Connecting People & Ideas to Advance Mutual Interests in U.S.-Asia Relations

Author: Jennifer Lind

Fifty years ago Monday, in a Waseda University auditorium in Tokyo, someone pulled the plug on Robert Kennedy’s microphone. The attorney general had come to Japan to repair the U.S.-Japan alliance in the wake of a major crisis two years before. That crisis, and Kennedy’s trip to Japan, hold important lessons for today’s problems in the alliance, and indeed for U.S. alliance relationships all over the world.

The 1960 security treaty crisis nearly killed the U.S.-Japan alliance. The Japanese were dismayed by what they saw as American support for rightist politicians, frightened by the risk of entanglement in nuclear crises, and fuming over U.S. control of Okinawa. The prime minister could only renew the treaty by ramming it through Parliament after forcibly removing the opposition from the building. Waves of protests rocked Tokyo; a shocked Washington canceled a scheduled presidential visit out of concern for the president’s safety.

Leaders on both sides, alarmed by the precariousness of their relationship, subsequently sought to repair the alliance. President John F. Kennedy tapped Edwin O. Reischauer, a respected Harvard scholar, as ambassador to Japan. Together with his accomplished Japanese wife, Haru, Reischauer transformed the isolated and imperious U.S. Embassy into a force for bilateral understanding and respect.

Reischauer decried the Americans’ lingering “occupation mentality,” and advocated an equal partnership with their ally. He worried that growing Japanese nationalism and anger over Okinawa would someday torpedo the alliance, and argued with U.S. military and Kennedy administration officials to return the island to Japan.

Kennedy also sent his most trusted adviser, his brother Robert, to visit Japan to repair bilateral ties. The attorney general rejected the usual courtesy calls and photo ops. (“Nothing of substance,” he dismissed, “ever happens at a state dinner.”) He debated Socialist officials, met with union and labor leaders, toured farms and factories, visited elementary schools, talked to university students, met with women’s groups, and watched sumo and judo demonstrations. He and his wife, Ethel, delighted crowds with their formidable star power and their friendliness.

On Feb. 6, the Waseda University auditorium writhed with crowds and noise. The pro-Soviet, pro-Chinese groups shouted at the attorney general and the Kennedy supporters yelled back at them. But Kennedy was unfazed, looking at a particularly agitated student in a thicket of Marxists. He suggested that the student, Tachiya Yuzo, ask him a question. That, he said, is the democratic way. He then extended his hand into the sea of black-uniformed students, and pulled Tachiya onstage.

While Kennedy politely held his microphone, the young man lambasted U.S. policies, starting with Okinawa. But as Kennedy began to reply, someone disconnected his microphone. Many Japanese watching on television were aghast to see their young people shout down and silence a foreign dignitary. Pandemonium reigned in the auditorium until Reischauer, in his fluent Japanese, calmed the audience. Someone handed Kennedy a bullhorn.

Kennedy addressed the crowd, and the country, about the importance of dialogue, which, he said, was only possible in democratic societies. “He was not ruffled, or angry,” recalls Brandon Grove, a member of his staff. “He knew what he wanted to say. … He spoke from the heart about what he thought was right.”

A Waseda cheerleader then bounded onstage, saying he wanted to make amends, and led the entire auditorium in a thunderous round of the Waseda University song. The Kennedy group, crowding around their interpreter who had quickly scratched out a transliteration, joined in the singing. The night, and the visit, was a triumph.

In subsequent years, Tokyo and Washington continued in that spirit. As their military ties grew stronger, the U.S.-Japan relationship began to encompass economics, culture, technology and education. Reischauer was able to achieve his goal of returning Okinawa to Japanese control, which occurred in 1972.

The rupture and repair of the U.S.-Japan alliance in the 1960s yield important lessons for U.S. diplomacy. At the time of the security crisis, the alliance was precariously narrow — a military marriage of convenience between Washington and a sliver of Japan’s elite. Fifty years after Robert Kennedy’s visit, Americans should celebrate the alliance’s transformation into an enduring, multilayered relationship. At the same time, America should also learn from its previous failures.

After the Kennedy-Reischauer years, Washington still neglected to develop relationships with the Japanese opposition — something Reischauer would have lamented, and something that up-ended U.S.-Japan relations when the opposition Democratic Party of Japan came into power in 2009. Moreover, as the two countries work to resolve tensions over the U.S. military base in Okinawa, Americans should remember the critical role of listening to the concerns of ordinary Japanese people — in this case, the people of Okinawa.

More broadly, Washington should notice that an alarming number of its alliances today resemble the U.S.-Japan alliance of the 1950s. In Bahrain, Pakistan, Saudia Arabia and Yemen, Washington partners with a sliver of elites who preside over populations that revile the United States. The failure to establish broader and deeper relationships puts such alliances in jeopardy.

Five decades after the confrontation at Waseda University, Tachiya (now a real estate appraiser and a grandfather) recalls that, despite his anger at American policy at the time, he could not help but admire Robert Kennedy’s willingness to engage with his opponents. It’s possible that similar attempts to engage with America’s critics today will end in failure. But they might also end with a song — and a more enduring alliance.

This article was originally published in The New York Times on February 5, 2012