The Astoria Affair
By Raymond Cohen
This Article Summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium
Citation: "The Astoria Affair," Selection from: Raymond Cohen, Negotiating Across Cultures: Communication Obstacles in International Diplomacy, (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1991), pp. 4- 6.
The Astoria affair demonstrates that even expert diplomats can become caught in mis- communications arising from cultural differences. In 1938 the Japanese ambassador to the United States died in Washington. At that time relations between Japan and the U.S. were strained. The U.S. strongly opposed Japanese aggression against China and Japan had infringed on other American interests.
Basic diplomatic respect dictated that the ashes of the late ambassador be returned to his home country. President Roosevelt, led apparently by his great enthusiasm for the Navy, ordered the ashes to be conveyed to Japan on the Navy cruiser Astoria.
Respect for the dead and ancestor reverence play an important role in Japanese culture. The Japanese interpreted the use of a Navy cruiser as a signal honor, a mark of profound respect and gesture of friendship. By using such dramatic means to return the late ambassador's ashes, the U.S. gave the mistaken impression that they were motivated by deep friendship and respect. In fact the U.S. was deeply opposed to Japanese actions and policies. This gaffe caused significant difficulties for American diplomats, as they tried to minimize the significance of the event without gravely offending the Japanese.