Over the nearly eight decades since the end of World War II, some people in the United States well-versed in the political, economic and social realities of Japan have been involved in efforts to forge closer bilateral relations. The roles of such Americans, known as "Japan hands," can shift depending on the circumstances surrounding the Tokyo-Washington alliance at any given time, with the primary factor in recent years being an increasingly assertive China.
"We don't need a figure like Edwin Reischauer today," said Christopher Johnstone, the Japan Chair of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a leading think tank in Washington.
Reischauer, regarded as one of the most powerful officials in the "Japan hand" category, served as ambassador to Japan from 1961 to 1966 after a stint as professor of East Asian studies at Harvard University. A native of Japan who married a Japanese woman, Reischauer had deep personal connections in both countries.
The decades following Tokyo's surrender in the war were tumultuous for Japan-U.S. relations due to thorny issues such as the revision of the 1960 bilateral security treaty, trade frictions and the 1972 reversion of Okinawa to Japan. Reischauer and other so-called Japan hands contributed to reducing the impacts on postwar relations.
With such issues resolved, the challenges now facing the two governments are more global in nature, including how to broaden and strengthen democracy around the world and how to combat climate change.
"(The) U.S.-Japan relationship has really matured and become a normal, healthy and broad-based relationship among two major economies," said Johnstone, who was previously in charge of Japan policy at the National Security Council and the Pentagon, referring to the substantial shift in the bilateral ties.
Kent Calder, director of the Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, another think tank in Washington, has a different perception.
Although times have changed, Calder noted that dignity and a deep understanding of different cultures are still required. "The role Reischauer contributed, like in mediating across cultures, is still relevant," he said.
Reischauer was handpicked as the top U.S. envoy after his thesis analyzing turmoil in Japan over the security treaty drew attention from President John F. Kennedy. His insights into the anti-war sentiment behind the opposition to the treaty as well as the conservative leanings among the silent majority in postwar Japan do not seem obsolete even today.
The term "Japan hand," however, is not always welcome as a way to describe the role. Calling the phrase "uncomfortable," a Japanese diplomat said it sounds "as if the United States is manipulating Japan."
Dozens of researchers and others called Japan hands are believed to work at U.S. think tanks. "It's like a small club," said James Schoff, an expert on U.S.-Japan relations at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA.
Current relations between the two countries cannot be discussed without mentioning the triangular relationship involving China.
The trade war with China under the administration of former President Donald Trump reminded us of earlier trade friction between Japan and the United States, mainly in the 1970s and 1980s. But according to James Przystup, another expert on U.S.-Japan relations, "There is a big difference."
"In terms of the U.S. and Japan, there was a commitment to solve the problems. In China, that is not necessarily the case," said Przystup, senior fellow of the Hudson Institute's Japan Chair who was involved in bilateral relations under President Ronald Reagan.
He also emphasized that, unlike China, Tokyo shares values such as democracy and human rights with the United States.
Given the apparent ease and stability of the U.S.-Japan bond, could the United States shift its emphasis to creating closer ties with China at the expense of its alliance with Tokyo?
Calder downplayed the view, saying, "China is the primary geopolitical competitor of the United States and I imagine this will continue. So just from a global geopolitics point of view, it seems to me very unlikely."
(Toyohiro Horikoshi is chief of Kyodo News Washington bureau)