Just outside the west entrance to Luce Hall at the U.S. Naval Academy sits a stately 13-tiered stone pagoda. Though it is relatively unadorned by the standards of many monuments, if one looks closely, on its base one may find this (English) inscription:
"In memory of JAPANESE AMBASSADOR HIROSI SAITO, who died at Washington on February 26, 1939, and whose remains were by order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, conveyed on board the U.S.S. Astoria to his native land, and in grateful appreciation of American sympathy and courtesy this pagoda was presented by his wife and children to the United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, in October, 1940."
The tale is one of personal gratitude and international diplomacy on the eve of war.
Hiroshi (also anglicized Hirosi, as on the monument) Saitō was born into a wealthy and politically powerful family in Japan in 1886. In 1911, he was appointed as an attaché to the Japanese embassy in Washington, staying on as third secretary through 1917. During that time, he was known to periodically take tea with his friend, then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt.
At age 32, in 1918, Saitō returned to Japan and married the daughter of Baron Sensai Nagayo, a prominent member of Japan's Iwakura Mission that helped lead to a transformative modernization of the country's armed forces after its 1871-1873 around-the-Western-world-tour. After his marriage, Saitō returned to the diplomatic circuit, attending many postwar conferences. When he was officially appointed ambassador to the United States in early 1934, he was the youngest man ever to hold that position.
Ambassador Saitō's arrival in New York on 9 February 1934 with his wife and their two young daughters—seven-year-old Sakiko and four-year-old Makako—was met enthusiasm from the American public. The press corps, too, thought highly of him; his directness earned him a nickname he relished: the "indiscreet diplomat."
The Saitōs were familiar faces in Washington social circles and were warmly welcomed wherever they went. During the 1937 Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, for example, little Sakiko was crowned Queen of the Cherry blossoms. Saitō, with his mastery of the English language, keen sense of humor, and self-effacing modesty—not to mention his personal friendship with President Roosevelt—quickly became one of the most well-known and shrewdest members of the Washington diplomatic corps.
His tenure as ambassador was marked by many challenges. Relations between the two countries were deteriorating, largely as a result of Japan's vicious expansionist policies in China and Saitō's wholehearted defense thereof. Gestures of goodwill, such as the Imperial Japanese Navy's aid in the search for Amelia Earhart, were met by disturbing offset by inflammatory incidents such as the attack on the USS Panay on 12 December 1937 and the beginning of the horrific Nanking Massacre ("Rape of Nanking") the very next day.
Yet despite such incidents, the U.S. public was still largely isolationist and willing to accept overtures of friendship and goodwill in spite of the increasing likelihood of war. Saitō himself would not live to see that eventuality. His health rapidly deteriorating, Ambassador Saitō resigned his post in the autumn of 1938. He died of stomach cancer in Washington on 26 February 1939.
With relations between the two nations at a low point, President Roosevelt, on the recommendation of the State Department, offered to return the ashes of his late friend to Japan on board the USS Astoria (CA-34). It was an unusual offer, since Saitō was no longer ambassador, but one that was met with a tremendous outpouring of gratitude and friendliness on the part of both the Japanese and American public. Many thought that a new leaf had been turned, and soon diplomatic machinations were at work on both sides to spin the gesture for each country's own purposes.
The Astoria was quickly overhauled and repainted at Norfolk for her voyage. On 18 March, Saitō's funeral procession met the launch Anita Clay at the Naval Academy, and his ashes were taken aboard the Astoria at the mouth of the Severn River for their final journey. She reached Yokohama Harbor on 17 April, met and saluted by the Imperial Japanese Navy cruiser Kiso, Saitō's mother, his widow and children, and a throng of thousands. The urn containing his ashes was led to its final resting place by an honor guard from the Astoria, and its men were treated as distinguished guests at a number of social functions accompanying the genuine outpouring of gratitude on their visit.
In October 1940, the Saitō family, probably with encouragement from the Japanese government, in gratitude for the Navy's part in returning their loved one's remains, gifted the granite pagoda (sekitō) to the Naval Academy, from which his remains departed for Japan.
This deeply symbolic Buddhist pagoda, of the tajūtō type, is engraved on each of its four sides with a Sanskrit character that in Mahāyāna Buddhism represent "seed" syllables each containing infinite meanings. Each symbol also represents a particular Dhyani, or Wisdom Buddha, associated with the cardinal direction of the face.
At the bottom of the monument, the engraver carved his name and address in Japanese: "Engraved by Sakichi Okumura, Kagawa-ken [Kagawa prefecture] Shōdo-gun [Shōdo district] Toyoshima-son [Toyoshima village]." *
Shortly after the monument was presented, the Astoria was assigned to Pearl Harbor following the continuing escalation of events in what would become the Pacific theater. The Astoria was steaming for Midway on 7 December 1941 when Pearl Harbor was attacked, and any remaining feelings of goodwill and friendship between the Japan and the United States evaporated in an instant. Japanese forces sank her on 9 August 1942 during the Battle of Savo Island.
The Saitō monument was the target of much protest during the war, with many demanding its removal. Today, World War II is long past, though the largely healed wounds still remain—as does Hiroshi Saitō's monument, which was left in place by the Navy as reminder of the close ties the two nations and their naval services once shared, and the sometimes fragile natures of international friendships.