Media reports: Biden will name Rahm Emanuel as ambassador to Japan

According to multiple media reports, Joe Biden’s handlers have chosen the most abrasive, short-tempered, and foul-mouthed politician in America to serve as envoy to Japan, a country where subtlety, indirection, and discretion are prized above all considerations in interpersonal communication. I can just imagine the sour stomachs and pained faces at Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Gaimusho) as the polished and elite bureaucrats there prepare to deal with a man renowned for slamming a knife into a table as he names his enemies and shouts “Dead!” each time he defaces the surface with another blow.

But the concerns of the Japanese who will have to deal with this truly “henna gaijin” (“weird foreigner”) are barely apparent in the media coverage here. Mostly, it focuses on the criticisms from the left that Emanuel’s tenure as Mayor of Chicago has generated.

Bill Ruthhart in the Chicago Tribune:

Emanuel has faced criticism on the left for his handling of the Laquan McDonald fatal police shooting and from Republicans for Chicago’s status as a sanctuary city and its history of struggling to tamp down violent crime. (snip)

The former mayor made little secret that he coveted an appointment as Biden’s transportation secretary, a push that met fierce resistance from progressives. Powerhouse U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, NAACP President Derrick Johnson, some union leaders and the Rev. Al Sharpton among others opposed Emanuel as a cabinet pick.

Of course, the story has not been confirmed by the White House. Writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, Neil Steinberg points out:

[I]t might not happen — neither Emanuel nor the White House will confirm reports. Maybe it’s one of those famous trial balloons. Perhaps Rahm is jealous of the sickeningly sweet puff piece the New Yorker ran a few weeks ago about his brother, Ari, and ginned up some fictive good press of his own.

Since leaving office as Mayor of Chicago, Rahm has been working for a Wall Street investment firm, perhaps seeking to add to the $16 million he pulled down in a little over 2 years after leaving the Clinton White House. Presumably, a tour as ambassador to Japan would provide many valuable contacts with business leaders of giant global corporations there, and assuming he behaves himself, those relationships could be extremely valuable if he returns to financial market works.

I don’t take it as a given that a US ambassador to Japan has to behave as the Japanese would prefer:  controlled, quiet, polite, indirect, and subtle. Sometimes a bully can be effective in moving intractable bureaucrats. But usually, there is a cost in the longer run, a reaction that may take years to unfold, as those whose sensitivities are ruffled find ways to sabotage or undo the measures achieved by the bully.

Right now, the key issue in US-Japan relations is dealing with China and North Korea, and that includes the huge task of defense collaboration, as Japan ramps up its military capabilities, working around its constitutional limitations on the use of military force, while China aggressively moves in the South China Sea and threatens Taiwan. Sharing of sensitive information is necessary to be effective in countering China. Japan has concerns and sensitivities, owing both to its geographic proximity and its colonial history, that US policy needs to understand in order to be effective in mobilizing Japanese capabilities.

Quality, not quantity, is the emphasis in Japan’s weaponry, and many incremental improvements of existing American military technology have been achieved by the Japanese. The Japanese are justly renowned for their ability to absorb foreign technologies but might not be quite as eager or skilled at sharing their own breakthroughs, especially if relations are aggravated by personal antagonisms that start at the top.

John Gizzi reports on anonymous sources in Japan opposing the possible nomination:

Two sources with solid connections to the government of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told Newsmax that the choice of Emanuel, 61, was neither expected or wanted by the Japanese government.

“The former mayor of Chicago was definitely not wanted [by the Suga government] as ambassador,” a veteran Japanese journalist told Newsmax, “They would have preferred him being sent to Beijing.”

This opinion was strongly seconded by a source close to former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who spoke to Newsmax on the condition of anonymity.

“This is a confusing pick for the Japanese,” the source told us. “Rahm has numerous strengths, but diplomacy is not in his toolkit.”

Recalling Emanuel’s propensity for angry outbursts, foul language, and confrontation both in the Obama White House and at City Hall in Chicago, the source said: “His reputation precedes him. The Japanese are gracious to a fault and understated. Rahm is neither. This has definitely caused some head-scratching in Tokyo.”

In my decades of teaching and consulting on dealing with the Japanese, I’ve found that for continuing relationships (one-off situations are very different), in the long run you get a lot more out of being polite and meeting Japanese expectations at least halfway, than out of shows of anger or force.

Maybe Rahm can master a new way of interacting in a new situation – if he gets the job.

Image credit: Donkey Hotey CC BY 2.0 license 

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