From Rahmbo to Rahm-bassador: How An Unlikely Diplomat Has Wooed Japan

Photo for The Washington Post by Taro Karibe
Rahm Emanuel talks with children gathered at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo for “Take Our Kids to Work Day.”

TOKYO – Tokyo’s Pride Parade is about to begin and Rahm Emanuel, the American ambassador to Japan who’s supposed to be kicking off the march, is buried somewhere inside the crowd.

LGBTQ rights activists are greeting him like a celebrity. Then he’s spotted talking with U.S. Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), a Japanese American and gay member of Congress who is in town for the event. But wasn’t he just over there, chatting with a Japanese lawmaker?

If there’s one word that describes Emanuel’s approach to his new diplomatic incarnation, it’s dynamic. And that dynamism will be on full display this weekend, when the Group of Seven summit takes place in Hiroshima and Emanuel will no doubt be everywhere.

Being ambassador to Japan is an important but typically cushy appointment, managing an alliance that has remained largely stable for seven decades and has been bestowed to political giants like Caroline Kennedy, former vice president Walter Mondale and former Senate majority leader Howard Baker.

Yet for Emanuel, 63, his schedule here rivals his time as White House chief of staff or as mayor of Chicago. He has been an unusually hands-on, visible and outspoken American ambassador. The kind that Japan has never seen before.

By the time he came down the spiral staircase of his official residence shortly after 8 a.m. on a recent day a Post reporter spent with him, he’d already taken calls from U.S. officials before the East Coast evening. Those calls resume once he’s done with his Japanese workday, when Washington, which is currently 13 hours behind Tokyo, wakes up.

Emanuel’s nomination for the posting in 2021 grabbed headlines in Tokyo because he had the trifecta the Japanese government covets most in a U.S. ambassador: proximity to the president, to congressional leadership and Democratic insiders.

But even as his close ties to the Biden administration were welcomed in Japan, his appointment still seemed like a mismatch. Emanuel is a famously hard-charging political operative whose reputation as “Rahmbo” was parodied in mostly bleeped-out “Saturday Night Live” sketches; Japan is so polite that it’s considered too rude to tell someone a flat-out “no.” Emanuel can barely sit still; Japan prizes calm and orderliness.

Yet in his first 15 months, Japan has embraced Emanuel. In Japan, he’s Rahm-san, his excellency, the “undiplomat” and a darling of Japanese Twitter.

“I’m a diplomat now. … It’s a calmer Rahm Emanuel,” he says with a grin, sitting in shirtsleeves in the garden of the ambassador’s residence on a balmy Tokyo day. It’s already 12:30 p.m. and he had not uttered a single four-letter word, he notes. Not yet. “I mean, I do have a full day ahead of me.”

His interpretation of the job is a signature mix of mayor, political operative, fundraiser and media hound.

Just as he rode the “L” regularly as mayor of Chicago, Emanuel takes the subway around Tokyo. This has endeared him to the Japanese public, which has never seen a U.S. ambassador who prefers public transportation over being chauffeured, and earned him the nickname “tetsu-ota,” or train geek.

He stands out in other ways, too.

It wasn’t until he’d been here for six months that Emanuel, who talks with his hands but is half a finger short (it was cut off by a meat slicer while he worked at Arby’s as a teen), learned that a missing digit gives off an ominous vibe in Japan. This is because the yakuza, or the mob, is known for amputating fingers (although usually pinkies) as punishment.

Emanuel and his wife, Amy Rule, have taken to Japan, especially the food scene. They like to explore cocktail bars and restaurants, from casual izakaya bars and food courts in the basements of Tokyo department stores to Michelin-starred eateries.

He misses spicy food – most Japanese food is mild – but says he’s learned that Japanese cuisine is “so much more complex” than simply sushi. Although he adds he can’t get enough of the sprawling fish and food markets.

When it comes to alliance matters, Emanuel has his hands in seemingly every issue, including tasks that typically wouldn’t involve an ambassador. He’s making calls, negotiating prices, giving political messaging tips to Japanese officials and reinforcing the alliance, especially if it’s in a way that will catch China’s attention.

“I call him the chief of staff to Japan-U. S. relations,” said a high-ranking Japanese official who was not authorized to speak publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Forcefulness is not something that we are used to in Japanese culture, but in this case, it’s very effective.”

Like all long-term relationships, the United States and Japan have had their ups and downs. At one of those low points, like the trade dispute in the 1980s, an aggressive ambassador may have only flared tensions.

But right now, the alliance is on an upswing. The Biden administration is leaning into Japan to help counter Russia, China and North Korea. Wary of the same threats, Japan dramatically expanded its foreign policy footprint, walking in lockstep with America and the West.

“Nothing about this period of time, in the world or in the Indo-Pacific, calls for doing the same-old, same-old,” Emanuel said. “You’ve got to reimagine, or redefine, diplomacy.”

It’s not been without blips, however, like when he recently breached protocol by accidentally dialing the South Korean prime minister, whom he’s known for a decade and had just seen in Seoul, rather than the South Korean ambassador to Japan to discuss Tokyo-Seoul relations.

Emanuel says he’s aware he’s not a cookie-cutter ambassador.

“I come in color,” he said, adding that he didn’t take up the post just to attend meetings and write memos. “But also, times call for doing something different. … The goal is to put points on the board, get results.”

So far, those new points have included rolling back Trump-era steel tariffs, arranging the U.S. airlift of 38 tons of Japanese nonlethal equipment to Ukraine, coordinating with Japan on its record high defense spending hike, and facilitating Panasonic’s $4 billion deal with Kansas to build a new EV battery plant for Tesla.

But there are two issues where Emanuel has taken a particularly activist approach, both in public and behind closed doors. He is pushing for major economies to form an “anti-coercion coalition” to counter the Chinese and advocating for the legalization of same-sex marriage in Japan – both issues that are under close watch ahead of the G-7 summit.

On this particular day, like so many days, China is at the top of the morning’s agenda. A meeting with a venture capital firm. A speech to attentive students at Sophia University. The theme: How the United States and allies can counter Chinese economic coercion.

He’s channeled his political fundraising skills toward raising money for university programs to train Japanese engineers on quantum computing and semiconductor technology, so that Japan can support the United States in one of its races against China.

In the afternoon, Emanuel’s other core interest – same-sex marriage – is on his agenda. Over lunch and coffee meetings, he asks Japanese lawmakers about the political jockeying over a potential bill supporting LGBTQ equality and how he, a longtime advocate of LGBTQ rights, could help.

Japan is the only G-7 country not to recognize same-sex marriages, even though about 71 percent of the public support it. Those who oppose it are in the minority, but they’re vocal – both in the Japanese national assembly and online, where opponents have criticized Emanuel’s outspoken efforts to bring about change: “Please do your LGBT activities only in the United States. Please don’t bring the despicable culture to Japan,” one tweet reads. “Please stop interfering,” reads another.

But Emanuel is used to criticism and is standing firm, noting that the majority of the Japanese public is on his side and that gay rights is a priority of the Biden administration. “Advocating for LGBTQ rights has been my whole life, full stop,” he said.

It’s not clear yet whether either of these efforts will come to fruition. But for now, Japanese officials say his rhetoric on China – Japan’s largest trading partner – is working for them.

Seiji Kihara, deputy chief cabinet secretary, said Japan needed to take a “very balanced position” on China, which is not only its biggest trading partner but a regional heavyweight.

“We have to say what we have to [say] to China, but at the same time, we need to make very steady and constructive relations,” Kihara said in an interview. “Rahm represents one part of our position, and I think it’s helpful. Sometimes a bit too outspoken, but nevertheless, the benefit is bigger than the damage.”

Japanese officials and foreign diplomats say Emanuel’s directness and political savvy have helped him gain the trust of senior Japanese government officials, his counterparts and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who, in a statement, called him “honest, forthright and truthful.”

Kurt Campbell, President Biden’s coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, said Emanuel has been effective in the role because, in addition to foreign policy, national security and local politics, he knows the “universal truths of what it takes to be successful as a politician.”

“He is relentless, inventive. He’s a challenge sometimes, for sure. He speaks his mind. But he’s quite effective. He’s a complete breath of fresh air,” Campbell said.

Decades in politics have helped his transition to ambassadorial life, Emanuel said: Understanding what people need, building trust and making personal connections, despite language or cultural differences.

“There’s no doubt the kind of skills you need in politics are not really different than in the diplomatic world,” he said. “It’s about knowing human relationships.”