Kurusu Saburō, the man who couldn’t preserve peace

Japanese diplomat Kurusu Saburō (1886-1954) in 1952

Kurusu Saburō, the Japanese career diplomat who as a special envoy tried to negotiate peace with the United States before the outbreak of World War II, was born into a family of high standing on March 6th, 1886 in Kanagawa Prefecture.

In 1909, he graduated from Tokyo Higher Commercial School, which had close ties with institutions for foreign language education, and the following year entered the diplomatic service.

Kurusu became the Nippon’s Consul in Chicago in 1914 and married US citizen Alice Jay Little (1891-1973), who adopted Japanese citizenship after the wedding, later that year in New York. They had two daughters, Jaye and Teruko Pia, both of which married Americans.

His only son Ryō (1919-1945), an engineer and a test pilot in the Imperial Air Force with the rank of major, was killed in a freak accident in 1945 during the defense of Tokyo.

Kurusu Ryōis the only Eurasian to be honored in the Yasukuni Shinto Shrine, where all those who died in service of Japan are commemorated, including women, children and pets.

In the 1920s he served in Chile, Italy and Peru. As Japanese Consul in Lima, in 1930 he sought to defuse anti-Japanese violence by promoting Japanese immigrant settlements in the rural highlands, rather than in the Peruvian capital.

Following his return to Japan, Kurusu was promoted to director of the Foreign Office Commerce Bureau to negotiate trade agreements. In 1937, he was made Ambassador to Belgium and from 1939 to 1941 he served as Ambassador to Germany.

Despite of his own reservations regarding the prospects of Japan being entangled in European conflicts, on September 27th, 1940, Kurusu signed the Tripartite Pact in Berlin on behalf of the Japanese Empire, which thereby entered into a strategic 10-year military and economic treaty with Germany and Italy.

Back in Asia in early 1941, he faced growing tensions between the United States and his homeland as peace talks bogged down after the US had imposed a full oil embargo imposed in July 1941.

Finally, aware of Kurusu´s rather pacifist stance, Minister of Foreign Affairs Tōgō Shigenori (1882-1950) dispatched him as special envoy to Washington, where he arrived on November 15th, to assist Ambassador Nomura Kichisaburo (1877-1964).

Secretary of State Cordell Hull (1871-1955) introduced Kurusu on November 17th to President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945), to whom on November 20th he presented the proposal to cease aid to China and normalize bilateral trade relations that had been seriously damaged since November 1939.

Instead, the Hull note delivered on November 26th contained a set of non-negotiable demands for Japan as a condition for peace: to withdraw all troops from China and French Indochina as well as to sever relations with Germany and Italy.

Kurusu reviewed the demand and replied, “If this is the attitude of the American government, I don’t see how an agreement is possible. Tokyo will throw up its hands at this.”

Japan indeed firmly embarked on the decision to go to war with the US, though this decision was not made known to Kurusu and Nomura, who continued to confer with Hull while awaiting a reply.

At the end, in the afternoon of December 7th, Kurusu delivered Japan’s declaration of war after the attack against the naval base of Pearl Harbor near Honolulu had begun an hour earlier.

“The Japanese Government regrets to have to notify hereby the American government that in view of the attitude of the American government it cannot but consider that it is impossible to reach an agreement through further negotiations.”

Unaware of what was happening, news reporters questioned Kurusu and Nomura as they left Hull’s office. “Is this your last conference?» one asked, and an unsmiling Nomura had no answer. “Will the embassy issue a statement later?» inquired another, and Kurusu replied «I don’t know.”

Kurusu was soon interned at Hot Springs, Virginia, until both sides negotiated an exchange of their diplomatic personnel and citizens. In June 1942, Kurusu sailed to Portuguese Mozambique on board the Swedish ocean liner MS Gripsholm, used as an exchange and repatriation ship.

When at the docks in Lourenço Marques he spotted US Ambassador Joseph Grew (1880-1965), who was preparing to board the vessel along other Americans who had been interned in Japan. The two diplomats (and Nomura) removed their hats in mutual respect to each other.

Throughout the course of the Pacific War, Kurusu continued his work with the Foreign Ministry. In a statement from November 1942 he stated that Japan had only gone to war after all means to maintain peace were exhausted and that it wanted to free Asia from Western colonial powers.

He used China as an example: «What I wish to stress especially at this time is that although the US and Britain were always professing friendship to China, but what they are really after is China-that is Chinese territory and resources and not the Chinese people themselves.»

Following Japan’s unconditional surrender on September 2nd, 1945, Kurusu was not prosecuted by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE), established by the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP), General Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964) on January 19th, 1946.

After he was purged from public office in 1947, Kurusu became a visiting professor at Tokyo University and lived with his wife in a country estate in Karuizawa in Nagano Prefecture, where he died on April 7th, 1954.

Although Kurusu ultimately failed to secure peace, he negotiated honestly against all odds. Therefore, this outstanding historical figure deserves praise for his desperate attempts to avoid a devastating war that would tragically claim the live of his son.

P.D.: Actor Hisao Toake (1908-1985) played Kurusu in the 1970 Japanese-American coproduction Tora! Tora! Tora! directed by Richard Fleischer (1916-2006), Masuda Toshio (born 1927) and Fukasaku Kinji (1930-2003). 


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