Honoring the Legacy of Makoto Iokibe

Makoto Iokibe was an esteemed diplomatic historian best known for his pioneering studies on the U.S. post-World War II occupation of Japan, but his influence extended beyond the scholarly world.
Makoto Iokibe with two of his books, "The History of US-Japan Relations" and "The Era of Great Disasters"

On March 6, 2024, we lost Professor Makoto Iokibe, a giant in U.S.-Japan relations. Iokibe was 80 years old, but he could easily have passed for 60,  starring in a senior baseball league and playing active roles in Japan’s foreign policy debates until that fateful March day. His sudden passing due to acute aortic dissection has been met with tremendous sadness and surprise, particularly since he had just attended a meeting a few hours earlier.

Iokibe was a renowned diplomatic historian best known for his pioneering studies on the United States’ post–World War II occupation of Japan. But he was so much more. He wrote broadly about Japan’s modern history, focusing on its international relations, from how Meiji leaders learned from the West to how Showa leaders misdirected the Japanese Empire in the 1930s and 40s but rebuilt post-WWII Japan into an economic superpower (The History of US-Japan Relations: From Perry to the Present). 

Having experienced the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake at his home in Kobe, he got involved in post-disaster policymaking and disaster management efforts, chairing the government committees for reconstruction after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake as well as after the 2016 Kumamoto Earthquake. These issues became his second major focus, culminating in a recent publication, The Era of Great Disasters: Japan and Its Three Major Earthquakes

His influence extended beyond the scholarly world, as many leaders in recent decades sought his guidance in foreign policymaking. He was openly critical of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, but Koizumi, being a big fan of Iokibe’s works, listened to his advice on other foreign policy matters and appointed him the president of Japan’s National Defense Academy. Seeing that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was veering toward revisiting Japan’s official stance on World War II, particularly its victimization of Asia, he did everything he could to council Abe about the follies of disempowering Japan in the international community and empowering forces that sought to undermine Japan’s credibility as a global leader.

He was particularly close to Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, who, among recent prime ministers, has been most committed to managing challenging relations with the rising China. Iokibe played a leading role in Fukuda’s cabinet in mending Sino-Japanese ties and continued to attend to this increasingly important but thorny relationship. His stance about prioritizing the U.S.-Japan security alliance while maintaining China-Japan cooperation in the economic realm should continue to guide Japan’s foreign policy in the years and decades to come. 

On a personal note, Iokibe-sensei was a mentor and family friend who has helped and supported me in many important ways. Our grandparents knew each other as fellow economists. My father and Iokibe-sensei had been friends since graduate school. He and his late wife were always kind to my family, and I’ve known most of his children, most closely Kaoru Iokibe, a leading historian and political scientist of modern Japan at the University of Tokyo. 

Iokibe-sensei was always generous with his time with everyone around him, including myself, guiding me when I was not sure about my career direction and counseling me on contemporary political issues that Japan faces. Even though he was one of the most respected scholars with access to leaders of the highest echelon in Japan and in the US, he treated everyone with the same respect, humility, and infectious smile. 

I fondly remember hosting him for a talk multiple times at the University of Michigan where I was director of the Center for Japanese Studies, as well as at Stanford in 2005-06 when I was a visiting assistant professor at APARC. Always a sports fan and player, we would go out to watch a football game at a major stadium and he would also play baseball with our daughter in a neighborhood park. 

I never imagined that talking to him a few months ago at an award event in Tokyo would be the last time I’d see him, and I deeply regret that I couldn’t welcome him to Stanford again. His voice of reason will always whisper in my ears and, hopefully, in the ears of Japan’s policymakers. Thank you, Iokibe-sensei; I’m sure that you’re enjoying your time with your beloved wife up above. 

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