My thanks go to Net Galley and Mariner Books for the invitation to read and review; Our Man in Tokyo is for sale now.
For the most part, my curiosity about World War II has been slaked, but this book has a different point of view than any other I’ve seen. American history students know of the miserable experience of the two Japanese ambassadors to the U.S., whose own government did not even give them a clue that Japan was about to bomb Pearl Harbor, right there on American soil. But I had never heard a word about their counterpart, the U.S. ambassador to Japan. Joseph Grew was a skilled and seasoned diplomat, and he tried mightily to find common ground between the two nations. Of course, in the end he was more or less shouting into the wind. But I had never read a single thing about him, and so this biography caught my interest.
Readers should know that the last two thirds are much more interesting than the beginning. I don’t care about Grew’s early life, or his marriage, or his golf game. I’m in this strictly for the historical record regarding the U.S. and Japan during the period leading up to the war; also, of course, I wanted to know what happened to him, stationed over there as he was, once war broke out. All of these things are explained clearly and in a conversational manner that is easy to read or listen to. (Since I had fallen behind, I checked out the audiobook from Seattle Bibliocommons, and it sped things up for me.)
The various politicians with whom Grew dealt are interesting indeed. The divisions within the government itself, and also within the Japanese military, created all manner of problems with communication and decision making. There are some bizarre circumstances, and they’re well described. But also interesting to me are the less historically necessary, yet fascinating tidbits that he picks up along the way, living for a decade or so in Japan. Here’s just one nugget for you: Mt. Fuji was (and is) a popular vacation destination, but just prior to Japan entering the war, a terrible trend developed. Young people in their twenties and even their teens went to Mt. Fuji in order to throw themselves into the volcano! When 500 young lives had been lost, the government acted. There were no mental health clinics, and no counselors. Instead, they simply made it illegal to sell anyone a one way ticket to Mt. Fuji. And the really weird thing is, it worked! I am still shaking my head over this one. Kemper’s biography is full of these odd little bits that I doubt you will find anywhere else. His research and documentation are sterling.
As to the audio book, the reader does a serviceable job, apart from his dreadful pronunciation of Japanese names. Shudder.
I recommend Our Man in Tokyo to anyone interested in reading nonfiction about American diplomacy in Japan just prior to the outbreak of war between that country and the U.S. Don’t be ashamed to skip a couple of chapters at the outset if you wish; there’s not much there that will become important later.