Our Man in Tokyo by Steven Kemper

Steven Kemper’s Our Man in Tokyo tells the story of Joseph Grew, the United States’ Ambassador to Japan in the decade leading up to World War II. Ultimately, of course, the story has to be a tragedy. Despite Grew’s tireless efforts to build meaningful relationships and develop creative solutions, he could not keep the United States and Japan from war. Nor could the many other well-intentioned people in both nations.

Grew’s story is an engaging and encouraging one, despite the ultimate result. The ambassador – outgoing, handsome, well-read, witty, used his many gifts and connections (a Harvard man) to develop true friendships with many Japanese, from those in the highest places in power (Emperor Hirohito) to those whom the world saw as lowly (even after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Grew tried to keep his older Japanese staff paid so they could eat).

Throughout the decade leading to war, Grew communicated constantly with local Japanese, other diplomats (what a grapevine in Tokyo), cultural influencers, and Presidents to try and provide on-the-ground insights about what was going on, particularly with Japanese psychology, the dangers of not providing ways to save face, and the growing power of the Japanese military in decision-making.

Kemper draws a few villains – namely U.S. advisor for Far East the State Department in Stanley Hornbeck. Hornbeck’s ideology, rather than careful observation of on-the-ground observations, led him to actively work against diplomacy and important summits between figures who may have been able to craft some sort of face-saving agreements preventing war. Kemper (and he is not the only one) sees Hornbeck’s constant attacks on Grew’s opinions as one of the deciding factors in swaying Secretary of State Hull from working diplomatic options as hard as possible. However, while Hull and Grew didn’t always agree, Hull always listened, which Kemper praises. Kemper also points out that Hull was privy to communications intercepts from Japanese sources which provided him information that even Grew didn’t know. One does wonder whether Grew would have changes some of his analysis if he had known what Hull knew.

On the Japanese side, Kemper spends time focusing on Japan’s attacks on China and Indochina; and the structural issues of a government in which a leader is divine and the military has no real civilian oversight.

My two favorite quotes about Grew come from Grew. I believe they summarize his worldview and his character:

“Diplomacy is hell on the head and double hell on the liver.”

When asked by Congressional investigators on when he knew war was inevitable, Grew’s response was always the same: “Never.”

After WWII, Grew never returned to Japan. However, he wrote that he wouldn’t given up his experience of a decade in Japan for anything “despite the final failure of my mission.” He donated funds to start a group benefitting Japanese youth and put a former diplomatic rival in charge of the organization.

I admire Grew’s tenacity, and his ability to lead with character. I hope our diplomatic corp today is filled with people of similar temperament!