Home Politics Elections From Rahmbo to Rahm-Bassador: how an unlikely diplomat has captivated Japan

From Rahmbo to Rahm-Bassador: how an unlikely diplomat has captivated Japan


Rahm Emanuel has taken an unusually hands-on, visible and outspoken approach to his role as US ambassador to Japan. (Taro Karibe)

TOKYO – Tokyo’s Pride parade is about to begin and Rahm Emanuel, the US ambassador to Japan, who is about to starting in March, Buried somewhere in the crowd.

LGBTQ rights activists are greeting him like a celebrity. He is then seen speaking with US Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), a Japanese American and gay member of Congress, who is in town for the event. But wasn’t he right there, talking to a Japanese parliamentarian?

If there’s one word that describes the approach of Emanuel’s new diplomatic avatar, it’s dynamic. And that dynamism will be on full display this weekend, when the Seven Summits take place in Hiroshima and Emanuel will undoubtedly be everywhere.

Becoming ambassador to Japan is an important but generally astute appointment, managing a coalition that has been largely stable for seven decades and includes political heavyweights such as Caroline Kennedy, former Vice President Walter Mondale and former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker. has been given to

Yet for Emanuel, 63, his schedule here rivals that of his time as White House chief of staff or mayor of Chicago. He has been an unusually insightful, visible and outspoken US ambassador. The likes of which Japan has never seen before.

On a recent day that The Post reporter spent with him, shortly after 8 a.m. as he came down the spiral staircase of his official residence, He had already taken calls from US officials on the East Coast the evening before. Those calls resume once he’s finished with his Japanese workday, when Washington, which is currently 13 hours behind Tokyo, wakes up.

Emanuel’s nomination for the 2021 posting made headlines in Tokyo because he had what most Japanese government covets in a US ambassador: proximity to the president, congressional leadership and Democratic insiders.

But even though his close ties with the Biden administration were welcomed in Japan, his appointment still seemed like a mismatch. Emanuel is a renowned hard-charging political operative whose had a reputation as “Rhombo” parody mostly in bleeped-out “Saturday Night Live” sketches; Japan is so polite that it is considered very rude to say “no” to someone directly. Emanuel can hardly sit still; Japan prizes peace and order.

Yet in his first 15 months, Japan has embraced Emanuel. In Japan, he is Rahe-san, His Excellency, “Undisciplined” and the darling of Japanese Twitter.

“I’m a diplomat now. … It’s a quiet Rahm Emanuel,” he says with a grin, sitting in shirtsleeves in the garden of the ambassador’s residence on a Tokyo day. It’s already 12:30 p.m. And he hadn’t uttered a single four-letter word, he noted. Not yet. “I mean, I have all day.”

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His description of the job is a signature mix of mayor, political operative, fundraiser and media hound.

Just as he regularly rides the “L” as mayor of Chicago, Emanuel takes the subway around Tokyo. This has endeared him to the Japanese public, who have never seen a US ambassador who prefers public transport over being the driver, and has earned him the nickname “Tetsu-ota”, or train geek.

He looks different in other ways too.

Emmanuel, who talks with his hands but is half a finger short, learned only after living here for six months that a missing digit gives off an ominous vibe in Japan. This is because the yakuza, or mob, are known to bite off fingers (Although usually pinky) as punishment.

Emanuel and his wife, Amy Rule, have especially taken the food scene to Japan. They love to explore cocktail bars and restaurants, from casual izakaya bars and food courts in the basements of Tokyo department stores to Michelin-starred eateries.

He misses the spicy food—most Japanese food is bland—but says he’s learned that Japanese food is “much more complex” than just sushi. Though he says he can’t get enough of the vast fish and food markets.

When it comes to alliance matters, Emmanuel has a hand in every issue, including tasks that normally an ambassador would not be involved in. He’s making calls, negotiating prices, delivering political messages to Japanese officials and cementing alliances, especially if it’s going to attract China’s attention in a way.

“I call him the head of Japan-US relations,” said a high-ranking Japanese official, who was not authorized to speak publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. “Coercion isn’t something we’re used to in Japanese culture, but in this case, it’s very effective.”

Like all long-term relationships, the United States and Japan have had their ups and downs. At one of those low points, such as the trade dispute in the 1980s, an aggressive ambassador may have only inflamed tensions.

But at present the Grand Alliance is on the rise. The Biden administration is leaning on Japan to help counter Russia, China and North Korea. Aware of similar threats, Japan dramatically expanded its foreign policy footprintWalking in lockstep with America and the West.

Emanuel said, “Nothing about this period, in the world or in the Indo-Pacific, calls for the same old, same old.” “You have to redefine, or redefine, diplomacy.”

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However, it has not been without blips, such as when it was recently broke protocol By mistakenly dialing the South Korean prime minister, whom he has known for a decade and had just met in Seoul, instead of the South Korean ambassador to Japan, to discuss Tokyo-Seoul relations.

Emanuel says he knows he’s not a cookie-cutter ambassador.

“I color in,” he said, adding that he didn’t take the position just to attend meetings and write memos. “But at the same time, the times call for something different. … The goal is to put points on the board, to get results.

So far, those new points include rolling back Trump-era steel tariffs while arranging for U.S. airline 38 tons of Japanese non-lethal equipment to Ukraine, coordinating with Japan on its record high defense spending increase, and Facilitating Panasonic inks $4 billion deal with Kansas to build a new EV battery plant for Tesla.

But there are two issues where Emanuel has taken a particularly proactive approach, both publicly and behind closed doors. He is pushing for the creation of an “anti-pressure coalition” to counter the Chinese takeover of major economies and is advocating for legalizing same-sex marriage in Japan – both issues that have been closely discussed ahead of the G-7 summit. are being watched.

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On this particular day, as on so many days, China is at the top of the morning’s agenda. A meeting with a venture capital firm. A speech to the attentive students at Sofia University. Subject: How the United States and Allies Can Counter Chinese Economic Pressure.

He channeled his political fundraising skills towards raising money for university programs to train Japanese engineers on quantum computing and semiconductor technology, so that Japan could support the United States in one of its races against China. .

In the afternoon, Emanuel’s other main interest – gay marriage – is on his agenda. Over lunch and coffee meetings, he asked Japanese lawmakers about the political joke on a possible bill supporting LGBTQ equality and how he has long Advocate LGBTQ rights can help.

Japan is the only G-7 country that does not recognize same-sex marriage, even though nearly 71 percent of the population supports it. Those who oppose it are in the minority, but they are vocal – both in the Japanese National Assembly and online, where opponents have criticized Emanuel’s outspoken efforts to bring about change: “Please do your LGBT activities only in the United States.” Just do it. Please don’t bring this disgusting culture to Japan.” reads a tweet, “Please stop interfering,” the other reads,

But Emanuel is accustomed to the criticism and stands firm, noting that a majority of the Japanese public is on his side and that gay rights are a priority of the Biden administration. “Advocating for LGBTQ rights has been my whole life, full stop,” he said.

Japan remains hostile to LGBTQ people, but attitudes are changing. slowly.

It is not yet clear whether any of these efforts will bear fruit. But for now, Japanese officials say China – Japan’s largest trading partner – is working for them.

Seiji Kihara, deputy chief cabinet secretary, said Japan needed to take a “very balanced position” on China, which is not only its biggest trading partner but also a regional giant.

“We have to say what we have to do [say] Kihara said, for China, but at the same time, we need to build a very stable and constructive relationship in an interview. “Kindness represents a part of our position, and I think it is helpful. Sometimes a little too assertive, but still, the gains outweigh the losses.

Japanese officials and foreign diplomats say Emanuel’s directness and political savvy have helped him gain the trust of senior Japanese government officials, his counterparts and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who in a statement described him as “honest, forthright and honest”. True” said.

Kurt Campbell, President Biden’s coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, said Emanuel has been effective in the role because, in addition to foreign policy, national security and local politics, he knows the “universal truths needed to succeed as a politician.” ,

“He’s tireless, inventive. Certainly he’s a challenge sometimes. He speaks his mind. But he’s very effective. He’s a complete breath of fresh air,” Campbell said.

Emanuel said: Decades in politics have helped her transition to the life of an ambassador: building trust and making personal connections to what people need, regardless of language or cultural differences.

“There’s no doubt that the kind of skills you need in politics are really not that different from the diplomatic world,” he said. “It’s about knowing human relations.”

Julia Mio Inuma in Tokyo and Ellen Nakashima in Washington contributed to this report.

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