‘Our Man in Tokyo’

A biography of the golf-loving American ambassador to Japan who tried his best to prevent Pearl Harbor

Our Man in Tokyo: An American Ambassador and the Countdown to Pearl Harbor by Steve Kemper focuses on the tense and seemingly unstoppable run-up to the attack on Pearl Harbor, 81 years ago today. But while reading the early pages, one can’t help but think about another war, the one unfolding today in Ukraine.

For weeks, the world was warned that Russia planned to invade. Tanks and troops massed at the border. Vladimir Putin issued denials and dismissed the warnings as absurd lies by the West. The Ukrainians failed to take the most basic precautions, like fortifying Antonov Airport near Kiev or turning road signs in the wrong directions, a tactic that has confused invaders, at least initially, for hundreds of years.

When the attack came, it surprised no one watching from the sidelines.

Modern popular culture has a different view of December 7, 1941. It’s sanded down this momentous event in the intervening decades to a simplistic understanding in the minds of many: the United States was happily at peace when, out of the blue, Japan struck.

Our Man in Tokyo

But it wasn’t so–for weeks and even months the world was warned, just as today. Relations between the two nations were deeply acrimonious. Saber rattling was endemic. The newspapers were filled with it. The United States had placed an embargo on Japan and frozen its assets while in Japan leaders whipped crowds into nationalistic frenzies by accusing the United States and its allies of blocking Japan’s destiny. War was coming–the only question was when, and how. And yet the United States failed to take the most basic precautions.

Behind the scenes the situation was even more fraught. In both Japan and the United States, diplomats and government officials feuded over how to deal with the other. Neither side understood that the other side was not a monolith, that it was riven by different viewpoints, competing interests, and by different cultural and geopolitical concerns.

And the man in the center of it all was Joseph Grew, the patrician, Boston-bred, golf-and wine-loving United States ambassador to Japan. It was his fate to try and juggle each country’s desires and keep diplomacy alive even as the clouds of war darkened, and even though some in his own government didn’t trust him – so much so that they failed to share basic information with him.

Grew is “Our Man in Tokyo.”  By turns enlightening and maddening, describing missed opportunity piled upon missed opportunity, Kemper’s book shows us in lively terms the upside-down world of Japanese politics in the pre-war era, and how a surprisingly enlightened Grew tried his best to stave off catastrophe–and people accused him of “going native” for his troubles.

First, the synergies with the situation in Ukraine. Japan invades China under false pretenses and blames China for forcing it to do so. It commits atrocity after atrocity, but always dodges blame. It’s all lies that the corrupt West fabricated. Putin could have uttered some of the phrases himself. Maybe he saw the galleys of Kemper’s book.

Kemper lays out the then-and-now similarities nicely but can be a little too on the nose. At least twice he uses the phrase “fake news”–accurate, perhaps, but distracting in a book set in the 1930s.

A professional diplomat of the old school, one who believes in socializing, making friends, and picking up tidbits from sources here and there around town, Grew makes a game effort to understand the nuances of Japanese society and government.

The vast majority of Japanese citizens and politicians, at least in the early going, were moderates deeply opposed to war. When militants assassinated officials who they felt were too pro-West–as happens more than the reader can count–the government arrests them. Yet they also become heroes because of their honest motives; they did what they thought was best for the country, even if it wasn’t best for the country.

And while militants can never put the blame on Emperor Hirohito for anything, they can accuse his advisers of giving him bad advice, and they can kill them. And they do.

As Grew works to understand this topsy-turvy logic, he has a fine time in early 1930s Tokyo. It sounds like a great place–parties to attend, cigars to savor, Geishas to flirt with, a resort in the mountains to enjoy–and golf. Lots and lots of golf. On some occasions, the ambassador plays for days in a row and as much as 36 holes at one time. He claims the game helps him deal with the stress of his position. Fair enough. Still, seems like a lot of golf.

Grew invites Japanese friends and officials to embassy dinners – unlike many other nations. (Although, interestingly, he never learns to speak Japanese.) He consistently defends the Japanese point of view in his cables back to Washington DC. This causes his bosses – notably Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Stanley Hornbeck, the rigid head of Far Eastern Affairs – to lose faith in his judgment and cut him out of key decisions. They can see no good in the Japanese or the Japanese government and refuse to except the recommendations of their man on the spot, no matter how often or passionately offered.

Tokyo turns dark and drab as successive governments fall and, eventually, the military takes over. They ration everything. The clubs close.

By the time the Japanese occupy French Indochina in 1940, the die is cast. Roosevelt imposes an embargo. He’ll lift it if Japan leaves Indochina first. Japan will leave Indochina if Roosevelt lifts the embargo first. Checkmate. Round and round Grew goes, doing his best, but bringing the two sides together is impossible.

In Washington, everyone expects war. But not the way it happens–with a crushing and ingenious, if in the long-run disastrous, attack on the American fleet in Hawaii. Grew is shocked and saddened too. But he’s proud of his efforts, as he should be. In retrospect he wouldn’t have changed a thing, he says, “despite the failure of my mission.”

After 10 months of internment–he manages to play golf within the confines of the embassy grounds, where the Japanese held him and 60 staffers–Grew returned to America to give speeches and write books. But his constant refrain that the Japanese who pursued war were not the only Japanese, and that many Japanese were against it, and that the country had a glorious culture, didn’t gibe with the propagandistic needs of the day. His speechifying soon ends. But the royalties from one of his books endows a fund to bring Japanese students to study in America that still exists today.

Great biographies are about more than the subject, they are about the subject’s times. And even about our times. On this, Kemper succeeds unequivocally. In the end, do we know Joseph Grew? Does he come truly alive in Kemper’s prose? Not entirely. He seems nice enough, smart enough, and perhaps a little ahead of his time. And his mission was likely impossible. But had a remarkable journey.

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Wendell Jamieson

Wendell Jamieson, a former Metro editor of The New York Times, is an author and political consultant working in New York City. He is currently writing a book for Hachette Books with Joshua Miele, a scientist, accessibility advocate and Macarthur winner who was blinded in an acid attack as a child.

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