The cause of friendship between Japan and the United States has known no greater partisan than Michael Mansfield. On Monday the lanky patriarch from Montana bid an emotional farewell to more than 11 years of service as US Ambassador to Japan. The man who began his service to his country as a 14-year-old sailor in World War I delivered what amounted to a valedictory address to a packed news conference at the American Embassy here. The 85-year-old envoy announced his retirement and declared his satisfaction that he was departing with relations in ``excellent shape.''
In the eyes of the Japanese, Ambassador Mansfield has been invaluable. He is deeply respected for his knowledge of American politics, gained from long years (since 1942) in the US Congress. They express unusual warmth toward him for his efforts to comprehend the Japanese viewpoint.
``Mr. Mansfield has consistently been a man of understanding about both Japan and the US,'' Foreign Minister Sosuke Uno said yesterday. ``I cannot even find a word that repays his efforts.''
Though Mr. Mansfield's retirement was expected, there are concerns in Japan that it will be difficult to find someone of similar stature to replace him. The absence of such a skilled interlocuter, Japanese worry, could worsen tensions over trade and security relations that are expected to continue during the next US administration.
The former Senate majority leader said that he and his wife, Maureen, had decided to wait until a decision had been reached on the issue of rice imports into Japan, and until after the US elections to make their final judgment.
``We do so with regret,'' Mansfield said with evident feeling, ``because it has been an exhilarating experience. Because we've learned so much, and given so little and gotten a great deal in return. And because the situation is now stable enough so that we leave with our heads high and our arms swinging.''
The veteran American politician has served during a period when the US-Japan alliance has been strained. The massive Japanese trade surplus with the US - which reached $60 billion last year - has fueled a seemingly endless series of often bitter trade disputes. Japan has been beset by demands that it shoulder a larger share of the common defense burden.
The gentle-mannered ambassador has his critics. He has been accused by some in Washington of being ``pro-Japanese'' and unwilling to press Japan hard on opening up its markets to US goods.
Mansfield argued yesterday that the trade deficit is improving, down to an estimated $52 billion this year. US agricultural products, with the exception of rice, are flowing in to Japan. And Japan's defense spending, by NATO calculations, now ranks above that of all other American allies.
The ambassador offered ringing praise of Japan's emergence as a responsible world power. ``Japan has come a long way in the last decade. It has evolved from a status of a nephew to an uncle, into one of a brother to a brother.''
``The Japanese,'' he said firmly, ``have carried responsibility extremely well.... Japan has proved to be a staunch and reliable ally and friend to the US. When others lacked support for some of our policies, the Japanese were always there at our side.''
Mansfield repeated themes that have become the hallmark of his service in Japan - his belief that the US-Japan relationship is the most important bilateral tie ``bar none'' and his faith that the ``next century will be the century of the Pacific.''