inevitable “clash for supremacy” in the Pacific.

© 2010 George Packard
George R. Packard Edwin O. Reischauer and the American Discovery of Japan Columbia University Press 368 pages, 9 1/4 x 6 inches ISBN 978 0231143547
Michael Dames

George R. Packard has been President of the United States-Japan Foundation since 1998. He is also Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Columbia University, and Chairman of the Advisory Board at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute there. Dr. Packard was Dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies from 1979 to 1993, and Visiting President of the International University of Japan from 1994 to 1998. Earlier in his career, Dr. Packard was an intelligence officer and later a special assistant to US Ambassador Edwin O. Reischauer in Tokyo. He is the author of eight books, and of articles that have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, and elsewhere. Dr. Packard received from the Japanese Government the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Stars in November 2007. He studied at Princeton University (B.A.) and at Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (M.A. and Ph.D.).

Cover Interview of
October 13, 2010