Emanuel: Japan-US relations at "critical juncture"

The newly appointed US ambassador to Japan, Rahm Emanuel, admits he has “big shoes to fill” given some of the big names that have preceded him in the post. In an exclusive interview with NHK, he described the unique challenges he will have to take on to achieve similar success.

In an interview in Washington earlier this month, Emanuel said Japan and the US are “at a critical point, at a critical juncture, to really advance this friendship, alliance, and the value system that brings the two people and two democracies together to advance a set of value systems.”

He admitted he had been preparing to take the role for some time, saying President Joe Biden had offered him the post in December 2020—before the inauguration.

Emanuel says President Biden asked him to be ambassador to Japan before he was sworn in as president.

“Because we’re so close, we were talking about our family. Then he says, ‘I’d like to ask you to be my ambassador to Japan.’ When the President asks you to do something, you can either say ‘yes’ or ‘yes, sir.’”

Stance toward China

As Ambassador to Japan, Emanuel will serve as one of the point men for the US government’s China policy. He described the country as “not a good neighbor” and said it “is not one that advances the interests of the region.” Emanuel said Japan and the US have a duty and opportunity to support democracy in the region. These comments reflect Biden’s policy priorities. The president has described China as the “most serious competitor” to the United States.

Political experience

Emanuel rose to prominence in Washington as an aide to President Bill Clinton from 1993 to 1999. He was elected to Congress in 2002, serving for three terms as a representative from Illinois, before going on to work as President Barack Obama’s first chief of staff. It was in this role that he developed a relationship with then-Vice President Biden.

Emanuel served as White House Chief of Staff from 2009 to 2010 under the first Obama administration. Biden was the Vice President at the time.

After leaving the White House for a second time, Emanuel was elected Mayor of Chicago, a role he held for eight years. He visited Tokyo in his capacity as mayor in 2018 to meet with business leaders and encourage investment in his city.

Emanuel met with Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko in 2018

While Emanuel does not have much experience in Japan, sources have told NHK that his enthusiasm and aptitude for learning about the country has impressed senior government officials in early meetings.

As a politician, Emanuel is known for his blunt personality. During his confirmation hearings, one senator who voted in his favor remarked he would not have described Emanuel as “diplomatic” in nature. When asked about this reputation, Emanuel said he believes in “being principled about what I believe in and then being strong and seeing it through.”

He added he would be forthright “about our strengths and our challenges that we share together and be open and receptive to how to solve them together.”

One Chicago-based investor close to Emanuel told NHK that the new ambassador is “very practical and a man of his words.” He added that his friend “understands [Japan’s] strategic relevance in a way that many politicians today cannot appreciate. He’s going to be a very effective ambassador.”

Emanuel and his family.

Emanuel said he already has plans to explore his new home: “I do a lot of bike trips, I do fly fishing. And I already explored different ways to go see all parts of Japan, both taking bike trips and fishing.”

Emanuel enjoys fishing in his free time.

He added that he wants to make sure he experiences Japan beyond its most famous tourist attractions. “I want to go see where people (and) how people live their lives. I don't want to be a visitor. I want to be considered part of the family. That means I have to work at it and experience how things are. And that's what I'm going to do.”