“I want to say this” — a conversation about change

His Excellency Kenichrio Sasae, Ambassador of Japan to the United States

His Excellency Kenichiro Sasae, 42nd Ambassador of Japan to the United States (Photo courtesy of the Embassy of Japan.)

“Let’s go see everything”

With a record of 42 years of service and postings ranging from the Foreign Ministry to foreign lands, one might believe that Kenichiro Sasae was born a diplomat. In fact, his earliest aspirations were on the soccer pitch. In high school, he left his home in Okayama prefecture to attend a boarding school in Hiroshima which had a strong development program. He also always harbored a passion for history and literature with a desire to become a writer. But with neither the ball nor the pen could Sasae find enough talent to make a professional career.

“But I loved reading all of these novels and stories and histories and so gradually I developed my own interests about the world. History makes you interested in how the world is like,” said Sasae. He enjoyed books written by young world travelers, especially Makoto Oda’s 1961 bestseller Nandemo Mite yaro (“I’ll go and see everything”). Though Sasae didn’t agree with Oda’s left-wing political philosophy, he was fascinated by the stories of travels through Europe and Asia on a budget of a dollar a day.

But Sasae never traveled outside of Japan himself. “I wanted to do it, but somehow I was so busy in playing football and other things, so I didn’t have a chance.”

Until one day, a friend of his talked about going to take the Foreign Service exam. Sasae had never considered the field himself, but he recalled reading about Japan’s great Edo and Meiji period diplomats, especially former Japanese Foreign Minister Munemitsu Mutsu’s Kenkenroku: A Diplomatic Record of the Sino-Japanese War. This experience, combined with a chance encounter over dinner at the same friend’s home with a contemporary Japanese diplomat (“He was proud of his ability to predict unpredictable things.”), propelled him into the Foreign Service in 1974.

“A change in myself”

A decade later, Sasae was posted to Washington, DC as a First Secretary. Fast forward another 28 years and a term as Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs — Japan’s highest-ranking career officer — and Sasae finds himself back in our nation’s capital as the 42nd Ambassador of Japan to the United States since the Meiji Restoration.

The basic landscape of the city has not changed much, said Sasae. Embassy Row in particular is still largely the same. But he said it’s much cleaner, safer, and more congested.

“And I think since I have grown older — I feel, more like this town is part of my life,” said Sasae. “I started my diplomatic life in the United States so to me this is the initial chapter. Now I come back as Ambassador — and I don’t know — possibly I’ll be finishing my service here. So now it’s an integral part, but in a different way.”

“When I started, this town was unknown to me and full of anxiety and hope. And now the town is more stable, and I feel more personal affection for it. This is more personal. So that’s not a change in the town, that’s a change in myself — how the scenery looks at me, rather than how I look at the scenery.”

“Engagement is important”

Sasae also sees a change in the way the United States looks at itself. At a time when many citizens are questioning the American system and what role the United States should play on the global stage, he remains a staunch believer. “I think America is stronger than people believe in, in terms of democratic institutions and economic potential and power and all this capacity to absorb different ideas and different cultures, to integrate them,” said Sasae. “And to produce enormous energy to move forward.”

For Sasae, the debate is healthy, and integral to democracy. He only advocates for continued engagement. “You know more or less every country thinks that their country is first. It’s not necessarily totally unique,” said Sasae. “The question is how you would translate it, and that’s sort of making your country great and unique consistent with other goals, to make others also great and happy and prosperous.”

“I want to say this: America’s presence is not purely limited to military presence or even economic presence. It’s also the soft power presence — power to convince people. If any one of these is lacking, this is not sufficient to make America great.”

These and more are the kinds of messages Sasae communicates during outreach work across Washington, DC. He places emphasis on building and maintaining relations not only with the executive branch, but also directly with the Supreme Court and Congress.

Conversations with Members of Congress are particularly valuable. Though he often hears opinions different to his own, they challenge him to consider what about a Member’s district or personal background have let him or her to that position. “It is not simply Democrats versus Republicans,” said Sasae. “I think the interests are more divergent and complicated and nuanced.”

Of course, Sasae also takes the opportunity to share about Japanese interests, including the economic and importance of the Japan-US alliance. Sasae worked on bilateral trade relations as a young Foreign Service Officer in the late 1970s and early 1980s — a rough time between the United States and Japan. Over his career, Sasae has watched our two nations address and resolve these past tensions to balance the trade relationship. He has also been a part of and studied numerous bilateral and multilateral trade negotiations. With this perspective, he is and remains a staunch advocate for free trade — whether multilateral, regional, or bilateral.

“A diplomat’s work is to make peace”

Indeed, historical perspective is integral to the way Sasae considers the present and plans for the future. In addition to reading a recent biography of Russian President Vladimir Putin, he is also reading a book about US-Japanese relations before, during, and after World War II.

“I am always trying to find out why we went to war. There are always lessons to be learned,” said Sasae. “When there is peace, you always have to think about war. When you are at war, you always have to think about peace. That means that you are thinking about the possibility of war, you have to think about how you can maintain peace when you are at peace.”

When Sasae eventually leaves Washington, DC (“I’m not leaving yet!”), it will be the friendships he will miss most, which he calls the best fortune of his posting here. Beyond the government officials and journalists, he has enjoyed developing relations with people on the grassroots level, Americans and Japanese expats alike. The rest — his work and professional achievements — those can be left to his memoir.

“I will try to accomplish my younger days’ dream of becoming a writer,” laughed Sasae. “I always say this, but I’ve never done this before, so I don’t know how I will do it!”

One more question for Ambassador Sasae…

In your remarks at receptions and elsewhere, you often discuss the meaning of a Japanese name…

Well Japanese names characters have their own meanings. For example my name is Kenichiro (賢一郎) — “wise first-born boy.” So I would imagine my parents wanted me to be a wise boy.

Sometimes a name shows who you are and how. It doesn’t represent everything, but tells part of that, possibly. Naming is very much affected by what is happening at the time when you are born, like a children named after famous singers. These days in Japan I think the tendency is you come up with a different characters with different tone, different pronunciation. You can’t really read it simply by the characters. It’s getting more complicated, more difficult. It’s complicated, but it reflects our times. But what I am interested in when talking about the meaning of their name is trying always to find a positive part of the people and person I’m talking to.

n.b. Your humble author’s name Andrew is derived from the Greek andros, meaning “manly” or “courageous.” Special thanks to Alexis Ayano Terai for research and interview help. Ambassador Sasae notes that Alexis is an interesting name as well. He once had a dog named Alex, a German shepherd!