The Enigmatic Scholar-Diplomat



George R. Packard . Edwin O. Reischauer and the American Discovery of Japan . New York : Columbia University Press , 2010 . xv +351 pp. Notes, illustrations , index. $32.50 (cloth).

One spring day in 1960, I learned that the U.S. Navy was sending me to Japan for two years. I knew nothing about the country, had never tasted its food, and met but three Japanese Americans. Eager to learn something about where I was headed, I bought and read Edwin O. Reischauer's The United States and Japan. The book sparked an interest that eventually led me to make Japanese American relations the central focus of my work as a historian.

Ten years passed before I met Reischauer at Harvard. By then, he was ambassador emeritus and University Professor. I was a lowly instructor. One day in the spring of 1970, I approached the great man with a request. Would he be willing to teach a seminar on American-East Asian relations with me? He agreed and set down the rules for our engagement. I would recruit the students, read their papers, do the grading, and he would come when he could.

When he did, it was as if an oracle had entered the room. Professor Reischauer listened. He voiced his thoughts on the subject at hand. He offered advice to students in a kindly but authoritative tone. But he never really engaged in dialogue. And so he remained an enigma for me then and even after I read his truncated autobiography years later.

I approached this book hoping it would enlighten me. The author is well-qualified to reveal the “real” Reischauer and define his place in the history of Japanese American relations. Packard served as an aide to his subject. His later career as scholar and academic administrator paralleled Reischauer's, and the two men kept in touch for decades. Their encounters fed the author's desire to become the scholar-diplomat's biographer. He has drawn upon conversations with family members and Japan scholars as well as Reischauer's full unpublished autobiography and private correspondence to do so.

Packard follows Reischauer through four phases of life: youth, “educational missionary” (p. 88), ambassador, and challenged academic giant. He poses a central question about each. What turned the child born in Tokyo in 1910 into a Harvard Japan scholar twenty-eight later? Not residence in Japan, but family. Reischauer grew up in a missionary compound and left it as an emotionally taut, intensely competitive intellectual. Denied the attention of a mother consumed with caring for his younger deaf mute sister, he learned to contain his feelings. His missionary father turned Buddhist scholar showed him what optimism and intense concentration could achieve. His first wife softened his demeanor during their fairytale-like travels in Europe and East Asia. But the tragic accidental death of his brilliant older brother burdened Reischauer with an unending need to excel.

How did the young man trained as a historian of premodern Japan become the foremost American authority on contemporary Japan? Packard offers two answers to that question: war and Reischauer's missionary heritage. War with Japan took Reischauer to Washington, DC, where he served as Japanese language instructor, an intelligence analyst, and junior State Department official. There the “policy bug” bit him hard. In the last days of war, he urged his superiors not to remove or prosecute the emperor of Japan. In the first days of peace, he wrote a book that rejected wartime stereotypes of the Japanese, pointed out Japan's importance to America, and called for trans-Pacific understanding.

Reischauer returned to Harvard determined to do all that he could to forge that understanding. He and China scholar John King Fairbank developed an introduction to East Asia course and published textbooks designed to sensitize the widest possible audience to the importance of the region. Rather than writing more Japanese history, Reischauer penned articles about contemporary Japan and Japanese American relations. In 1955, he published a prophetic critique of America's failure to recognize the importance of nationalism in China and Vietnam. All this was done while his wife drifted toward a premature death that left him the single parent of three young children.

Why did Reischauer's ambassadorship begin with high hopes in 1961 and end in disappointment five years later? Packard suggests three reasons for that result. First, mission mis-direction. The scholar-diplomat thought his primary task was to preach the dangers of communism and the value of American friendship to the Japanese. Instead, he became a missionary in reverse who fought to sensitize his Washington superiors to Japan's importance. Second, illness. Packard provides a gripping account of Reischauer's stabbing by a mentally unbalanced youth in 1964, his receipt of tainted blood transfusions, and their debilitating effects on him.

Third, Vietnam. Packard argues that Reischauer made “the worst decision of his life” (p. 220) in defending America's policy there. Why he did so remains unclear. He may have acted out loyalty to those who sent him to Tokyo or reluctance to give up the luxuries of an ambassadorship. More likely he fell into the effectiveness trap, thinking he could do more to turn Washington away from folly in Asia by staying on as a counselor within than by resigning to become a critic from without. Reischauer paid a terrible price for his choice. He clashed with Japanese opinion leaders, antagonized his children, and left Japan exhausted.

Why did the diplomat turned scholar once more experience a “hard landing” (p. 237) back in the United States? He returned to a Harvard that was being torn apart by the Vietnam War. Students challenged academic and administrative authority as never before. Once out of government, few within it paid attention to what he said. Reischauer proposed “Vietnamization” as a way to disengage from the war years before President Nixon implemented that policy but got no credit for the idea. He became distant from his second, Japanese wife. Worst of all, some of his former students attacked not just his ideas but also his motives for publicizing them. He retreated into scholarly and emotional isolation until his death in 1990.

Does this book render Reischauer less of an enigma? Yes—and no. Thanks to his empathy for and personal knowledge of the man, Packard transforms the eminent scholar-diplomat into a flesh-and-blood human being. His portrait of the private, inner man is sympathetic but nuanced and credible.

Packard's portrayal of the public Reischauer is less convincing. His treatment of the scholar as ambassador is thin. He overrelies on Reischauer's own words and ignores what historians have written about postwar Japanese American relations. He makes no use of published or unpublished State Department documents. Consequently the reader gets little insight into how Ambassador Reischauer dealt with difficult issues between Washington and Tokyo.

Packard's treatment of Reischauer as scholar, while not hagiographic as prepublication critics feared, is exaggerated and defensive. The book's title claims Reischauer brought about “the American discovery of Japan,” but predecessors from Commodore Perry through Joseph C. Grew had long since introduced earlier generations to Japan. Reischauer might more accurately be credited with Americans' fuller “re-discovery” of Japan during the Cold War. Packard also treats the Japan scholar's critics too harshly. The professor understood that each generation challenges its predecessors' ideas and would never label younger Japanologists, as Packard does some, “McCarthyites” (p. 269).

This book presents an informative and engaging, but not definitive, account of the life and work of one of the most important figures in the history of Japanese-American relations. Anyone interested in that subject, or in the role of the scholar-diplomat more generally, will ignore it at their peril.