The Carlos Ghosn Affair: Why The “Other” Hostage Matters Even More: U.S. – Japan Relations At Risk?


Carlos Ghosn, Nissan’s former chairman, lived up to expectations with a feisty defense at his Beirut press conference shortly after escaping from Japan while on bail and facing criminal charges.

“Japan Inc.’s” response also met expectations: cold fury – partly from embarrassment Ghosn escaped, but as much from its infallibility being challenged. 

That doesn’t happen in Japan.

More on Mr. Ghosn’s background and the charges against him.

Masako Mori, Minster of Justice’s late-night response to Ghosn’s “presser” was a ham-handed reminder that Japan’s elite don’t learn to write essays – or making evidence-based arguments that comes with that skill.

Indeed, the best she could do while damning Ghosn as a rascal was to declare that since Japanese prosecutors get convictions 99% of the time, and since Ghosn was charged, he must therefore be guilty.

Even better, she demanded Ghosn return to Japan and prove his innocence.  Ahem.  In the civilized world it works the other way around.

Prime Minister Abe is said to have privately stated he wished Nissan had handled things internally.  Rightly so.  But he might have thought of this earlier.

The angrier it gets the more ridiculous Japan’s ruling class – and by extension Japan – appears.   They are making China’s rulers look good by comparison.

Indeed, Ghosn’s description of his detention and interrogation suggest Japanese prosecutors are doing their best to keep alive the spirit of the Kempeitai – Japan’s wartime-era secret police.  There’s solitary confinement, physical discomfort, lengthy interrogations – and without a lawyer, along with angry threats to ‘Confess!  Or else.’

It’s all bad enough considering Japan is a G7 nation.  But maybe Japan risks a lot more than reputational damage.

Shaking the U.S. – Japan alliance?

If not handled carefully, the Ghosn affair might damage the U.S.-Japan relationship. 

Now what does a Lebanese/French/Brazilian auto executive have to do with Japan’s ties with the United States? 

Not much, if it is just Carlos Ghosn.  But Japan also took an American, Greg Kelly, hostage along with Ghosn.   

Kelly is an American Nissan executive who is accused of conspiring with Ghosn.  He was lured back to Japan from Tennessee.  He needed back surgery, so asked to take care of business via a conference call.  Instead Nissan kindly sent a private jet.  Urgent matter, you know.   Shortly after landing, Kelly was arrested and locked up – just as Ghosn.  Kelly received the same treatment – solitary confinement and weeks of interrogation.  One suspects prosecutors at some point called him a “Yankee Air Pirate.”

Kelly was released on bail in late December 2018 while Ghosn remained in solitary.  Somebody in the Japanese government probably realized the U.S. Ambassador, like Kelly, was also from Nashville.  But Kelly remains stuck in Japan.  His wife is with him, coming on a student-visa (she signed up for Japanese lessons) to be near her husband.

Greg Kelly, like Ghosn, doesn’t speak, read, or write Japanese.  Yet, he’s accused of masterminding a complex financial fraud with Ghosn – without anyone noticing.  Anyone who has worked for a Japanese company knows how unlikely this is. 

Or consider – when was the last time a couple of non-English speaking Japanese executives went to the U.S., went to work at General Motors and pulled off a crime of similar magnitude?

Kelly and Ghosn are ultimately bit players in a nation-on-nation economic warfare battle.  The scheme to get Ghosn (and Kelly) looks like a hit-job by Nissan executives and the Japanese government to keep Nissan – a “national champion” company from being merged with Renault – a French automaker.

And the only people getting the “Kempeitai” treatment are the foreigners.  Apparently only foreigners are a threat to destroy evidence or to “run.”  Japanese don’t do that, of course.

So while Ghosn gets the attention, Kelly is still in Japan and entangled in the octopus that is the Japanese legal system.  This might take years to resolve – unless he does what the prosecutors demand, and confesses.  The stress alone can be fatal.

You can see I’m irked.  And I’m no “Japan basher.”

But maybe Japanese officialdom is just having a bad day – and is merely tone deaf? 

If only.

Instead, this long-time friend of Japan regretfully acknowledges the Ghosn-Kelly affair highlights a troubling aspect of Japanese elite attitudes towards foreigners – even those from Japan’s only ally – the United States.

Senior U.S. military officers who’ve served in Japan might especially recognize what is going on with Ghosn and Kelly.

You see, whenever an accident or incident happens involving U.S. forces, Japanese officialdom usually attempts to publicly humiliate the U.S. military and its leadership – and sometimes the American ambassador – demanding they shape up and respect Japanese sensitivities.

In a notable case, a U.S. Marine Osprey helicopter ran into trouble off Okinawa in 2017.  The pilot took the “long way” back to base rather than flying over land and potentially endangering Japanese below.  The pilot was forced to crash land the Osprey in the water just offshore.  Fortunately nobody was hurt.

As usual, Japanese officials and media savaged the Marine Corps and the Commanding General on Okinawa.  They were further incensed after the General suggested somebody might inquire as to the well being of the helicopter crew – and even appreciate their efforts to not harm Japanese citizens. 

It gets worse, however.

In July 2019, the Japanese Coast Guard (JCG) recommended criminal charges be brought against the Marine pilot – and forwarded the case to Japanese prosecutors.

JCG similarly referred charges to prosecutors against the USS Fitzgerald’s officer of the deck after the 2017 collision with a civilian cargo ship off Yokosuka that killed seven American sailors.

Think about it:  U.S. service members are killed or nearly killed while training to defend Japan (because Japan won’t defend itself).

Japan’s gratitude?  Propose criminal charges.

Some will say this is just a face-facing move by Japanese authorities.  And anyway, the prosecutors didn’t proceed (at least a few people in the Japanese government not being completely insane).  So just ignore it.

No…at some point the insults add up.  And this is insulting to every American service member – and to the Americans that send them to Japan to defend the Japanese.

This will bother everyday Americans a lot more than Mr. Trump’s complaints Japan spends too little to support U.S. forces.

So let this issue fester – with Greg Kelly as its ongoing embodiment – and Tokyo could have bigger problems as the U.S. public questions American support for Japan.  And this at a time when China is angling to teach the Japanese a lesson and is eyeing Japan’s southern territory. 

Prime Minister Abe needs to fix this, and fast.  Will he?  He has shown more statesmanship than any of his predecessors and understands Japan’s larger interests.

But it will probably require fear of the Americans to outweigh “Japan Inc.’s” bloodlust for a pound of flesh from their remaining hostage. 

Thus, the “encouragement” will need to come from Donald Trump himself.  And he has shown hands-on interest in righting legal injustices – and even getting hostages released (though never hostages held by erstwhile allies.)

So here’s a suggestion for Mr. Trump: 

Quietly summon the Japanese Ambassador, maybe for a Big-Mac lunch in the White House.  Let him know that Greg Kelly needs to be back home in Nashville – and quickly.  Hopefully, Trump will not need to explain why. 

One can hear “alliance managers” on both sides snorting:  “Is it really worth risking the U.S. – Japan defense relationship for one American – even if he is being tormented unjustly?”

Maybe not to alliance managers.  But to a lot of regular Americans – including some of us who spent years defending Japan – it is.

Make no mistake, the U.S. – Japan relationship is important for both countries, the region, and the world.

But it’s more fragile than imagined – and Greg Kelly’s treatment is a reminder that Japan’s elite doesn’t value it all that much.

The author is a retired U.S. Marine officer who lived in Japan for 20 years.  He served as the Marine Attaché in Tokyo on two occasions, and headed the U.S. -Japan Bilateral Coordination Cell in Sendai following the 3/11 tsunami/earthquake.  He was also the first U.S. Marine liaison officer to the Japanese Self Defense Force – and was a driving force in developing JSDF’s amphibious capability in the face of considerable U.S. military and government opposition that feared a Japan with improved defense capabilities.  As noted in the text, he has never been mistaken for a “Japan basher.”