Susan Pharr’s Letter on the Passing of Yukio Matsuyama

November 12, 2021

My heart is heavy at the sad news of Matsuyama-san’s passing. It was a great privilege to know him, and learn from him, over many years.

Yukio Matsuyama joined the Harvard Program on US-Japan Relations when he was already a prize-winning journalist and had served as Chair of the Asahi editorial board. He had a deep knowledge of American society and politics from his days as bureau chief of Asahi’s General America bureau, and he told me that he wanted to look closely at how the country had changed through experiencing daily life in Boston and intellectual debates at Harvard. He was a dynamic presence in the Program and at Harvard. Despite his seniority and fame, he fit in easily. He was a person of great wit. Several times he gave talks for the Program and each time used the same title: “The Seven Wonders of Japanese Politics.” It was the perfect title, he said, because there are always at least seven wonders of Japanese politics.

After returning to Japan, Matsuyama-san maintained deep connections with the Program. He was often called on to speak at the annual alumni gathering of the Program in Tokyo in January, and could be counted on to deliver inspiring, perceptive, and humorous remarks. Each January for many years, long into his 80s, he traveled across Tokyo early on Saturday mornings to join me, the Program’s associate director (Frank Schwartz, and later Shinju Fujihira), and several other distinguished panelists at the International House of Japan to interview candidates for the next year’s cohort of Associates. Surely, those interviewed in Tokyo by Matsuyama-san never forgot the experience. He came to the interviews well-prepared, having read the applications carefully, and his questions—posed in perfect, nuanced English—zeroed in on inconsistencies, and pushed the applicants hard on how they would use their precious time in the United States if they were selected. He cared deeply about the future of democracy in the U.S. and Japan, and saw the interviews as a chance to take the measure of younger generations of Japanese. When applicants performed well and gave intelligent, thoughtful answers to the questions our interview panel posed, he beamed with satisfaction after they left the room; when they had stumbled, he shook his head sadly.

During the year he spent at Harvard, Matsuyama-san was well-liked and admired by everyone he met, young and old. But he had a special relation with two groups in particular. One of these was young journalists, for whom he was a role model and inspiration. The other was Japanese professional women. He was quite proud that at one point in the late 1980s, he had been chosen “Man of the Year” by a Japanese women’s group. He fully understood the kinds of obstacles Japanese women face in professional careers, and he went out of his way to recognize their achievements, and to provide encouragement and advice when they came to him.

Yukio Matsuyama was a person of great charm, with a penetrating intelligence, a deep social conscience, and a heart of gold.

Susan J. Pharr

Edwin O. Reischauer Research Professor of Japanese Politics
Senior Advisor, Program on U.S.-Japan Relations

Harvard University