THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: FDR’s acts of diplomacy through his friendships with Japanese


bioline_Greg RobinsonA central figure in Japanese American history is President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In my first book, “By Order of the President” (2001), I looked at Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066, which led to the mass incarceration of some 120,000 persons of Japanese descent in American concentration camps. One of my book’s main arguments was that both prior to and during his presidency, Roosevelt expressed race-based hostility toward Japanese Americans. During the 1920s, when he was struggling to recover from a crippling attack of polio and remained out of public office, he published a pair of articles in which he endorsed the exclusion of Japanese immigrants and the legal discrimination against them in West Coast states as necessary to protect what he termed “racial purity” against white-Asian intermarriage. During the 1930s, he claimed in conversation that the Japanese (at least their leaders) had “aggression in their blood.” While FDR’s signing of Executive Order 9066 was not simply a product of racial hostility toward Nikkei, his opposition to the Japanese presence in America surely informed his conduct of the policy as it developed. 

One thing that intrigues me about Roosevelt is that, despite these expressions of anti-Japanese sentiment, he made lasting friendships with individual Japanese people. In the years since my book was published, I have explored more about these connections. What is more, in the early months of his presidency in 1933, FDR re-established contact with his long-lost Japanese friends. Roosevelt used his meetings as acts of personal diplomacy, strengthening his ties to Japan and keeping himself informed on Japanese liberal opinion. 

According to the archives at the FDR library, the first contact took place even before Roosevelt’s inauguration as president. On March 1, 1933, one week after Japan voted to leave the League of Nations, Roosevelt received a visit from a Mr. Matsukata. One might assume that this was Otohiko Matsukata, who had been FDR’s friend and fellow Harvard University student in the early years of the 20th century. Since Otohiko Matsukata claimed in 1934 that he had not been in the United States in 17 years, it was presumably another member of the large Matsukata clan whom Roosevelt saw — perhaps his brother Kojiro Matsukata, the industrialist and art collector. In addition, Ryozo Asano re-entered the picture during this time. Asano had been a Harvard classmate of FDR’s brother-in law Hall Roosevelt, and Franklin and Eleanor had hosted the two of them at their summer home in Campobello in New Brunswick, Canada in 1911. In November of 1932, Asano wrote Roosevelt to congratulate him on his election, and FDR sent back a cordial personal reply. At Asano’s suggestion, Roosevelt then spoke with Asano’s close associate, a Mr. Komatsu, the following summer, and thereafter invited Asano to visit him at the White House if he was in Washington. 

Asano could not make it to Washington immediately. However, in early January of 1934, Asano wrote Roosevelt that “our old friend” Otohiko Matsukata would shortly be visiting the United States. He asked Roosevelt to see Matsukata, and also praised the new Japanese Ambassador, Hiroshi Saito, as “sincere” and pro-American. Later that month, Asano wrote Marvin McIntyre, Roosevelt’s appointment secretary, that he intended to visit Washington himself on his return from the International Labor Conference in Geneva. Roosevelt told McIntyre he wished to see Asano, and McIntyre suggested that Asano arrange an exact date through the Japanese embassy.

Otohiko Matsukata arrived in the United States in February of 1934. He arranged to have several influential people, notably Atlanta Constitution editor Clark Howell, write to Roosevelt recommending that he be received at the White House. An appointment was arranged, and Matsukata saw Roosevelt for tea on Feb. 18, 1934. He suggested another appointment and was invited to return for a more formal discussion two days later. Meanwhile, the State Department prepared a background memo, which stated that Otohiko Matsukata came from a distinguished family whose businesses had gone bankrupt in the 1920s due to the malfeasance of Matsukata’s eldest brother. The memo testified to Otohiko’s “considerable personal charm” and his “reputation for honesty,” but noted in closing that “his reputation for intelligence is not particularly high.”

The Feb. 20 meeting lasted for almost an hour. Matsukata brought along a long typed memorandum. While he insisted it contained only his “personal views and sentiments,” he also stated that it reflected the thinking of many in the government. Matsukata’s memorandum explained the Japanese army’s actions in assassinating government officials and in what Matsukata called the “explosion” in Manchuria as the regrettable products of the resentment of young officers against corrupt party politicians who had sold out Japan’s defense needs. He assured Roosevelt that, now that there was a stable cabinet, Japan was “gradually regaining normalcy,” and the armed forces had no intention of usurping government powers. Matsukata further asserted that Japan had no intention of annexing Manchuria, as it previously had Korea, since annexation would lead to a dangerous anti-Japanese alliance between the “friendly” Chinese in Manchuria and the Chinese government in Nanking. (Matsukata expressed considerable disdain for the Chinese. “China, though potentially great, has shown no signs of becoming an organized, stable nation in the conceivable future. Moreover, disruptive and destructive influence of the communist movement is far more serious than is commonly known abroad.”) 

Matsukata’s memorandum concluded on an optimistic note: Although America had always been biased toward China and against Japan in its conduct, if the United States would treat the two countries equally, tensions would disappear. There was already hope for improvement. Roosevelt was very popular in Japan, and the Japanese had been very pleased over his withdrawal of the American fleet from the Pacific. 

Roosevelt, who told Matsukata that he favored “heart-to-heart” talk between responsible leaders as the best way to “adjust” international conflicts, reacted positively to his conversation with Matsukata and to Matsukata’s suggestion that he speak to Ambassador Saito. He was also sufficiently impressed by the memorandum to pass it along to Secretary of State Cordell Hull and to Stanley Hornbeck, the State Department’s chief East Asia advisor, for their review and comments. 

The State Department was aghast at both the memorandum and Roosevelt’s contact with Matsukata. When Matsukata called from the Japanese embassy on March 6 (possibly at FDR’s suggestion) to request a further appointment with Roosevelt, Assistant Secretary of State Stanley Hornbeck, who was not well disposed toward Japan, claimed it would set a bad precedent if private citizens were allowed to discuss official policy with the president outside State Department channels. The State Department recommended that Roosevelt not meet with Matsukata again, unless he had some personal reason to do so, and Roosevelt agreed. 

Matsukata, blocked from a further meeting, wrote a private letter to Roosevelt, asking for one more appointment “to take leave of you and also to lay before you certain facts and ideas which have claimed my attention since I last saw you.” Roosevelt, saying he would “love to” see him, told his secretary to arrange the appointment. Hornbeck protested to the president that Matsukata was a tool of the Japanese embassy, which was deliberately attempting to use Matsukata’s friendship with Roosevelt to set up a back channel to the White House. Hornbeck warned FDR that a former U.S. ambassador to Japan had attended a banquet at which the Japanese ambassador (presumably Saito) had told him that the embassy hoped Matsukata would stay in Washington “indefinitely” for just such a purpose. In the end, the meeting did not take place. Matsukata had to content himself with a letter thanking Roosevelt for his “friendly thoughts about my country” and recommending further dialogue between American and Japanese leaders.

The State Department was wary of the Japanese maneuvering for access, and when State Department officials discovered from the Japanese embassy that Asano had not been an actual classmate of Roosevelt’s, they asked that the White House formally withdraw the invitation. Hornbeck protested to the Japanese embassy that, “in a number of cases Japanese nationals have acted with doubtful propriety and in rather bad taste by insisting upon being received (without any very good reason why they should be received) by the president.” Meanwhile, a State Department analyst prepared a negative background memorandum on Asano, which stated that he had been openly anti-foreign and duplicitous in his attitudes. In support of his position that Roosevelt’s friends were instruments of the Japanese government, Hornback attached to the memorandum a clipping from a newspaper identified as the Jap-Cal Daily News, (i.e. Kashu Mainichi). The article, headlined “Asano, Cement King, to Meet Roosevelt,” was a dispatch from Tokyo, which noted that Ryozo Asano was to visit the United States. It stated that “(d)uring his sojourn in the United States, Asano is expected to call on President Franklin Roosevelt and exchange frank views on American-Japanese relations in an unofficial capacity.” When Marvin McIntyre responded that the White House was committed by its invitation to receive Asano, the State Department urged that no special importance or significance be placed on the visit. 

In the end, Asano’s meeting with Roosevelt took place in May of 1934, and lasted almost an hour. While it is unknown how much discussion of substantive issues took place, Asano wrote FDR afterward to thank him for his “kindly sentiments toward our people and our country.” 

By the time Roosevelt saw Asano at the White House, U.S. relations with Japan had already grown cool. In the wake of the meeting, State Department warnings about back-channel diplomacy, coupled with the president’s own frustration over relations with Japan, led Roosevelt to close his door against further unofficial contacts. Both Asano and Matsukata continued to correspond with Roosevelt on personal matters, and Asano also continued to request interviews with Roosevelt on behalf of other people. In 1935, he wrote asking Roosevelt to meet with Tadahiko Okada and Admiral Takeshita, but FDR seems not to have seen either one. Similarly, in December of 1937, Matsukata visited the United States. Hoping to discuss the implications of the Sino-Japanese war, he wrote Roosevelt to ask for an appointment for himself and his brother Kojiro. Roosevelt granted only a 10-minute official interview to Kojiro and the Japanese ambassador.

In sum, Franklin Roosevelt used his friendships with a small group of Japanese — people from his own social group and (mostly) his alma mater — to try and conduct some informal diplomacy and information gathering. His friendships were not enough to break the developing opposition between the U.S. and Japan. However, the special nature of personal diplomacy, and even informal connections, do lead the historian to wonder whether if it would have made any difference in Roosevelt’s policy toward Japanese Americans if he had had Nisei friends.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., the author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at

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