Mr. Bancroft in Tokyo

  1. Mr. Bancroft in Tokyo

Alert, sympathetic, practical, candid, tireless, Edgar Addison Bancroft, though only a few months in Tokyo, left an impression upon the Japanese mind as clear-cut as it was favorable. It may be doubted whether any other man in the American diplomatic service ever accomplished so great a moral result in so short a time. His mind was sanity itself, his character above reproach, his honesty inflexible. Acumen, astuteness, decision, nerve—he had them. But of the miserable subterfuge of the old diplomacy he was as innocent as a lamb.

There was a great change in Ambassador Bancroft’s appearance and condition during the eight weeks of my stay in Tokyo in the early summer of 1925. When I first saw him at his desk, he looked much as he had looked on our last meeting in Chicago. He was gray and his face was lined, but there was the familiar flash in his eyes, his movements were quick, and the grip of his hand was hard. When I saw him finally—on Sunday morning, June 7, in his corner suite in the Imperial Hotel—his eyes were dull, his movements slow, and his hand-clasp slack.

This conversation is recorded in my diary of that date:

“Mr. Ambassador, I wish you would take the first good boat to the States.”


“Because you are ill.”

“Do I look ill?”

“I am awfully sorry to say you do, and I feel you cannot get well here. You are eating half-cooked vegetables. Besides, this alien tide is setting strong against you. Ten days on a good ship and a few weeks in America will make a new man of you. Then you can come back.”

Bancroft looked wearily at me for some time.

“Bell, I am not very well. But I am going to the country for the summer in a week or so. I think I’ll get better there. Anyway, I can’t leave this job now. I came for two years and I must stick to it.”

There was no hint of wavering in his decision.

Duty was Bancroft’s deity in Tokyo. He went thither under a heavy sense of responsibility. And he also went in no inconsiderable perplexity of mind. Japanese mentality he had not studied deeply. He did not know whether he would be able to understand it or not. Many suggestions were made to him concerning methods of dealing with Japanese officials, Japanese personages in private life, the Japanese public, the Japanese press, the English-language newspapers in Japan, the American correspondents in Tokyo, and the religious and business representatives of America in the Japanese Empire.

“Of these suggestions,” said the Ambassador to myself in the course of our first conversation, “there was a great quantity. They came from persons presumably informed. I listened to and pondered upon them all. It became clear very shortly that the doctors were in disagreement. Men of equal apparent competence to counsel the newcomer gave mutually destructive advice. It was both wise and unwise, it was both vital and fatal, for me to say or do this, that or the other thing. Since there was only a Babel of tongues among the quidnuncs, I determined to trust what horse sense I had brought with me from Chicago.”


“And—it worked. I went straight to Shidehara and told him in the plainest English I could muster what was in the minds of our Government and people respecting Japan, and what I had come to Tokyo in the hope of achieving. Our understanding of each other was perfect from the beginning. His English was as plain as mine. We both wanted the same thing—mutual trust, mutual friendship, everlasting peace between our two countries—and we both knew in getting these desiderata practical considerations must not yield to sentimental.”

“You found, nevertheless, that Shidehara feels deeply about the discriminatory clause in our immigration law?”

“I knew that already. But, if I had not known it, Shidehara would have enlightened me. Every Japanese, as a matter of course, aspires to equal treatment in principle for his countrymen by all the nations of the world. From us, if quota it is to be, Japan wants the quota, and nothing more. We could give her the quota without admitting a single additional Japanese immigrant of the coolie type, and without admitting Japanese immigrants of any sort to a greater number than 150 a year. Good relations between Japan and the United States are so important from every standpoint that our law and policy are obligated to do everything within reason—everything consistent with rational consideration for the foundations of our civilization—to satisfy the susceptibilities of the Japanese people and to remove any stigma upon their prestige in the family of Great Powers.”

“Is the immigration problem the only one now disturbing Japano-American relations?”

“It is.”

“You believe the heart of Japan, and consequently Japanese policy, to be set on the eventual removal of the discrimination?”

“Certainly. Not, however, that Japan would be so foolish as to make it a casus belli.”

“Is our attitude throwing Japan back upon Asia and so tending to weaken our general diplomatic position in the world?”

“Japan is not turning toward Asia in the sense of turning against us, but a policy that gave us Japan’s full confidence and friendship naturally would strengthen our general diplomatic position. In other words, the more whole-hearted friendship we have the better for us in every way.”

“Is it probable that, if we are obdurately unsympathetic toward Japan, an Asian combination of some solidarity will result?”

“Japan wants no Asian combination inimical to improving relations between her and the Occident. She will not try to enforce her point of view by co-operating in any Asian threat or pretended threat.”

“Is soviet diplomacy trying to ‘spill the beans’ as between Japan and America?”

“Trying, but not succeeding, and not likely to succeed. Bolshevism’s whole purpose, of course, is a bean-spilling purpose. It wants to get the beans out of ‘bourgeois’ into bolshevik bags—an aspiration fair enough if divorced from brigandage, but hardly tolerable otherwise.”

“Do you think the Moscow crew is confident of success?”

“Not so confident, I fancy, as it was, but still keeping to its course, and still entitled to serious attention if we prize the beans.”

“What is your estimate of the bolshevik intellect?”

“I rate it low. It is an intellect minus the king-pin of a constructive purpose. It is an intellect full of bizarre conceit. Such intellectual vanity as that of the bolshevists cannot subsist in the same crania with intelligence. There is only one field in which the bolshevik intellect can operate dangerously and that is the field of ignorance—unhappily a broad one. Bolshevism wants watching, not because it is intelligent, but because it is incendiary in a world containing a great deal of inflammable matter.”

“Can it make any headway in Japan?”

“I may be too optimistic, but your question reminds me of our old friend the snowball climatically misplaced.”

“Has Japan any sympathy with reactionary Germany?”

“None. Japan was attracted by Prussianism for a time, but she found it was unsuitable to her and gave it up. Japanese aspirations and Japanese political and social thinking now run on lines parallel to those of the western democracies.”

“Is there any biological reason—any reason of life and death—why Japan in her present confines may be dangerous to peace?”

“Not in my view. Japan is astoundingly resourceful in the art of feeding her people. By no means all her arable land is under cultivation. Besides, who can foretell what actual necessity might evolve in unheard-of methods of food production? Japan, if I read her aright, will not attempt to ladle broth for her people out of the cauldron of war. She is far too smart for that.”

“You feel the decisive mental and moral forces of Japan at this hour are for world peace?”

“That is my feeling.”

“You think the talk in America of Japanese aggression against the Philippines or Hawaii is idle?”

“I think it is bosh.”

As I bade goodbye to Ambassador Bancroft on Sunday morning, June 7—I was leaving the next day for China and the Philippines—I said to him:

“What message have you for your friends in Chicago when I next see them?”

“Oh,” said the Ambassador, smiling more brightly than he had smiled previously at that interview, “tell them I am happy and busy in the Land of the Cherry Blossom, but, of course, always longing to come home.”

  1. Mr. Bancroft in Tokyo