A Brief History of JFK and Japan

John F. Kennedy joined the US Navy in 1941 and was stationed in the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific during World War II. Commanding the Patrol Torpedo Craft (PT) PT 109, Lieutenant Kennedy and his crew participated in early Allied war campaigns. 

On August 2, 1943, PT 109 was struck by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri, and the entire crew was thrown into the Pacific. After fifteen hours at sea, eleven survivors made it to a nearby island with Kennedy towing one injured crew member to land. 

With the help of a message carved by Kennedy into a coconut carried by local islanders to Allied forces, they were finally rescued on August 8, 1943. For his courage and leadership in rescuing his crew, Kennedy was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal and a Purple Heart.

After the war, the United States and Japan signed a security treaty to counter the Soviet Union. But when President Kennedy took office in 1961, he found a troubled alliance. Many Japanese feared getting entangled in American wars, resented US control of Okinawa, and resented what they saw as an unequal partnership. The 1960 security treaty crisis, in which thousands of protestors filled the streets of Tokyo, brought US-Japan relations to an alarming low point.

In this setting, President John F. Kennedy and his partners on the Japanese side sought to rescue the teetering alliance. Kennedy nominated Edwin O. Reischauer, a respected Harvard scholar, as Ambassador to Japan. Reischauer and his accomplished Japanese wife Haru changed what had been an isolated and imperious US embassy into a force for bilateral understanding.

President Kennedy also began planning with the Japanese a presidential visit to Tokyo. This visit – to be first ever by an American president – would highlight the transformation of US-Japan relations since the war. To advance the historic visit, the president sent his most trusted advisor, his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, to Tokyo in 1962.

In Japan, the Attorney General met ordinary people of all walks of life, and debated US policy with tough critics. He and his wife Ethel charmed crowds with their curiosity and friendliness. One of the trip’s most eventful moments occurred in the Okuma auditorium of Waseda University. While Kennedy attempted to speak onstage, chaos broke out as pro-communist groups shouted him down, while pro-Kennedy students yelled back at them. Kennedy finally gave up on his speech, but instead of walking away, he suggested that one of the students, Tachiya Yuzo, ask him a question so they could have a debate. That, Kennedy said, is the democratic way. An astonished crowd gaped as the US Attorney General extended his hand into the sea of black-uniformed students, and pulled Tachiya onstage. Kennedy’s grace and respect transformed a potential foreign-policy disaster into a diplomatic triumph, and the trip’s final days were a great success.

Although President Kennedy would never make the trip to Japan, his Administration helped establish a new era in US-Japan ties. The two countries would construct a network of bilateral organizations, conferences, and exchanges – many of which continue today. Because of leadership by the Kennedy Administration and their Japanese partners, the alliance that nearly fell apart instead expanded beyond a narrow security alliance into a rich, multifaceted relationship, with broad support in both countries.

Jennifer M. Lind    
Associate Professor of Government
Dartmouth College

Jennifer Lind, “Learning to Share the Stage,” New York Times, February 6, 2012.
Jennifer Lind, “When Camelot Went to Japan,” National Interest, July/August 2013.