The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Long time American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ) leader Ira Wolf recently passed away. Over the past four decades, Ira has played a central role in strengthening the economic relationship between the United States and Japan.

He began his career in government—at the U.S. Department of State, as advisor to a Senate committee chairman, and as a senior official at the Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR)—and later became a business leader, helping several major US corporations grapple with business challenges. Most recently he served as executive director for PhRMA Japan.

Ira served multiple terms on the ACCJ’s Board of Governors, and for many years as head of our Pharmaceuticals Subcommittee. Those of us privileged to have worked with Ira will miss his keen insights, sharp wit, and warm friendship. This month, I would like to share this column with some chamber colleagues who knew Ira best, to celebrate his life and many achievements.

“With the passing of Ira Wolf, Japan and the United States lost a great friend and champion. Ira was my former boss, colleague, mentor, and friend, and I am deeply saddened by his passing. In my eyes, Ira was a trade warrior with a big heart—a true American patriot.

I first worked with Ira when he was the assistant U.S. trade representative for Japan and China in the early 1990s. At USTR, Ira was always fighting for US interests. If getting the job done meant standing up to senior political appointees or corporate leaders, Ira would do it. He was a strong boss who stood up for and protected his team, mentoring his subordinates along the way. Since that time, I worked with Ira as his lawyer and as a business colleague.

Regardless of the capacity, people always respected Ira because they knew what he stood for. They also knew he was a hard-hitting fighter with a unique style of directness.

To his colleagues, friends, and to me, Ira was kind and warm. For example, a few years back I had an Ira Wolf moment—I lamented that I was too busy and that all my travel was for business. Ira urged me to see the world with my wife for fun while I could: “It’s a big place with lots to see, so don’t miss it,” he said. A few days later, Ira sent me the book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die.

Words can’t begin to describe what Ira Wolf has meant to his friends and colleagues. I will be forever grateful for my time with Ira—he left us too soon and we will miss him dearly.”


Charles D. Lake II

Senpai was always there

“When I met Ira, he was a senior member of the US business
community in Japan, and I was a young entrepreneur just starting my first company. It was a very challenging time for me.
I sat at the same table as Ira at an ACCJ event, and remember that of all the folks in the room, Ira was the most supportive and open. He encouraged me to persevere and volunteered that he’d be happy to chat with me anytime.

It was a very kind gesture, as I had no way of reciprocating. Based on that gesture, I decided that once I became as accomplished in the business world as Ira, I’d never turn down a request for a meeting made by anyone younger or less established than me.

Later, when I became president of the chamber, Ira was the first person to send me a congratulatory letter. As president, I had Ira as my trusted advisor and confidant.

Just a few years ago, when my own father passed on, Ira was there to support me during a difficult time. He listened while I spoke for over an hour—it was exactly what I needed at the time. Ira had the wisdom to understand that and the patience to listen.

Finally, just before Ira’s relocation to Washington, he and I shared blueberry pancakes at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. We spent the morning enjoying each other’s company and the fine view. The morning remains vivid in my memory and was one of the most pleasant days in my life.

I suppose the common thread here is that Ira was always there for me. My respect and admiration for Ira is comprehensive. He was my senpai in the truest sense of that word.”


Michael J. Alfant

Wry and endearing

“Ira infused his always insightful comments, cutting to the chase in any long discussions at the ACCJ Board of Governors, with his wry and yet endearing sense of humor. We would then usually quickly reach a resolution.”


Laurence W. Bates

Ira was California

“Ira was on the ACCJ Board of Governors when I was president. I remember the fondness that all of us had for Ira, as he always brought different and interesting perspectives to our discussions.

Usually, when there were differences of opinion on the board, the discussion fell into two camps—and then there was Ira with his own ideas. We had to stop and think. I teased him that he reminded me of what my professors used to say in law school: when looking at cases on any topic coming from various US states, there is generally a majority rule and a minority rule, and then there is California going its own way.

Ira was California. He thought that was amusing.”


Allan D. Smith

Spirit of US-Japan ties

“Ira knew how to close a deal, but he was also a tough and shrewd defender of US interests, especially in late-night sessions with the ‘best and brightest’ of Japan’s elite bureaucrats. Numerous US ambassadors to Japan relied on Ira’s advice and judgment at critical junctures.

At PhRMA, Ira emerged as a strong yet constructive voice in pressing for deregulation of Japan’s pharmaceutical industry. A long-time member of the ACCJ board, he worked to position the chamber as a partner with Japanese government and industry in growing the Japanese economy. And, when the National Bureau of Asian Research faced financial issues a few years back, he mobilized all of us to find the funds to tide them over.

Ira was the originator and custodian of the Jason Society, a study group born nearly a quarter century ago during the ‘trade wars’ between Japan and the US, which has endured until today. We met just after his passing to consider how we might continue Ira’s work to infuse a future generation with the spirit and commitment to the US–Japan relationship that so characterized his life.

We agreed to reach out to some of our outstanding younger colleagues and secure the future of the group for the next 25 years. Ira often told me that getting people together was always the start of something. Doing so will be our way of saying thank you to Ira for a life well lived.”


Jim Foster

True professional, poetry in motion

“For many years, Ira and I often found ourselves teamed up to do advocacy together. When doing advocacy outreach, there is often not much time in any given meeting to deliver key messages concerning the issues of the day.

Well, when you move from one meeting to the next with the same guy, day after day, you soon find yourself memorizing the other guy’s canned pitch. In a kind of Vulcan mind-meld, we were often able to switch places, one from the other, or prompt each other to give the next talking point in a way that often extended meetings where more in-depth discussions became possible.

Ira was a true professional, and when engaging on issues he was poetry in motion. I truly appreciate the times we worked together. On reflection, I smile knowing Ira and his talking points will forever be with me.”


William Bishop

Mentored many people

“I have known Ira for over two decades. Ira was always the same: he was very consistent, and he was a straight shooter who said what he believed. Hearing him speak his mind was a breath of fresh air.

Ira mentored many people. All of us will miss him. I remember him always telling me about his book club. He liked new things but valued old ways, too.”


Kumi Sato

Strong, patient leader

“Ira Wolf was a much-admired leader in US–Japan relations for many years. I had the pleasure of engaging with him from the time he was a congressional staff leader working on US–Japan trade issues, through his time in the Clinton Administration and later in various industry roles.

For those of us in the healthcare industry here in Japan, we are especially grateful to Ira for his strong leadership in the pharma sector. His patient building of relationships with key stakeholders helped increase understanding of the regulatory and economic conditions needed to ensure that innovative drugs are available on a consistent basis. That, in turn, resulted in changes that have increased the availability of effective treatments for Japanese patients. His good counsel will be sorely missed.”


Marie G. Kissel

Respect, trust and dignity

“Ira is fondly remembered at Custom Media for trusting us in our early days with producing a major bilingual policy paper and opening many doors for us, and we still work with PhRMA. Firm and fair, Ira mentored and encouraged us with respect and dignity. We will miss him very much.”


Simon Farrell and Robert Heldt