The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan


December 2013

Ambassador Foley was a special friend to the ACCJ

By Samuel Kidder

Foley2.12.13Many people in Japan will always remember him as Ambassador Foley. But, of course, Tom Foley’s time with us as US ambassador to Japan (1997–2001) was only one chapter in a career of service to his constituents in western Washington and to the people of the United States.  

After Ambassador Foley’s death this year on October 18, a memorial ceremony was held at the end of that month in the United States Capitol rotunda, at the building where he had served as a congressman for 30 years and for 5½ years had served as Speaker of the House. Ambassador Foley was the 57th American to hold that position.

During the ceremony, current and past leaders of the House of Representatives and the Senate, as well as representatives from both political parties, remembered Ambassador Foley for his intellect and warm personal style. US President Barack Obama spoke of his ability to “find common ground with his colleagues across the aisle.” John Boehner, the current and 61st Speaker of the House, remembered the former ambassador for his “sense of fairness.”

Before being appointed envoy, Ambassador Foley played a key role in increasing communication between the US Congress and the Japanese Diet. Working tirelessly with his good friend Tadashi Yamamoto, head of the Japan Center for International Exchange and the ACCJ’s Person of the Year in 2009, Ambassador Foley did his best to ensure US officials were aware of the importance of the bilateral relationship. Thus, when he arrived in Tokyo in the fall of 1997, he already had a robust network among Japan’s political leaders.  

When visitors from Washington came to Tokyo, Ambassador Foley’s embassy residence was always open— a testament to his continued efforts to keep Japan on the Washington agenda, as well as a demonstration of his openness and hospitality.  

Ambassador Foley and his wife hosted a steady stream of houseguests, including the who’s who of US politics past and present. I recall being invited to sit in on small breakfast meetings with Dick Cheney, Caspar Weinberger, and former President George H.W. Bush and his wife, who were all visiting Japan in a private capacity.
Visitors came not just from the world of politics, but from business and the arts, too. Frank Stella, an artist and friend of the ambassador, was also a favorite caller whose works were on display at the official residence.

The US and Japanese communities both appreciated the ambassador for his charm, sense of humor, and graciousness. However, what is perhaps most remembered about him, because it was so remarkable, is his physical strength.

Tokyo American Club members who saw Ambassador Foley pumping iron in the gym often mentioned the tremendous weight he seemed to be able to lift so effortlessly. His Japanese bodyguards had to be specially selected from the police force since they had to shadow him everywhere in public, including on grueling bike rides around the Imperial Palace. In addition, the security police welcomed the ambassador into their inner sanctum, the Marunouchi Police Station Dojo, where he often participated in martial arts training.

It is not uncommon for an ambassador to cut a ribbon at a show or store opening. Scaling a climbing wall, however, as Ambassador Foley did for an opening of a US outdoor goods store, is uncommon, but this was just the kind of physical challenge he relished.

Ambassador Foley was a special friend to the ACCJ. It has been our privilege over the years to participate in monthly meetings with the ambassador and his—and now, her—senior staff across the table from our Board of Governors. Over the years this monthly exchange of information and ideas has been invaluable in cementing the close working relationship the chamber enjoys with the embassy.

This tradition continued with a difference—or rather, flair—under Ambassador Foley. From time to time he would upgrade the meeting venue from the embassy’s ninth-floor conference room to the official residence, where our group was hosted to a sit-down breakfast.  

Glen Fukushima, whose term as ACCJ president from 1998–1999 coincided with Ambassador Foley’s first years in Tokyo, recalls: “Tom was a true gentleman and diplomat who worked tirelessly to strengthen US–Japan relations. I will always remember him for his integrity, wisdom, great anecdotes, and wonderful sense of humor.”

Ambassador Foley engaged the US business community in a way that went far beyond token support. Current ACCJ Chairman Mike Alfant sold his company in 1999—a landmark deal for an American entrepreneur in Japan. Overruling the embassy staff’s recommendation that the event celebrating the sale was not a “must attend” for the envoy, Ambassador Foley showed up, made a toast, and stayed all night. Alfant sees this support as “indicative of [Foley’s] character, his integrity, his personal honor, and the seriousness with which he undertook his responsibilities.” Further, Alfant believes that by taking the time to listen to everyone, the ambassador taught him an important lesson in both business and in life.

C. Lawrence Greenwood, Jr., now senior managing director of government relations, Japan at MetLife Alico and an ACCJ governor, was the minister counselor for economic affairs during Ambassador Foley’s tenure.

“With all due respect to the many great bosses I have had in my 37 years of professional work, Ambassador Foley was the best,” said Greenwood. “Although he made everything he did look effortless, underneath lay a determined drive and stubborn persistence.”  

The ACCJ was fortunate for having his support and the Japanese and American people can both be thankful for his stewardship of our vital bilateral relationship.

While on the ACCJ’s Washington Doorknock this spring, I had the pleasure of joining Ambassador Foley and his wife Heather for dinner at their home in Washington. He told his stories with the same sly cadence and, as always, had dressed carefully for dinner. I will not repeat but will never forget the kind words Ambassador Foley used to introduce me to the other dinner guest that evening, a friend of the Foleys since his first days in Washington.

The ACCJ named Ambassador Foley as their Person of the Year in 2000 and presented him with a framed print by artist Toko Shinoda. Displayed in their Washington home along with works by Frank Stella and other noted American artists, the Shinoda print is a fitting reminder of the ambassador’s service in Japan.

It was an honor to have known Tom Foley.

Samuel Kidder is executive director of the ACCJ.