Reischauer, Edwin Oldfather

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REISCHAUER, Edwin Oldfather

(b. 15 October 1910 in Tokyo, Japan; d. 1 September 1990 in La Jolla, California), founder of the Japan Institute at Harvard University and U.S. ambassador to Japan from 1961 to 1966.

Reischauer was the second son of extraordinarily accomplished Christian missionaries. His father, August Karl Reischauer, was a noted scholar of Japanese history and culture and cofounder of Tokyo Women's College; his mother, Helen Sidwell Oldfather, founded the first deaf school in Japan to utilize oral instruction. After a primary and secondary education spent almost exclusively in Japan, Reischauer attended Ohio's Oberlin College, where he graduated with a B.A. in history in 1931. The following year he began graduate work in East Asian studies at Harvard University, where he came under the influence of the professor of Japanese studies Serge Elisseeff, who, according to Reischauer, helped "set the course of my life." Under Elisseeff's direction, Reischauer completed his M.A. in 1932 and his Ph.D. in 1939 and took a position as instructor at Harvard. In 1935 he had married Adrienne Danton, with whom he would have three children. Following her death in 1955, Reischauer married Haru Matsukata, a writer and granddaughter of a Japanese prince, in 1956.

During the summer of 1941 Reischauer served as a State Department consultant in the Division of Far Eastern Affairs and unsuccessfully fought the decision to suspend oil shipments to Japan. In 1942 Reischauer established a school for the Army Signal Corps to train Japanese language translators and cryptologists. After accepting an officer's commission, he served in U.S. Army Intelligence from 1943 to 1945, working on the top-secret MAGIC project, which deciphered Japanese diplomatic codes.

In the autumn of 1945 Reischauer returned to the State Department to help craft policy for the postwar occupation of Japan and Korea, and in the fall of 1946 he returned to Harvard, where he served until his appointment in 1961 as ambassador to Japan. During these fifteen years, Reischauer, along with China expert John K. Fairbank, oversaw the expansion of Harvard's East Asian Studies program. Reischauer's writings on Japanese history during this period broke new ground by rejecting Marxist assumptions in favor of the so-called modernization theory, which posited that Japan's historical development was paralleling that of the United States and other western democracies.

Events in Japan during 1960 soon led Reischauer far from Harvard to the forefront of U.S–Japanese diplomacy. During May and June, Japanese disapproval of a new security treaty with the United States and growing apprehension over high-handed government tactics to guarantee the treaty's passage led to nationwide strikes and protests, which culminated on 22 June with a massive protest in which some 6 million Japanese went on strike. In the aftermath of the treaty protests Reischauer penned a penetrating analysis of U.S–Japanese relations for the journal Foreign Affairs, in which he argued that while there existed no rising tide of anti-Americanism among the Japanese, the two nations suffered from fundamentally flawed perceptions of one another that came to a head during the treaty fight. Reischauer noted that the growing perception gap could prove fatal to U.S. defense of noncommunist Asia if it led Japan to adopt a neutralist foreign policy. This article, along with the urging of undersecretary of state Chester Bowles, led to Reischauer's appointment as U.S. ambassador to Japan in 1961.

Reischauer immediately set about repairing what he termed "the broken dialogue" with Japan. He understood that many Japanese saw the United States as an aggressive power that could drag their nation into a nuclear struggle for which no adequate defense existed. Reischauer also believed that his compatriots and its leaders should pay greater attention to Japan and display a greater appreciation for Japan's critical role in the cold war struggle. Although the Japanese military could not decisively influence the outcome of the struggle, Japan's growing economic clout could prove vital. As ambassador, Reischauer encouraged Tokyo to double its foreign aid budget and increase its aid to South Korea. To improve channels of communication, meanwhile, he revamped the embassy staff, bringing in a cadre of Japanese-speaking officers, while keeping up a constant round of public appearances designed to bridge the gap in understanding between the people of Japan and the people of the United States. In the hopes of familiarizing key leaders with conditions in Japan, Reischauer convinced important officials, including Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to visit Japan. During his tenure Reischauer remained an immensely popular figure whose stature increased even more after he survived a 1964 assassination attempt at the hands of a deranged Japanese youth.

Although Reischauer's stock soared in Japan, the same could not be said for his standing in Washington. By 1964 several issues complicated both U.S–Japanese relations and Reischauer's position within the new administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson. While ably dealing with controversial issues such as the continued U.S. occupation of Okinawa as well as the U.S. Navy's practice of carrying nuclear weapons into Japan, Reischauer found it increasingly difficult to support Washington on certain issues. The ambassador, for example, disagreed with the decision to press for greater tariffs on the bulk of Japanese textile exports to the United States. Reischauer saw that Washington's case for restraints rested on unsupportable ground and urged authorities instead to focus on stimulating U.S. agricultural exports to Japan. He also disagreed with the Kennedy–Johnson policy of attempting to limit trade between Japan and Communist China. Vietnam, however, proved a greater strain both on U.S–Japanese relations, as well as the ambassador's relations with Johnson. While privately opposing much of Washington's evolving policy in Vietnam, Reischauer publicly supported his government and worked to counteract what he saw as naive Japanese press coverage that heavily favored North Vietnam.

In 1966, after almost six years of service, Reischauer determined that he had achieved what he had set out to do. Much of the misinformation that had clouded earlier relations had cleared, and Japan and the United States were far closer to being equal partners than ever before. Further service in Japan, he concluded, might only undermine all that he had accomplished.

In the summer of 1966 Reischauer returned to Harvard, where he taught until his retirement in 1981. Among his many academic writings, both Japan: The Story of a Nation (1970) and The Japanese Today: Change and Continuity (1988) remain highly regarded studies in Japanese history. Despite several severe illnesses, Reischauer kept up a busy schedule of travel, writing, and speaking until shortly before his death of complications from chronic hepatitis acquired from a blood transfusion.

Reischauer's autobiography is My Life Between Japan and America (1986). As yet there is no authoritative biography. Among Reischauer's many writings, "The Broken Dialogue with Japan," Foreign Affairs 39 (Oct.–July 1960–1961), is quite informative and illustrative of the ambassador's views prior to his posting. Obituaries are in the New York Times and Washington Post (both 2 Sept. 1990) and the (London) Times (4 Sept. 1990).

Sidney Pash