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Remembering Yukio Okamoto, Chief Engineer of Today's U.S.-Japan Alliance Lost to COVID-19

Having read his obituaries online, I think he was poorly understood despite his frequent media appearances, and he must be lamenting it in his tomb.

A career diplomat Okamoto abruptly left the Japanese government in 1991, but subsequently served as politically appointed policy advisor to the prime minister during the Hashimoto and Koizumi administrations. In this capacity, he steered the U.S.-Japan alliance relationship through its most difficult times. Describing him as a foreign policy analyst or commentator as some of his obituaries did is misleading in my view.

I first met Mr. Okamoto in his office at MIT's Center for International Studies, where he was a Robert E. Wilhelm Fellow in 2013. He said, "I'm disappointed with the fact that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was unable to retain talents like you."

“I'm a hawk on national security issues, but a dove on history issues,” he said in 2013.

One of the secrets to his drawing many people into close friendships with him seemed to be his excellent sense of humor that produced self-deprecating jokes. Despite his rich experience serving as national security advisor to Japanese prime ministers, he said he became a senior fellow at MIT in the hope that he might one day be admitted as an M.A. student to its security studies program. "The faculty just laughed at my plea for admission," he complained to me.

Even as a private citizen, he seemed to put national interests above his self-interests to work toward better relationships between Japan and its neighboring countries, and I believe that such sublime but physically demanding missions may have taken their toll on his health.

I think he had the conviction that justice, not power, would ultimately prevail in international relations because any interstate relations boiled down to human-to-human relations in his view. As an outside board member of Mitsubishi Materials Corp, Mr. Okamoto spearheaded the company's decision to issue landmark apologies to former POWs, who were brought to Japan and subjected to abject labor conditions at Mitsubishi mines and factories during the war. "We are not the only country that used forced labor during WWII, and many countries did with impunity, but that doesn't exempt us from apologizing," he said. He minced no words when it came to Imperial Japan's expansionism and wartime sins in the first half of the 20th century. Although I don't know exactly why he left the foreign ministry when he was still young, but his commitment to justice got me thinking that his sensitive soul full of empathy must have had a hard time in that work environment.

Over the last few years, he was writing a book about his efforts to maintain a good alliance relationship with the United States. I had a privilege to read and comment part of his manuscript. I sincerely hope that his research assistants will be able to publish it in a not-so-distant future.


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