〈160 Years of the US-Japan Relationship〉
My DC Days
Ambassador of Japan(2008-2012)
160 Years of the US-Japan Relationship: Early Encounters, Wartime and the Present
Last year, Japan and the United States of America marked the 160th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1860. At this historical milestone, KaFSA is pleased to introduce four articles focusing on Early Encounters, Wartime and the Present, hoping for an ever deepening and enduring friendly relations between our countries for the future.(KaFSA, March 31, 2021)
I have lived twice in Washington, DC. The first time was from 1995 to1999 as Embassy staff. The next time was from 2008 to 2012 as Ambassador. Upon my return to DC in 2008, I made a grave mistake. This was when I was chatting with an old Washingtonian friend. I casually said my enigma about DC was that while it’s only four hours’ drive from New York City, there is such a difference in the level of food. I murmured that New York had the best restaurants for French, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, or any other cuisine, and here in Washington DC you still find only mediocre eating places. I received a cold stare and a response that a nouveau retour had not realized that in the last eight years the situation had improved greatly. It’s almost like a different world, my friend said. I quickly apologized for my ignorance. Over the next four years I tried to visit as many eating places as possible to prove myself wrong, unfortunately, in vain. But make no mistake please. I still am in love with that small greenish town which is actually the center of the world.
I here write my memories regarding three topics: presidential elections, cherry blossom trees, and the 3.11 disaster.
US Presidential Elections
My first encounter with the US presidential election was in 1960 in Seattle, Washington. A newly arrived Japanese student in a junior high school with almost no knowledge of English was myself. My mother told me that if anyone tried to speak to me, I should just answer, “I don’t speak English,” and if nature called, just ask, “Where is the restroom, please?” So I had little communication with peers. It suddenly changed with the presidential election. That was the historical 1960 one between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. Students in my school were as excited as the adults. They were divided into two groups and tried to increase the number of students in respective camps. I was literally chased around everyday and was asked to join by both groups. Sixty years later, I still remember it vividly as an ice breaking event for me in an American school.
After that I saw the US presidential election campaign as a graduate student in California in 1972. Walking around a progressive campus, it sure looked like Senator George McGovern was heading toward a landslide victory.
I followed the election professionally as an Embassy political minister in 1996 and Director General for North America in the Foreign Ministry in 2000. The latter one was the famous close race between George W. Bush 43 and Al Gore. I had to report to senior members of the government about the outcome of the election every week and I remember how difficult it was.
I saw the 2008 and 2012 elections as Japanese Ambassador in Washington, DC. Before I had arrived in DC, a famous Japanese journalist wrote that it was better for Japan to work with Republican presidents. His argument was that Democrats were usually more business-like, whereas Republican presidents honored allies and treated us as buddies. He cited the glorious friendship of Nakasone-Reagan and Koizumi-Bush43 as examples. I personally thought that was a very shallow and prejudiced analysis but his argument was known in the US as well.
After I arrived in DC in 2008, there was a gathering of ambassadors and journalists. The latter group asked ambassadors which candidate each country favored. Of course most seasoned diplomats did not give straight answers. I was asked if Japan favored Republican candidate Senator John McCain over Senator Barak Obama. My answer was as follows:
“It’s like a Christmas gift. You don’t say anything. And on the day, you open the box and cry out, ‘This is just what I wanted!’”
This was well received. But one of my American friends quipped, “It’s different. You can’t get a receipt and run to store to exchange it on Boxing Day!”
Cherry Blossom Festivals
Cherry blossom trees are the symbol of Washington DC and Japan-US friendship. There are two famous gifts to the US from foreign countries. France’s Statue of Liberty in New York City and cherry blossom trees in DC from Japan. The merit of the statue is that it is standing all year around. The merit of trees is that they can be spread around the whole city and many other parts of the country. And, of course, you can have festivals. We were so grateful to dedicated groups of people who organized festivals every year. Without their strong commitment, we could not have had such attention from people and media.
I was especially lucky to have experienced the 100-year anniversary. Boy that was a big event!
Because it was the centennial, I read some history. I came across a curious finding. In Japan, we all learned in school that the gift was from Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Tokyo. Mayor Ozaki was invited and honored by the U.S. Congress and by the city of DC in 1950. However, I was surprised that in the US, the relevant books and newspapers wrote that Mayor Ozaki was merely the nominal contributor and the monetary donation was actually borne by Dr. Jokichi Takamine who was famous for discovering adrenalin.
I thought it was my obligation to find out the true story. I dug into archives of the Japanese government, US government, and Tokyo Metropolis. I found out the real story and contributed an op-ed to The Washington Post and asked the Library of Congress to correct the explanation of the exhibition.
The following is the gist.
“Ms. Eliza Scidmore, a friend of Japan who had long wanted to plant cherry blossom trees in DC, worked to persuade US government officials for 20 years in vain. She told them how impressive it would be to see beautiful flowers reflected in water if planted along the riverside. Officials said it would be too dangerous because children might climb the trees to pick cherries. Ms. Scidmore explained that these were a different variety that bore no fruit, only to be told that, if so, the trees were useless. Upon the arrival of new First Lady Nelly Taft, whom she had known before, Ms. Scidmore spoke of the idea to the First Lady who liked it very much. Officials of course suddenly came to think that this was a great idea.
Ms. Scidmore shared the story on April 8, 1909 with her friends Dr. Takamine and Mr. Kokichi Mizuno, Consul General of Japan in NYC who happened to be in DC. Dr. Takamine, who was wary of deterioration in Japan-US relations after Japan’s victory over Russia, had been thinking that cherry blossom trees could become a bond between the two peoples. He said he would pay for the trees but Mr. Mizuno insisted that they should be a public gift from the Tokyo Mayor and wrote to Foreign Minister Jutaro Komura. Dr. Takamine agreed but also asked Japan Society members in NYC to contribute if the government failed to fund the project. The Foreign Ministry requested that Tokyo Metropolis contribute and the Mayor gained approval from the city council. As the budget covered only the cost of seedlings, the shipping cost was borne by a Japanese private company and the land transportation fee from Seattle to DC was borne by the US government. Upon arrival, the trees were inspected and found infected by insects. They were burned. The US government wanted to terminate the project, but then-Japanese Ambassador Uchida insisted on giving it a second try. The Japanese government carefully grew plants in a sterile greenhouse. This time Tokyo bore the entire transportation cost. All the records of budget expenses have been retained. The second try succeeded, and on March 27, 1912, the first trees were planted in Tidal Basin by the First Lady and Ms. Sutemi Chinda, wife of the then Ambassador.
When Dr. Takamine passed away in 1922, Ms. Scidmore contributed an article to newspapers in which she stated that the real contributor was Dr. Takamine. She most likely did not check who actually funded the budget. Her friend Mizuno had already died in Beijing in 1914. Or, it could be that she went out of her way to honor her good friend Dr. Takamine. The reason remains a mystery.”
Because of her place in this project, authors and journalists adhered to her story. All the books and articles in the US covering the story that I saw repeated that the donation was actually from Dr. Takamine.
Some of my friends doubted the wisdom of the Ambassador to dig fanatically into archives and challenge a widely believed story in the States. I, however, thought it was important to straighten the record. The trees were not the gift from an individual but from the citizens of Tokyo represented by the mayor.
The 3.11 Great East Japan Disaster
In my 43 years of diplomatic life, the biggest challenge I faced was the 3.11 Great East Japan Earthquake disaster which took the lives of almost 20,000 people. As a Japanese representative, my work was threefold.
The first was a channel between the Governments of Japan and the US. The main channel was in Tokyo but as the headquarters of all the government agencies were in DC, the Embassy of Japan became the back channel. I worked daily with the White House, Department of State, Department of Defense, and Department of Energy. We exchanged information about the area and I put forth Japanese requests. I was so impressed that the State Department created a 24/7 team within their office for several weeks to follow the situation. The science advisor to the President established daily telephone meetings with top nuclear scientists to discuss the matter. The Japanese people and media often focus only on Operation Tomodachi because that was what they saw with their own eyes. But behind the scenes, President Obama and the whole US Government was involved. I often thought it was my duty to convey this truth to the Japanese public.
The second task was to appear almost daily for a period of one week on national television networks to explain about the situation in Japan. Unlike Japanese TV, usually there are no consultations or prior notice regarding questions that will be asked. Everything was on the spot. Tokyo was sending us only very limited official lines such as, “We are watching the situation carefully,” for any possible questions. Of course, I would have been immediately torn apart by newscasters if I had given such bland and blank answers. I was helped enormously by my Embassy staff. They had been sent from all the ministries in Tokyo who always send their top personnel to DC. They collected information for me and we discussed intensely how far we could go before each TV show. We did the same before I met US government officials as well. Still, appearing before TV news shows was challenging. For example, I remember that once on the CNN “The Situation Room,” Wolf Blitzer asked me to stay additional minutes after my initial explanation. He then called his correspondent who was visiting Fukushima. She reported that among people in Fukushima there were rumors about a nuclear meltdown. Mr. Blitzer then turned to me and said, “Ambassador, you didn’t mention this possibility in your previous explanation. Please give us your account.”
The third task was to attend meetings in churches, colleges, schools, and other gatherings formed to extend a helping hand to Japan. As much as I could, I jumped at the chance to attend these meetings and expressed gratitude on behalf of Japan. At our Embassy, we received President Obama, Vice President Biden, Secretary Clinton, and other officials. Also, many people came with flowers, 1,000 origami cranes, and monetary contributions. I received 20 dollars from a little boy saying that was his birthday present and he wanted me to pass it on to the affected people.
People around the world helped us. Without them we would not be where we are today. Help from the US was the greatest. Americans stood by us at our most difficult time in postwar history. I thought the disaster was a huge tragedy but that we were fortunate to have the US as our partner.
I could go on and on, but my space is limited. I will stop here and express thanks to our predecessors who chose and stayed with US as our ally. In view of the changing political situation in the Indo-Pacific, the alliance becomes more and more important for both of us. I sincerely hope people in the next generation will maintain this partnership.
Ichiro Fujisaki was a Japan’s Foreign Service Officer. He served as Director-General of North American Affairs Bureau, Deputy Foreign Minister, Permanent Representative to the International Organizations in Geneva, and Ambassador to the United States of America (2008- 2012). He also served as distinguished professor and Chairman for International Strategies of Sophia University. He is currently the President of the America-Japan Society, Inc. and the President of Nakasone Peace Institute.