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International relations

Japan awaits US ambassador with direct access to Biden

Post left vacant since July 2019 with Trump nominee held up in Senate

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is greeted by then-Ambassador to Japan William Hagerty as he arrives in Tokyo in October 2018. (Photo courtesy of the State Department)

TOKYO -- The election of Joe Biden as the next U.S. president has in effect scrapped President Donald Trump's nomination of Kenneth Weinstein as the next ambassador to Japan, leaving Tokyo to wait to see how the next administration will fill the long-vacant post.

As the main liaison for the Japan-U.S. alliance, the ambassador plays a crucial role in Tokyo's relationship with its sole formal ally. Yet the position has remained empty for nearly a year and a half, since William Hagerty stepped down in July 2019 to run for a Senate seat -- the longest vacancy since World War II. Joseph Young now serves as acting ambassador.

Though the position was once frequently occupied by Japan hands, Tokyo has shown a growing preference for an ambassador that can work closely with the president in case of an emergency, particularly given Japan's proximity to China and North Korea.

Toshihiro Nakayama, a professor of American politics and foreign policy at Keio University in Tokyo, sees Biden as likely to choose a confidant or someone who supported him during the presidential race.

"An ambassador who is well-known and close to the president, even if they don't have policy knowledge or deep involvement in Japan-U.S. relations, would be valuable for Japan," he said.

Then-President Barack Obama laughs with Caroline Kennedy, ambassador to Japan, in the Oval Office in April 2015. Kennedy was known to have direct access to Obama. (Photo courtesy of the White House)

The Trump administration nominated Weinstein, president of the conservative Hudson Institute think tank, for the role in March. But he has yet to be confirmed by the Senate, and incoming administrations typically choose their own diplomatic teams. Biden will face the unusual situation of filling an empty seat.

The vacancy could last for some time even after he takes office in January, as the confirmation process often takes up to three or four months.

Past picks have tended to reflect the state of bilateral relations at the time.

The 17 American ambassadors to Japan in the postwar era can be sorted into four broad categories: academics or diplomats with Japan expertise, prominent political figures or lawmakers, contributors to presidential campaigns, and confidants of the president.

Edwin Reischauer served as ambassador to Japan during the Kennedy administration.   © Kyodo

The first category predominated from the end of World War II through the 1960s, with such figures as Edwin Reischauer, who assumed the role during President John F. Kennedy's administration.

Reischauer, the son of American missionaries, was born in Tokyo and lived in Japan until the age of 16. During his tenure as ambassador, he was married to Haru Matsukata, the granddaughter of Masayoshi Matsukata, a Meiji-era prime minister and elder statesman.

This background served Reischauer well in working to smooth over the turmoil caused by the revision of the Japan-U.S. security treaty and the Vietnam War.

From the late 1970s, presidents tended to opt instead for big-name politicians with connections in Congress that could help address emerging sources of friction such as trade and conflict over American military bases in Japan.

Michael Mansfield, who assumed the ambassadorship under President Jimmy Carter in 1977, previously served as Senate majority leader for 16 years. Walter Mondale, President Bill Clinton's first ambassador to Japan, was Carter's vice president.

In 1996, Mondale stood alongside then-Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto to announce an agreement to return the Futenma Air Base in Okinawa to Japan, after years of tensions over the U.S. military presence on the island. Hashimoto told Clinton that he hoped to use Mondale as a conduit on trade as well.

Ambassadors to Japan since 2005 have often been people personally trusted by the president. At the start of his second term, George W. Bush chose Tom Schieffer, a co-owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team with Bush and reportedly the envoy with the closest relationship to the president.

John Roos, who held the post during Barack Obama's first term, and Hagerty supported the election campaigns of Obama and Trump respectively.

Kennedy's daughter Caroline Kennedy, who succeeded Roos in Tokyo, was known to be personally close to Obama and had direct access to the Oval Office. Her close ties were formed when she endorsed Obama for president in the 2008 presidential election, when Hillary Clinton was the lead candidate.

Recent years have seen few instances of ambassadors stepping into the spotlight to address bilateral concerns as past envoys did, which could be seen as a sign of stable ties. Howard Baker, who served in the role in the early 2000s, said in his autobiography that the mature relationship between the U.S. and Japan meant that prominent ambassadors were no longer needed.

Meanwhile, the presidential connections of recent envoys have at times proved valuable.

After the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Roos communicated with Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to coordinate the U.S. military response known as Operation Tomodachi.

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