Remembering Yukio Okamoto
May 7, 2020
We awoke this morning to a beautiful spring day in Washington and the shocking news that veteran Japanese diplomat and businessman Yukio Okamoto had been taken by Covid-19 at the age of 74. Like many in this town, we are deeply saddened at the loss of a friend and mentor who steered the U.S.-Japan alliance over many decades—through good times and bad times, with Republican, Democratic, Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) governments. One of his closest friends, Richard Armitage, former deputy secretary of state, captured all our thoughts when he wrote this morning that “Yukio was a giant in Japan-U.S. relations. . . a diplomat who always did his best for his nation. My thoughts now are with Kyoko and I pray for her as well as for Yukio.”
We both knew him for decades as a stalwart in the U.S.-Japan relationship. He provided us with keen counsel in times of duress. When we worked together in the Pentagon during the Clinton administration, Yukio spoke up for the alliance at a time when many were calling for post-Cold War retrenchment and retreat. After 9/11, he drew on his bitter experience watching the alliance falter in the 1990-91 Gulf War to propose decisive steps for responding together as allies that reached both President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. He felt deep empathy for the burden borne by the people of Okinawa and long served as the most consistent and trusted channel between Naha, Tokyo, and Washington, pushing both governments to realign and reduce the U.S. military presence on the island.
Yukio first came to prominence in the 1980s as director of the Foreign Ministry office responsible for the U.S.-Japan alliance. In a bureaucracy conditioned to avoid entrapment in U.S. Cold War strategies, Yukio stood out as a maverick who recognized that a Japan that stood up to be counted was a Japan that could count on others. When Ronald Reagan and Yasuhiro Nakasone turned the alliance and the Japanese archipelago into a picket fence to block Soviet expansion in the Pacific, Yukio was one of the chief engineers. And then he broke precedent again by quitting the Foreign Ministry to establish his own business and to advise policymakers from outside the system. He did not stay outside the system for long, though, as successive prime ministers and chief cabinet Secretaries made him either their official or informal advisor on foreign affairs.
While Yukio stood out for his policy entrepreneurship, it was his humanity that drew people from so many different fields into life-long friendships with him. He was passionate about sumo and baseball and represented the National Football League in Japan. On any given night, he could be found in the Highlander Bar of the Okura Hotel, where he taught us and many others how to drink single malt whisky (stirred 300 times at ice cold temperatures). His office and apartment were monuments to traditional Japanese culture but a testament to a remarkably well-traveled diplomat and businessman with a special affection for Hawaii’s beaches. He loved universities, spending months at MIT, and later helping to convince the Japanese government to endow chairs in Japan studies there and at Columbia and Georgetown.
Yukio’s legacy is obvious to anyone who knew him when he worked to forge a stronger alliance in the 1980s with only a handful of officials and politicians in support. Today the Foreign Ministry of Japan—and the Diet and government more broadly—are full of diplomats who think the way he did. Much of this change is structural, of course. The North Korean threat and the rise of Chinese power have reminded the Japanese and American people why we need each other as allies. But those working on U.S.-Japan relations today will want to remember and take some inspiration from the fact that our alliance was ultimately forged not by the impersonal forces of history, but by men and women like Yukio Okamoto.
Michael J. Green is senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and director of Asian Studies at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Kurt M. Campbell is chairman, chief executive officer, and co-founder of The Asia Group.
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