February 2024

A new Japan is emerging, US Ambassador Rahm Emanuel tells FCCJ event

US Ambassador Rahm Emanuel (left) with FCCJ PAC Member David McNeill - Screenshot of the press conference at the FCCJ, January 18, 2024.

Given his reputation as a political brawler, some might have caught the whiff of sulphur as Rahm Emanuel walked into the FCCJ last month. After all, this is a man who once sent a dead fish to a pollster [] and of whom former President Barack Obama (under whom he served as chief of staff) reportedly said: “People think Rahm is a bad guy, but he has a really soft side. He volunteers to teach profanity to underprivileged kids.” 

In the end, Emanuel was on his best behavior at the FCCJ, his sharp tongue, if not his wings, clipped by the demands of his diplomatic post.  Questions about the dark political clouds gathering in America, and the prospect for Japan of a second presidential term by Donald Trump, whom Emanuel once called a “desperate loser”, were swatted away. “I’d just like to note that quote was pre my diplomatic years where I’ve learned to be reserved and quiet, and listen better,” he joked.

Emanuel said, contrary to his image, he had listened carefully to what he called the “propeller-heads”, or experts, before taking the ambassador post. His message was simple: the experts had failed to see that Japan had profoundly changed and “busted all the old myths” during his tenure in Tokyo. “The last two years in my view have been marked by the era and will be known as the era of transition and transformation,” he said. To the experts, he had this message: “You don’t know Japan.”  

Emanuel then set out to debunk these myths, among them that Japan was at best a reluctant military partner in the Asia-Pacific. “Driven by a proliferation of existential threats,” he said, Tokyo had committed to doubling its defense budged to 2% of GDP in 2027. That not only put it ahead of many NATO countries, he pointed out, it would give Japan the “third largest defense budget in the world after the U.S. and China”. 

Japan had also agreed to purchase 400 Tomahawks cruise missiles (at a cost of $2.35 billion) ahead of schedule. For the first time in the postwar era, it had sent military equipment to a nation in conflict: Ukraine. And it had eased its principles on defense equipment transfer by selling back American-designed Patriot missiles to the U.S. “Nobody ever imagined” such profound changes were possible, Emanuel said. “In fact, everyone predicted the opposite.”


Emanuel also praised what he called the "multilateralization" of military exercises in the region, with Japan joining with multiple partners, including Australia, Britain, France and Germany, in preparing for possible conflict, presumably with China. So profound was Japan’s recent transition, he said, that “the onus is on us, the United States, to make changes that keep pace” with its alliance partner. 

Not everyone is convinced that these are positive developments. Analysts have warned of an arms race in Asia that is spinning out of control. CNN described the situation as “three majornuclear powers and one fast-developing one, the world’s three biggest economies and decades-old alliances all vying for an edge in some of the world’s most contested land and sea areas. One man’s deterrence is another man’s escalation”.

Would the U.S. go to war with China over Taiwan? On this question, Emanuel kept his powder dry. “The less said about Taiwan the better,” he said, instead citing America’s long-standing One-China Policy. But he added: “I think in general the approach of the United States in partnership with Japan is one of deterrence … to make sure there is no change here in the region by military force.”  

Again, diplomacy was the key word, but Emanuel has made headlines for a series of “snarky” tweets about Japan’s giant neighbor. Last year he speculated on the disappearances of several top Chinese officials, with good reason, he insisted. “It stings when you tell the truth.” Even at the FCCJ, he couldn’t resist a dig: “I’m sorry, if you’re going to be a superpower, which China is … you have some responsibility to not only transparency but honesty, and on multiple occasions it has failed at that.”

Emanuel recalled that during his Senate hearings for the ambassador post, he predicted that what Japan and the U.S. did together in the next three years would determine the future of the alliance and the region for the next three decades. “To be true, when I said that in the Senate, I thought I was doing a soundbite or trying to be pithy; I didn’t think of it as prescient. But I think that anybody that looks back over the last two years sees a Japan that has emerged in a different way … All of us need an updating of our assumptions and presumptions to the new Japan that is emerging.”

David McNeill is professor of communications and English at University of the Sacred Heart in Tokyo, and co-chair of the FCCJ’s Professional Activities Committee. He was previously a correspondent for the Independent, the Economist and the Chronicle of Higher Education.