The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan



More than Politics

Howard Baker and Joan Mondale’s lasting contributions to Japan

Samuel Kidder

When I began my first tour as an officer of the Embassy of the United States, Tokyo, Ambassador Mike Mansfield was in the final months of his long tenure here. Since then, I have had the privilege of knowing and working either at the embassy or at the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan with all of his successors.

Most of us in the chamber likely focus on the considerable political and economic contributions these distinguished Americans have made to the Japanese–American relationship. For example, Ambassador John Roos’s leadership after the Tohoku tragedy is fresh in our minds.

I am sure there are dozens of other examples that many of you will remember where an ambassador’s intervention on a policy issue or support for business activities have made a real and positive difference.

This year, we have been saddened by the passing of Ambassador Howard Baker and Joan Mondale (wife of Ambassador Walter Mondale).

Both made particularly important contributions to our bilateral relationship that went well beyond their political job description. Their private lives and involvement in personal causes provide us with a window into a world beyond politics, a world of beauty and appreciation for Japan.

Joan of Art
Joan Mondale had an eye for art beginning in her school days. In her political life in Minnesota, as well as her role as Senator and Vice President Mondale’s partner in Washington, D.C., she became a national leader holding key positions in various organizations supporting the arts.

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter named her honorary chairperson of the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities. The media became fond of calling her Joan of Art.

She had always been interested in pottery and studied with Warren MacKenzie, a Minnesota potter who had been a student of Bernard Leach. A prominent English potter, Leach played a vital role in introducing Western techniques and styles to Japan and in bringing Japanese pottery to the West.

While in Japan, Joan Mondale hosted some of America’s best-known artists at the U.S. Ambassador’s Residence. With like-minded Japanese friends, she carried on an indefatigable campaign to place art in public places.

Mondale-pic-JTOne of her favorite spots in Tokyo was the Japan Folk Crafts Museum in Komaba. While out and about in Tokyo, if you pass the LOVE sculpture by Robert Indiana in Shinjuku, or find yourself gazing at the walls of the Tameike Sanno metro station, note that Joan Mondale’s direct intervention lives on in those art placements.

At her alma mater, Macalester College, the campus’s studio art building has been renamed the Joan Mondale Hall of Studio Art, and an endowed scholarship has been established in her name.

Who took that pic and when did he take it?
The most frequently quoted question from the Senate Watergate hearings came from Senator Baker, when he asked about President Richard Nixon’s involvement in the break-in: “What did the president know and when did he know it?”

Baker was recognized as a brilliant photographer, and took the photo of the White House shown on the previous page when he was chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan.

According to Baker’s story, he was with the president on a gorgeous day and wondered to whom he needed to talk about getting permission to go up in a helicopter to take aerial shots of the White House. The president replied that Baker had the authority to approve his own ride, which he did.

During his time in Japan, Baker’s keen eye and photographic talent resulted in dozens of pictures that adorned the embassy’s walls, many still on display, some featured in galleries and others published.

Many of his shots showed a fascination with repeating patterns, scenes like a turtle’s tracks across a sandy beach or rows of sake casks at Meiji Shrine. Baker became entranced by Japan’s natural and cultural beauty, and his legacy reminds us all to look closely and deeply at what we see around us each day.

For Howard Baker and Joan Mondale, the time spent in Japan was just an interlude in a long life dedicated to public service. However, their work extended beyond the borders of their official capacities, and we are all richer because of their engagement with this special country.

To donate to the Joan Mondale endowed scholarship at Macalester College,
• go to
• select “Other” in the “Designate gift to” field
• enter Mondale’s name in the comments box.



Samuel Kidder is

executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.