Diplomatic Connections Articles

Japanese Ambassador Kenichiro Sasae

An Ambassador with the Soul of a Novelist, the Perceptiveness of an Experienced Diplomat and the Heart of a Nation
By James A. Winship, Ph.D.

When Kenichiro Sasae [pronounced Suh-suh-a–eh] was a young man, before his entry into Japan’s diplomatic service, he dreamed of becoming a novelist. “In those years,” he recalls, “I was interested in reading the work done by Ryo–taro– Shiba. He wrote extensively about Japan’s historical transitions and the evolution of modern Japan, especially its encounter with foreign powers and its relationships with other Asian states. His focus was on the Meiji period in Japan and the emergence of national leadership as the shogunate form of government was replaced by more modern institutions.”

Though this future Japanese ambassador to the United States busied himself as a fledgling writer in high school, he admits that at university, “I found I did not have enough talent to become a serious writer.” Then, he says, his love of writing turned from a focus on literature to a focus on history. Good preparation for a future diplomat, to be sure. Still, his interest in historical fiction melded the art of a novelist with the historian’s insight into the life and mind of the Japanese people as they moved from a policy of extended isolation from the outside world to a new era of close encounter with the modernity of Europe and America.

While Ambassador Sasae was a student at Tokyo University, Japan was confronted with the so-called “Nixon Shock,” (1971) a surprise change in the direction of U.S. economic policy that decoupled the U.S. dollar from the gold standard and resulted in the emergence of an international system of floating exchange rates that jolted the Japanese economy. At the same time, Nixon and Kissinger were engaged in a process of secret diplomacy that would pave the way for Nixon’s visit to China (1972). That Nixon visit led quickly to the normalization of diplomatic relations between Japan and China.

These abrupt changes in the framework of global economic policy and the structure of diplomatic relations in Northeast Asia served to dramatize the importance of diplomacy to the growth of the Japanese economy and the security of the Japanese people. This was history in process, and university student Kenichiro Sasae was drawn from the reading of history and the writing of historical fiction to the making of history as a career diplomat.

Much of his study focused on Japan in the midst of transitions, and Ambassador Sasae’s diplomatic career has followed that path as Japan has responded to a changing global and regional context. Now, as Ambassador to the United States, he is once again responding to transition by evolving a new set of regional relationships in response to China’s rise and strengthening Japan’s security relationships with the United States.

Ambassador Sasae joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1974, beginning what is now a more than 40-year career in diplomacy, much of it spent inside the bureaucratic structure of the Foreign Ministry itself. Immediately before his appointment as ambassador, Mr. Sasae served as Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs, the highest ranking career position in the Ministry (2010 – 2012). Prior to that he served as Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs (2008 – 2010). As Director-General of the Asian and Oceania Bureau of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 2005 – 2008, Sasae served as Japan’s lead representative to several rounds of the “Six Party Talks” among South Korea, North Korea, Japan, the United States, China and Russia that explored the security concerns arising from North Korea’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (2003) and sought to limit its nuclear weapons development program.

Early in his diplomatic career, Ambassador Sasae studied at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. His first overseas assignment was as First Secretary at the Japanese Embassy in Washington, D.C. (1984). After only a short time in the United States, he was called back to Tokyo to serve as Principal Deputy Director of the First International Organizations Division at the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo (1985). Following that appointment, in rapid succession he served as Principal Deputy Director of the Soviet Union Division, Principal Deputy Director of the First North America Division and Director of the Second North America Division.

Following a year-long interlude as Counsellor at the Japanese Embassy to the United Kingdom and a Research Associate at London’s highly respected International Institute for Strategic Studies, Sasae was appointed Counsellor at the Permanent Mission of Japan to the International Organizations in Geneva, Switzerland. There, he served for three years as Special Advisor to Mrs. Sadako Ogata in her role as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (1994 – 1997).

Returning to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tokyo in 1997, Mr. Sasae was named Director of the Northeast Asia Division and subsequently as Deputy Director-General of the Asian Affairs Bureau. From 2000 – 2001 Sasae served as Executive Assistant for Foreign Affairs to Prime Minister

Yoshiro– Mori (Liberal Democratic Party) before returning to the Foreign Ministry as Deputy Director-General of the Foreign Policy Bureau and later serving as Director-General of the Economic Affairs Bureau. He reached the pinnacle of Japan’s foreign affairs bureaucracy when he served as Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs (2010 – 2012).

When we spoke with Ambassador Sasae, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had just finished a state visit to the United States. The ambassador was kind enough to offer us his insights into the official and the behind-the-scenes workings of that visit as well as to give us glimpses of Japan’s current national security and foreign policy concerns.

Diplomatic Connections: As we sit here for this interview, you must be breathing a sigh of relief now that Prime Minister Abe’s visit has come and gone. What is it like here in the embassy when you are getting ready for a major visit like that?

Ambassador Sasae: There is a great deal of preparation for a major visit like the one Prime Minister Abe recently made. Most of the work of the Ambassador’s office is done before the official visit takes place. This is true not only in terms of the official substance of the visit but also in terms of logistics and services. Every moment of the visit must be scripted and orchestrated so that each scheduled event, each meeting proceeds smoothly. We try to anticipate everything that we can. And, of course, this becomes even more complicated when —as was the case with this visit to the United States — the Prime Minister is not just visiting Washington, D.C., but several other American cities on both coasts as well.

Every bit of the agenda — defense and national security, economics, trade issues and broader Asia-Pacific affairs — must be thoroughly considered and carefully prepared for. You go into extensive preparation and close collaboration with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Prime Minister’s Office. And you do the same thing with the American counterpart institutions — the White House, the National Security Council, the State Department, the Department of Defense, the Treasury Department, the Office of the Trade Representative, and — since the Prime Minister was addressing a Joint Meeting of Congress — the leadership of both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Diplomatic Connections: Much of your career has been at the Foreign Ministry itself. There can be very few diplomats in the world who have such deep experience and practical knowledge of dealing with North Korea as you have. Based on your long-term involvement in the Six Party Talks regarding North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons that have gone on intermittently since 2003, what can you tell us about your experience dealing with the North Koreans and learning to negotiate with that regime?

Ambassador Sasae: I began to work on the North Korean issue when I was the Director for Korean Affairs at the Foreign Ministry. That was 1997. At the time the situation was difficult. There were famines and food shortages in North Korea. And in spite of the nuclear deal done in the 1990s [1994’s “Agreed Framework”], we were beginning to be worried about North Korea renewing its nuclear weapons program by moving in a different direction.

There was also growing recognition that Japanese citizens had been abducted by the North Korean regime. Negotiations with North Korea had been ongoing, but they were unsuccessful. When I took the job as Director for Korean Affairs, my ambition was to do something to help those Japanese citizens who had been abducted. Then later on we found out that North Korea might be breaching all of its agreements previously negotiated by the U.S. government. We discovered that they were trying to develop missiles and even nuclear weapons, perhaps with the eventual goal of marrying the two.

I do not want to get into too much detail about the Six Party Talks that began in 2003. But, I found that the basic objective of the North Korean negotiators was to make certain that their regime would survive intact. They basically distrusted the United States and others, including Japan, because they perceived that the eventual goal of these powers was regime change.

But, at the same time, we had to try to make sure that their weapons and missile development programs would be eliminated. We also sought to address seriously a variety of humanitarian questions.

The lesson I draw is that we have to be engaged. Engaging means many things. It can mean putting pressure. It can mean defining clearly the specific interests of all sides in any negotiation. Engagement and negotiation are easy to talk about, but difficult to do because they are often not popular with the domestic audience.

At this moment, to be honest, we are stuck. We haven’t found any means that are effective and enforceable with the North Koreans. Dealing with North Korea is very difficult. But for all the frustration, you can’t simply sit back and wait. You have to exert extensive pressure and pursue engagement and try to find some way out together with them.

Diplomatic Connections: We are acknowledging this year the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in 1945. Still there are deep and painful memories on both the American side and the Japanese side and elsewhere in Asia. Those memories and the pain they recall are real and important, but they are also in the past. How do we acknowledge those events and the emotions that go with them and at the same time go on to build a stronger relationship?

Ambassador Sasae: Seventy years is a long period. Our reconciliation process is not one or two years in the making. When we are told about all the tragic events of the war-time period, we are basically being told by our parents’ generation. We listen to these memories and share them. We respect those who suffered, and we vow never to forget these events. We seek not only to know the history but also to digest it, to learn from it and to make those lessons a part of our own history. We never want to lose those memories, no matter how painful. But, it is not good to become a hostage to that pain.

I think this is what has happened between Japan and the United States. We keep and respect those memories. We try to learn from them and to avoid repeating these events. But, we have moved on. We have a different relationship now. And, we live in a very different world with new sets of concerns and security threats.

Diplomatic Connections: Japan is beginning to try to expand its ability to shield itself, to expand its national security capabilities. Prime Minister Abe proposes to reinterpret portions of the Japanese Constitution to allow the Japanese Self-Defense Forces greater flexibility in the missions they undertake. Yet, in the region, China, Korea and Taiwan all have specific histories that lead them to be concerned about a possible resurgence of Japanese militarism.

How does Japan strengthen national security and at the same time reassure its neighbors who distrust any Japanese military?

Ambassador Sasae: There is no intention to move toward militarism. We have come a long way and are proud of our post-war history — 70 years of peace-loving and peace-building efforts.

We have provided economic assistance to our Korean and Chinese friends. If we have any other motivations, why should we engage in these extensive efforts to help other countries in the region develop?

Diplomatic Connections: Do you envision that the Japanese Self-Defense Forces will be able to work in a close and coordinated fashion with the armed forces of other countries in the region? For example, do you envision collaborative efforts to protect shipping lanes and to insist on the basic principle of freedom of the seas?

Ambassador Sasae: The United States is our only ally. For many years there has been a fundamental imbalance between the American Forces and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, especially in times of contingency. But the new defense guidelines to which Japan and the United States have agreed to in the 2 + 2 talks that were held at the time of Prime Minister Abe’s visit are designed to allow us both to adapt to the new, emerging security environment in the region and beyond.

We are trying to do something more natural for a sovereign state in the realm of international relations to make Japan a normal actor in the realm of global security by removing some of the restrictions on the activities of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces. These restrictions made sense in the aftermath of World War II, but today we live in a very different world with very different security threats. Japan has no expansionist ambitions. We seek only to become a normal nation-state actor with the ability to defend itself against threats and to participate proactively in the evolving global security architecture of the 21st century.

Diplomatic Connections: Why is the Abe government so interested in expanding Japan’s defense capabilities?

Ambassador Sasae: Our goal, always, is to be safe and secure. Because of a whole new range of threats coming from North Korea and elsewhere, we have to increase our deterrent capabilities. We seek to strengthen deterrence, not to develop the ability to project our forces into other countries.

This message of deterrence needs to be seen and interpreted correctly. There are other countries in the region expanding their own military infrastructure and seeking to become more insistent in asserting their influence and expanding their claims to authority. We don’t want the Japanese government to be giving misleading signals. At the same time, we cannot sit back and do nothing to respond to the changing security situation. We need to make sure that we are not going to be threatened.

Diplomatic Connections: There is a continuing issue between Japan and China over what Japan refers to as the Senkaku Islands and the Chinese refer to as the Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. Japan currently exercises sovereignty over the islands, though China challenges that status. How do you understand that situation and the guarantees to protect Japanese sovereign territory that are part of the Mutual Security Treaty between Japan and the United States?

Ambassador Sasae: President Obama said the right thing when he reiterated the statement made during his visit to Japan in 2014. He made it clear that the Senkakus fall within the purview of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty.

[Diplomatic Connections Note: During a joint press conference with Prime Minister Abe in Washington, D.C., in April 2015, President Obama said, “I want to reiterate that our treaty commitment to Japan’s security is absolute, and that Article 5 covers all territories under Japan’s administration, including the Senkakus.”]

This was at a time when the Japanese people had begun to be worried about all the provocations by China, including not only their claims to the Senkakus but also their creeping expansion in the South China Sea. Even though actions in the East China Sea are independent of actions in the South China Sea, they derive from the same Chinese policy motives.

We are allies and friends, so for the United States to reiterate that, “We will defend you if it is necessary” is always an important and reassuring step.

Diplomatic Connections: May we shift gears to talk about economic issues for a few moments, particularly the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership [TPP] trade agreement, which was very much a part of Prime Minister Abe’s agenda while he was here in the United States. Do you think the visit helped to advance the agenda of the TPP and improve its prospects for approval?

Ambassador Sasae: Very much so! In the process leading up to the Prime Minister’s visit there were extensive discussions and negotiations undertaken between the two governments. There was major progress. We are rather close to the final chapter. That is important for not only other countries in the region to know, but also for Congress to be aware of.

The Prime Minister appealed to Congress and was quite explicit about the fact that Japan and the United States need to have this TPP. It is crucial to creating jobs and employment and to strengthening the export markets for all of the partner countries. There are substantial economic benefits to be gained in this effort. Longer term this is also a national security issue. Longer term security means that people need to see a strong American presence, not just in security matters but in expanding the Asian regional economies as well.

Diplomatic Connections: Where trade is concerned, there are highly emotional issues with the domestic constituencies on both sides. The agricultural sector in Japan is always concerned about agricultural imports, and food supplies have always been treated as a national security issue reflecting Japan’s potential vulnerabilities. In the United States there is the automotive issue as well as an abiding concern about job loss that has generated a new surge of support for a “Made in America” emphasis.

Can these emotional pockets of resistance to any new trade agreement be overcome?

Ambassador Sasae: I think so. I hope so! The age of “trade wars” between the United States and Japan was over a long time ago. Back in the 1980s, even in the 1990s, we had long debates about opening up the countries, what dislocations might occur, what would be the specific arrangements regarding certain industries. But after all of that, we see more direct investment taking place in both countries.

Of course there is the exchange of goods and services, but the important thing is that there is more Japanese investment in the United States producing nearly one million American jobs. Interestingly enough, there are many Americans driving Japanese-branded cars, but they are not Japanese cars anymore. The brand is Japanese, but it is an American-made car. That is an important awareness.

Diplomatic Connections: That was an interesting dimension of the Prime Minister’s trip. It was not just a state visit to Washington, D.C. There was a definite trade and economic recovery dimension to his efforts, an extension of his “Abenomics” emphasis on stimulating the Japanese economy.

Ambassador Sasae: There were very good discussions, not only about technology but also about how to encourage venture capitalism and new start-up enterprises. The Prime Minister talked with many entrepreneurs, and I was struck by the fact that Japan’s younger generation is attracted to these high-tech businesses where they can apply their knowledge and develop their business skills. Traditionally, Japanese young people aspired to go to large established companies that provided job security. They preferred not to go out on their own. But these days that cultural norm is being challenged. That is a good thing for us.

Diplomatic Connections: One of the more persistent and difficult issues between the United States and Japan is the issue of American bases in Japan, particularly on the island of Okinawa. How do you think that will be resolved? Is there a way to work toward defusing that concern?

Ambassador Sasae: This issue needs to be placed in the larger context of Asia-Pacific security. There has been a decision, an agreement made with the United States to redistribute American Forces in the region. This includes a reduction of the American footprint in Okinawa by decreasing the number of Marines there and relocating some of them to Guam. In that way there will be more land available to the Okinawan people. That is a political necessity.

[Diplomatic Connections Note: About half of all American military personnel in Japan are stationed in Okinawa. There is widespread concern on Okinawa that the bases bring noise, crime and environmental damage to the island.]

It is important for the Okinawan people to understand that the presence of American Forces on Japanese soil is vital to our nation’s security. At the same time, we have to make sincere efforts to win the support of the Okinawan people.

Diplomatic Connections: A very different final question, Mr. Ambassador. As you look at your long career and especially as you look at your time here as Japan’s Ambassador to the United States, what is on your “to do” list for the future?

Ambassador Sasae: First, I think our alliance is stronger now. That is a good thing for which I have long wished. Maintaining and strengthening that alliance has been my most important job since coming to Washington, and it will continue to be so.

Second, there are those policy areas where we need to have close policy coordination and cooperation. That is certainly true of the regional security issues we have been discussing, but there are other issues as well. We need to make certain that there are no surprises in our relationship. To accomplish that we have to assure that there is always a good and open dialogue between us.

Third, all of this alliance and friendship is based on a wider and deeper level of exchanges between the people of Japan and the United States. Seventy years of exchanges have been enormously productive.

Diplomatic Connections: On that note of shared experience, we must bring our conversation to a close. Thank you, Mr. Ambassador.

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