The Japan NewsJapan’s ties with the United States continue to be close, robust and multi-layered. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is in frequent contact with U.S. President Donald Trump over regional security threats. Joint drills between the Self-Defense Forces and the U.S. military are repeatedly held, and an economic dialogue framework was created between the two governments to seek new frontiers of cooperation. A veteran diplomat and expert on Japan, Jason Hyland, the charge d’affaires ad interim at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, talked about his attachment to Japan and the art of diplomacy, in an interview on Tuesday. He is leaving Tokyo next week.
Q: Much of your life has been connected to Japan. How did you first encounter Japan?
Hyland: The first place that I lived overseas was Japan, and so that really for me was the gateway not only to the connection with Japan but for my service in other countries. That experience was a very powerful one, and from my university years through graduate school ultimately led to joining the Foreign Service.
I had studied French in high school, but my discovery of Japanese was what really opened my eyes to the power of language. That has also been a theme in my career as a diplomat. That’s been a special privilege as a diplomat to be able to immerse myself like that in a number of other languages.
Q: What was so special about Japan?
A: I think there was something about the language that immediately appealed to me. I literally went into a Japanese language class at [the University of California,] Berkeley, and heard the language. It changed my life. It was just a very personal connection with the language.
I’m still constantly impressed by the depth of the language and also the respect that Japanese have for their own language.
I wrote my undergraduate thesis on [16th-century tea master] Sen no Rikyu and his political relationship with [16th-century warlord Toyotomi] Hideyoshi. Even if you look right now, there’s a movie that’s coming out that’s called “Sekigahara” which talks about that period.
To see how connected Japanese remain to that history is something that’s really impressive. So, rather than being some aspect of the distant past, I feel like it’s history that’s still very relevant to culture and something that the Japanese people in particular really value and respect.
Q: How has your knowledge and insight on Japanese history helped you as a diplomat in Japan?
A: I think that’s part of what it means to be a Foreign Service officer, to have that knowledge of the places in which you serve and work. I can’t say that the story of Sen no Rikyu guides my daily diplomatic actions, but it certainly is an aspect of Japanese culture that is important.
I’ve been lucky through my education to have had some extraordinary professors who have really given me excellent guidance, not just about Japan but about understanding history in general.
Mansfield true public servant
Q: You have been posted in Japan a number of times. How has the country changed?
A: I came back a few years ago after having been away from Japan for 15 years. So I was able to see changes that maybe are not as apparent if you’re living here and seeing things change bit by bit.
I’ve also seen a lot of continuity. But as an American diplomat, seeing the strength of the bilateral relationship was really impressive. Particularly the business ties between the United States and Japan have grown incredibly close, and, I think, mutually beneficial. We’ve seen the same things in science and research. Of course the skyline of Tokyo in particular has really changed.
The first time I served here, I worked for Ambassador Mike Mansfield, which was a real privilege. He was a true public servant, truly dedicated to the [bilateral] relationship.
Most recently, Ambassador [Caroline] Kennedy was also a great public servant and someone who has worked tirelessly for the relationship. So I’ve had that opportunity to see over the years how the relationship has been nurtured and developed.
As a diplomat, I’ve been through many changes of administration. I have to say it’s been very impressive when one looks at the period since the beginning of the Trump administration.
Not only has there been a summit meeting between [U.S.] President [Donald] Trump and Prime Minister [Shinzo] Abe that was extremely successful — and that they’ve met other times, talked on the telephone —, but in the short period of time during which I’ve been charge d’affaires, we’ve had the secretary of defense, secretary of state, secretary of commerce, secretary of energy and the vice president [come to Japan].
Nothing can show more clearly how committed the president and administration are to the alliance and to close relations. And that’s at the very high level.
But the connections are at all levels, from the interactions between the [U.S.] State Department and the [Japanese] Foreign Ministry as well as an incredible array of grassroots activities that are going on. Many of them are just spontaneous actions by people, either Americans or Japanese, who want to contribute to friendships between our countries.
I was at the Japan-America Grassroots Summit in Nara in July. This is the 27th year for this summit, which is supported through the [Tokyo-based] Center for International Exchange and other groups. This is truly people of goodwill in both countries who want to keep that friendship strong.
JET Program as bridge
Q: Do you think the Japanese government’s Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program also has served as a bridge?
A: Absolutely. I think that the Japanese government really should be congratulated for developing that program. It’s first a great way to give young Japanese exposure to native speakers and to foreign cultures. About half of the JET program participants are Americans. So both in terms of education and cultural awareness it’s great.
I see JET program alumni in many different capacities. They’re working in the U.S. Embassy right now. There are also alumni who have gone into business in Japan and become very successful.
I think one of the great things about the program is, for many of the participants, they’re in regional Japan. That creates a unique learning environment for the Americans and others who participate in the program.
Q: Has the transformation in the security situation surrounding Japan had any impact on bilateral issues?
A: The U.S.-Japan alliance is very strong. That’s another thing that really impressed me in returning to Japan, is just how strongly that’s supported on both sides and how excellent the communication is on issues related to the alliance.
The alliance has been the cornerstone of security in the region and will continue to be. I think that’s to the benefit of both countries.
Q: Do you think the responsibility on the Japan side in terms of security will probably be more important in the coming years?
A: Well, it’s up to Japan to decide how it will contribute to the alliance and to the security of the region.
Q: You have been also posted in predominantly Muslim countries such as Djibouti and Iraq. Muslim regions are crucial to Japan in terms of energy and other issues. What do you think Japan can do in this regard?
A: Having served in many parts of the world and seen Japanese diplomacy abroad, I can say that Japan has great insight into the world and is making contributions all around the world and in many places we’re cooperating on issues of common concern.
I think it’s important to appreciate how much Japan is doing around the world, and how much it is that through your diplomats and your government you are really making a difference through development assistance and in other areas.
I was in Djibouti and traveled extensively through East Africa. The work that Japan is doing in development assistance is really widely appreciated. I think people know what Japan is doing —, that it’s a friend of these countries.
Q: Japan is harmony-oriented whereas the U.S. is known for individualism. How do you see the balance between what’s good or bad about these differences?
A: I put a lot of weight on the universality of basic human emotions and motivations — family, love and achievement. I think people everywhere and at all times have been motivated by those basic values. At the same time, it’s important to respect cultural differences.
But fundamentally I think humans are the same everywhere. As a student of history, if I look at a text from something that was discovered in Egypt from several thousand years ago, or things that people have written that are still recorded a thousand or two thousand years ago, they could have been written by someone today.
I think there is a universality, but I think it’s obviously complicated when you’re trying to divide between something that is universal and something that’s very specific to a country. But I think that’s maybe what diplomats are working for.
Diplomats bring knowledge
Q: Looking back at your life as a diplomat, how do you describe your life?
A: I think that a diplomat brings knowledge both about countries, regions and issues, and experience as a practitioner — how diplomacy really works — and combines those two to do work that is both for the interests of the United States and also for the countries in which we’re working.
I really believe in the power of diplomacy. I think that if you look at the news there’s a lot of focus on crises and very difficult environments in which diplomats are working to achieve peace or solve conflict.
I also like to think about all the quiet moments that are maybe not recorded, in which through diplomacy we’ve avoided conflict and found a way to solve problems.
I think that that’s more of the work that diplomats are doing every day, through understanding and communication and goodwill, to be able to address problems, and address issues before they become problems. I’ve been very proud to be part of that.
Q: Do you think there has been a change in character of leadership in recent years?
A: I can’t really say that. I think that, looking at history, it’s impressive how leaders have made a difference. I think there will always be leaders who are going to be there to make the difficult decisions and care about change.
And times change, and I think that the kind of leadership that we need can also change in that. So I wouldn’t make some general statement about that.
World continues to change
Q: What issues have you left undone as a diplomat? How will you continue to pursue them after your retirement from the Foreign Service?
A: Well, I’m very focused on my work now. I’ll focus on what I’ll be doing later after that.
But I think that foreign affairs are a constantly dynamic, changing environment. It’s not something in which here’s a problem and once you’ve engineered the solution then it’s done. It’s something that’s very complex and changing, and there’s many different actors and elements.
So I certainly hope to contribute in the future in some way, particularly to U.S.-Japan relations because I really believe in them.
The world will continue to change, and our fine diplomats will be there engaging too, on the frontline, to solve them.
Q: Is there one place that you would recommend foreigners to experience in Japan?
A: I really love Yakushima. That’s a really magical place.
I could go on and on with places. I really like the area around Nikko — both the Nikko Toshogu Shrine and also just the surrounding nature.
But there are countless other parts of Japan that I would recommend.
This interview was conducted by Japan News Managing Editor Yuki Hasegawa and Assistant Editor Michinobu Yanagisawa.
Mr. Jason Hyland has served at U.S. diplomatic offices in Japan, including its consulate general in Sapporo and its consulate in Fukuoka. Having served as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo since July 2014, he became charge d’affaires ad interim at the embassy in January 2017. Hyland has also worked on political-military affairs in such capacities as provincial reconstruction team leader in Mosul, Iraq, and foreign policy adviser to the Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa, based in Djibouti. He holds a Master of Science in National Security Strategy from the National War College and a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.