May-June 2021 Articles

Japan – A Time of Transition

H.E. Koji Tomita, Japan's Ambassador to the United States
James A. Winship, Ph.D.

President Biden received the Letter of Credence naming Koji Tomita as Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Japan to the United States on February 17, 2021, just one month after Biden’s inauguration.  Normally, a newly named Ambassador would present his credentials to the President in person, but Ambassador Tomita was unable to do so.  COVID protocols in effect at the White House required that the Letter of Credence be transmitted to POTUS through the Office of the Chief of Protocol at the Department of State.  Just another way that COVID has altered not only our daily lives but the work of diplomacy.

Ambassador Tomita is, in a sense, Japan’s emissary to an American presidential transition at a time when Japan, too, finds itself in transition.  Prime Minister Suga has been in that position only seven months, and Japan’s Emperor Naruhito assumed the throne just two years ago upon his father’s, Emperor Emeritus Akihito, abdication.  Faced with the realities of the COVID pandemic, Japan postponed the long anticipated 2020 Tokyo Olympics and now confronts the necessity of holding the Olympics in a severely limited form.  This year represents the 10th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, a turning point in the process of rebuilding that region but also a marker of Japan’s geographic vulnerability that continues to pose significant challenges. 

The world itself is in transition as it seeks to emerge from a global pandemic and its attendant human and economic disruptions.  Even as life-saving vaccines have emerged to protect against the ravages of COVID-19, difficult questions of mass inoculation, equitable access to vaccines across continents, and off-setting the costs of production and distribution must be confronted against the temptations of vaccine nationalism and a backdrop of soft power aid competition.  At the same time, both East Asia and the Indo-Pacific region are caught up in dramatic transitions as China asserts a greater strategic presence and key states of the region explore appropriate responses.

Two decades into the twenty-first century the world is faced with a confluence of momentous challenges as not just the balance of power shifts but as leadership changes, national interests evolve, technology dramatically impacts the tools and the definitions of national security, and a new spectrum of truly global threats – climate change, public health, terrorism, resurgent nationalism, trade imbalances, development inequities, population migration, space exploration, artificial intelligence and cyber vulnerabilities - emerges. 

Chosen for his new ambassadorial post because of his previous posting in Washington, D.C. and his familiarity with many of the Biden administration’s key figures based on his time as Minister for Political Affairs and Deputy Chief of Mission during the Obama administration, Ambassador Tomita also has broad experience dealing with international security issues. He returns to the United States after stints as Director General of the North American Affairs Bureau of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Ambassador to the State of Israel; Japan’s Representative to the G20 Summit in Osaka, Japan; and, Ambassador to the Republic of Korea.  Other overseas postings have included London and Paris.
Ambassador Tomita is a graduate of the University of Tokyo’s Faculty of Law, a traditional career path into the Japanese government positions.  He recalls with special fondness, however, his enrollment as an international student at Davidson College in North Carolina, where he found the cultural diversity of the United States eye-opening.  “It was a life-changing experience, and it motivated me to do something in the international field.”  That something became a forty year career in diplomacy with a particular emphasis on the English-speaking world and questions of regional and global security.

Despite the myriad transitions going on around him Ambassador Tomita notes that, “When it comes to Japan and the United States, the most important things have not changed – our friendship, our Alliance and our economic partnership.  One thing that has changed is that our relationship is expected to play an even greater role in the current security environment, as our solid Alliance creates a strong foundation for regional stability.”

Thanks to the capabilities of virtual conferencing, Ambassador Tomita was kind enough to grant “Diplomatic Connections” an in-depth interview early in his return to Washington.

Diplomatic Connections:  Ambassador TOMITA, thank you for making time for this conversation.  Could you tell us a bit about your path to entering the foreign service of Japan?

Ambassador Tomita:  Japan has a national examination for entry into a diplomatic career.  After completing my university degree and achieving a solid score on that examination I was accepted into foreign service training.  
The most important aspect of my diplomatic preparation was the in-service training I received after joining the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  Every entering foreign service officer was assigned a second language in which to specialize.  In my case that language was English. After a year's internship at headquarters, I was sent to the United Kingdom where I spent two years at Oxford University doing specialized training in English language and international politics.  That experience was my entry into the full-fledged life of a diplomat.

Diplomatic Connections:  This year represents your 40th anniversary as a diplomat. How has the Japanese foreign service changed over your career?

Ambassador Tomita:  In 1975 Japan participated in the first summit meeting of major industrial nations, the grouping that later developed into the G7.  That was the first time Japan was bestowed international recognition in the group of leading nations in the world.  This was achieved by virtue of Japan’s post-war recovery and its remarkable economic growth. 
My 40 year diplomatic career spans the process of Japan assuming increasingly important roles and greater responsibility in world affairs.  This has been accomplished through Japan’s efforts to strengthen our alliance with the United States as well our efforts to make contributions to peacekeeping missions and peacemaking efforts in various parts of the world.  Japan participates fully in various frameworks of regional and international cooperation as they address a range of global challenges.  We have also made efforts to provide substantial economic assistance to developing countries. 
Japan’s foreign service has been at the forefront of all these efforts.   I have been able not only to witness but to play a role in the grand transformation of Japan.  I am quite proud of that.

Diplomatic Connections:  Does that mean that Japan’s diplomatic corps has grown in size over those years?

Ambassador Tomita:  There has been phenomenal growth in Japan’s investment in diplomatic efforts.  We have significantly increased the number of our foreign missions and roughly doubled the number of personnel in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Diplomatic Connections:  Is there a comparable growth in the number of women who serve as foreign service officers now?

Ambassador Tomita:  Japan is still lagging behind compared with some other countries, but we are making efforts.  We are starting to see women in managerial positions, and women are being named to ambassadorial posts.  We are heading in the right direction.

Diplomatic Connections:  As you assume your new responsibilities as Japan’s Ambassador to the United States, especially given the new Biden administration, what are the key issues in the US- Japan relationship right now? 

Ambassador Tomita: As I take up my post as Ambassador at this time of transition in the United States, my immediate task is to establish a solid foundation for our bilateral partnership under the new Administration.  That means establishing good lines of communication at all levels of government as well as nurturing rapport and trusted relationships at the highest level of government.  That will be an extremely important job in the coming weeks and months.
During this time of transition I want to make sure that we continue to have a robust alliance between our two countries.  Already we have agreed to an interim solution over the ongoing negotiations dealing with host nation support. Early agreement on this subject is a very good signal that demonstrates the health of our alliance.
As the Biden Administration proceeds with its policy review covering many important areas, Japan wants to engage our American friends, to coordinate our positions, and to proactively strengthen the areas of policy agreement between us.  These areas of shared interest include, of course, China and North Korea but also global issues like climate change, trade, and controlling the current pandemic.   Those are my immediate priorities in terms of establishing a solid ground for cooperation.
My other priority would be how to address the disruption in our usually very robust people-to-people exchanges and counterpart meetings caused by the pandemic.  My goal is to prevent these disruptions from causing long-lasting negative impacts on our bilateral partnership.

Diplomatic Connections:  Could you explain a bit more what is involved in the host nation agreement?

Ambassador Tomita:  The host nation agreement defines the specific support Japan will provide to the United States in conjunction with the American forces based in our country.  This agreement is updated every five years, and the current agreement was scheduled to expire at the end of March 2021.  Because of the change of Administration in the United States there was little time to discuss the terms of any new agreement.  In the interim, we agreed to simply extend the existing arrangements for one year.   This removes any uncertainties regarding the state of affairs surrounding the U.S.-Japan alliance.

Diplomatic Connections:  What has been the impact of COVID and the pandemic on Japan, the Japanese people, the Japanese economy – how is vaccination being handled, for example? That seems to be the immediate question almost everywhere in the world.

Ambassador Tomita:  First, I would like to express my deepest sympathy for the suffering American people have had to go through because of the pandemic.  It is difficult to find the words to describe my feelings about the enormity of more than 500,000 deaths here.
Japan has also had to endure difficulties caused by the pandemic with the number of infections standing at 460,000 and the death toll at 8,900. That is a relatively lower impact than what has been experienced by some other countries. Still it is a severe toll in terms of public health.
The pandemic has had a very far-reaching impact, not just on Japan’s public health, but also on the economic and social well-being of our country.  The Japanese economy contracted by 4.8% in 2020. The government has been doing everything it can do to alleviate all these dislocations and the sufferings. In terms of vaccines, we have signed contracts with three pharma companies to procure a combined total of 314 million doses of vaccines.  We started inoculation with healthcare staff and will continue to expand access to vaccines as availability permits.

Diplomatic Connections:  What is the status of the Tokyo Olympics at this point?  Historically, the 1964 Tokyo Olympics were a transformative experience for Japan.  Those Games marked the modernization of post-war Japan and the emergence of the Japanese economy as a powerhouse in world trade.  There was certainly every hope that 2020 would be a fresh injection of energy for 21st century Japan. What does Japan see as the status of the Olympics at this point?  What have been the disruptions and what are the hopes for staging the Games this year?

Ambassador Tomita:  The 2021 Olympic Games will carry a different historical significance.  Successfully holding the games will send a very strong message throughout the world that the international society is overcoming this pandemic.
This is the anniversary year of the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake. The Olympic Games present an opportunity for us to showcase the progress we’ve made and the reconstruction to date.  Staging the Games will be a very important occasion, not just as a sporting event, but also as evidence of all the hopes we have for the development of 21st century Japan both at home and on the world stage. 
Given the current status of the pandemic situation, it is clear that the games must be organized in a manner that will ensure that all necessary measures against COVID-19 are in place.  The Japanese government is working in very close consultation with the Tokyo metropolitan government, the Japanese organizing committee, and of course the sporting organizations, including the IOC, to protect the health and safety of the athletes and the Japanese people. We are making strong efforts to assure that the Olympic Games happen.
[NOTE: In late March the Tokyo Olympics organizing committee announced that no foreign spectators would be allowed to attend the Olympic Games.  A limited number of Japanese spectators will likely be permitted under strict health protocols.]

Diplomatic Connections:  Though a portion of your career has been devoted to North America, you have also studied closely regional and global security concerns.  Nowhere in the world are those questions more pressing than in the Asia Pacific region.  Japan has depended heavily on the American nuclear umbrella for its security, but that dependency has created strains on both sides of the Pacific. What should new US- Japan security arrangements look like?

Ambassador Tomita:  Certainly the so-called nuclear umbrella, as a deterrent, has been a key component of Japan’s security, but this reality underscores a focus on conflict – a potential nuclear threat to Japan. The security picture we confront in East Asia is far more complex.  We have to prepare for a number of contingencies including scenarios where low intensity conflict risks escalating into high intensity conflict.
At the same time we are being faced with a variety of non-conventional threats, including  cyber-attacks, terrorism, trade restrictions and threats to freedom of navigation that endanger critical sea lanes and lines of supply. Increasingly, we must think in terms of extended deterrence beyond our home islands. We need to take a holistic approach to security developing enhanced, technologically sophisticated conventional and defense capabilities, including missile defense.
What that means to our alliance partnership is that, increasingly, U.S. allies in this part of the world need to assume a proactive role in the maintenance of peace and security of the Asia-Pacific region.  As a consequence, Japan in recent years has made efforts to strengthen our part in the alliance partnership with the United States. This effort is most clearly seen in the “Legislation for Peace and Security” passed by the Japanese Diet in 2015, which allows Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to operate overseas for the “collective self-defense” with allies under certain conditions.  I was heavily involved in drafting and advancing that legislation.

Diplomatic Connections:  There have been continuing freedom of navigation issues as China has sought to expand its definition of territorial waters in recent years.  Recently there have been repeated Chinese incursions into Japanese waters around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea southwest of Okinawa.  This has caused Japan to revise the mission statements of its Coast Guard and Naval Self-Defense forces.  How should Japan respond to these territorial challenges?

Ambassador Tomita:  We have updated our defense guidelines with the United States several times in recent years to respond to the changing security picture in the region.  We have continuously reviewed our defense policies in response to the East China Sea situation.  The Japanese government is heartened by the fact that the Biden administration, immediately after taking over from the previous administration, reaffirmed the U.S. commitments based on Article 5 of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan emphasizing that the Senkakus fall within the geographic area covered by security guarantees.

Diplomatic Connections:  There is much conversation about the so-called “Quad,” a deepening relationship between Japan, the United States, Australia, and India. In turn that discussion has generated a new regional term that refers to the Indo-Pacific security region.  What is the content of the security and cooperation effort between those four countries?  China says it's an effort to contain China. Is that what it is?

Ambassador Tomita:  The Quad is not directed toward any specific country.  Neither is it an embryo for a future defense Alliance. The Quad is a vehicle for the participating countries to achieve their shared goal of a free and open Indo-Pacific.  You might be surprised to see that the Quad is focusing on practical areas of cooperation like infrastructure development, maritime security, cybersecurity, disaster relief and human development.
The Quad is ready to work with other members of the Pacific community and ASEAN (The Association of Southeast Asian Nations) in particular.  We fully respect the nuanced ASEAN position embodied in the so-called ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, as well as ASEAN’s territorial integrity and geostrategic centrality.

Diplomatic Connections:  There was great hope for the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement between twelve Pacific Rim countries, including the United States.  The Trump Administration pulled out of that agreement as one of its first acts when it assumed power, choosing instead to negotiate a bilateral trade agreement with Japan.  How will that U.S.-Japan Trade Agreement impact commerce between our countries?

Ambassador Tomita: We hope our bilateral trade agreement will invigorate the economy in both countries.  It reduces or eliminates tariffs on a variety of agricultural and manufactured products entering Japan from the United States and vice versa.  At the same time, Japan continues to hope that we can work with the United States so that we both can play a bigger role in the efforts to create an international society based on free and fair trade rules.  Trade is an area still under review by the new Administration, and Japan looks forward to working with them to further strengthen our economic relationship.
When the U.S. chose not to enter the TPP, the other partner nations went ahead with an almost identical agreement referred to as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).  Strategically speaking, there is no doubt that we very much hope the United States will come back to the TPP framework.  But that's for the new Administration to decide.

Diplomatic Connections:  This year is the 10th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and particularly the tsunami that destroyed Fukushima causing catastrophic damage to the nuclear plant there.  Long run, Japan had always bet on the development of nuclear energy and had even moved very aggressively toward developing breeder reactors, at least in the laboratory setting.  What is Japan's energy future now?  Are some of the nuclear plants back online?  Will nuclear still be the primary energy source, or will other renewable sources play a larger role?

Ambassador Tomita:  We must talk about the energy future in the context of climate change.  Last October, Prime Minister Suga announced a very ambitious target of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050.  Japan is reviewing what sort of energy mix we need not just to ensure energy security but also to help us achieve this climate change, carbon neutrality goal.  As a country scarce in natural resources, Japan must make full use of available resources, including renewable and nuclear energy.  Unless we do that, this very ambitious goal will not be attainable.
Nuclear energy will be a key piece in the puzzle we are trying to solve.  But, in the wake of the incident at Fukushima, the challenge is how to regain the public confidence in nuclear energy.  After that incident, the Japanese government put in place a very robust framework of regulation and the means to assure the safety of nuclear operations.  But, at the same time, we have to regain a level of public confidence to move forward with this option.  Regaining that confidence is the government's priority.

Diplomatic Connections:  You have published two studies on leadership and political change - one on Winston Churchill and the other on Margaret Thatcher.  What lessons do you draw from the experience of those two British Prime Ministers?

Ambassador Tomita:  I chose those two leaders because it is my sense that there are two fundamental objectives in politics. The first is to ensure optimal distribution of resources and wealth.  The other objective of politics is to lead the nations at a time of crisis. These two politicians made exceptional achievements in these areas. 
Margaret Thatcher introduced a very different pattern of the distribution wealth in the UK.  Winston Churchill was the exceptional world leader.  Having said that, I don't think I'll ever be in the position to exercise the kind of leadership that those two leaders displayed. The qualities these two leaders demonstrated, however, very much inspired me.
In Winston Churchill’s case those qualities include a strategic vision based on a deep understanding of history, the power of communication, and what I call proactive pragmatism, through which he led the nation’s war efforts.   Margaret Thatcher demonstrated the strength of her convictions and striking intellectual honesty.  Those are the things I admire most in these leaders.

Diplomatic Connections:  Before being named Ambassador to the United States, you were Japan's Ambassador in South Korea and in Israel.  What did you learn in those experiences that you bring to your role here in the United States?

Ambassador Tomita: Understanding the alliances between the US and Korea, the US and Israel has helped me better understand the direction in which Japan might proceed in our alliance with the United States. Both South Korea and Israel, in their different ways, have very remarkable qualities.  We have many things to learn from their experiences.  The experience of serving in those countries was both challenging and rewarding.

Diplomatic Connections:  As you near the end of your 40-year career, imagine that you are asked to address the newest class of Japanese diplomats in training. What lessons, based on your experiences, would you offer them?  What have you learned over your career and your diplomatic assignments that you wish you'd known earlier?

Ambassador Tomita: I would tell them two things. First, this is a wonderful job.  It is a privilege to be able to work for your country, for the cause of peace and development, and for the welfare of the human race. Please make the most of this opportunity.
Second, I would remind them that diplomacy ultimately comes down to human relationships.  At the personal level it is critical to have a relationship of trust in order to work effectively with your counterparts. Human relationships are central to the job of being a diplomat. More generally, if you think about the interactions between countries, they also come down to human relationships – people-to-people contacts, people-to-people exchanges.  That is exactly the foundation on which the friendship between Japan and the United States has been built.

Diplomatic Connections:  Ambassador TOMITA, thank you for permitting us this interview. You’ve been most generous with your time and with your insights.  Welcome back to the United States.

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