The Spy who wasn’t

Canadian ambassador who helped shape postwar Japan

On the morning of April 4, 1957, Egerton Herbert Norman, the Canadian ambassador to Egypt, leapt to his death from an eight-story apartment building in Cairo. The 47-year-old was observed pacing on the roof, until finally he removed his watch and glasses and placed them in his coat, which he laid on the parapet. He then jumped and landed on the pavement below.

E. Herbert Norman (1909–1957), External Affairs.

One of Canada’s foremost Japanologists and diplomats, Norman was dogged by accusations that he was a communist and even a Soviet agent. He had traveled a long, difficult road since his birth in Nagano Prefecture in 1909. The son of a Canadian Methodist missionary, Norman studied at the University of Toronto, as well as the University of Cambridge and Harvard University, where he earned a doc­torate in 1940. His thesis, published as Japan’s Emergence as a Modern State, became a bible for officials during the postwar occupation of Japan.

With his Christian upbringing, Norman had always sympathized with the plight of farmers and workers in Japan, and he wrote about their status through the lens of centuries of Japanese feudalism. He buttressed his po­litical convictions with a fierce intelligence. Political scientist Masao Maruyama described his erudition as being “always there under the surface, gleaming like silver through the interstices of his conversation.”

During his university days, Norman became a Marxist, as did many other students who com­pared the stark realities of the Great Depression with Soviet claims about socialist utopia. Yet in 1940, he began a career with the Canadian foreign service, and was soon assigned to the Canadian Legation in Tokyo as a language officer. He was interned as an enemy alien and repatriated in 1942.

When Japan surrendered in 1945, Norman returned to Tokyo as head of the Canadian Mission to Occupied Japan, and his insights into Japanese society helped him advise leader of the Allied Occupation, General Douglas MacArthur. According to University of Victoria historian John Price, Norman pushed to have the Japanese people, and not their American conquerors, draft a new constitution. However, his position didn’t impress American cold war­riors intent on remoulding Japan into a bulwark against communism.

He buttressed his political convictions with a fierce intelligence.

After Tokyo, Norman served as a Canadian delegate to negotiations for the 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty, which ended the Oc­cu­pation. But despite his high-flying diplomatic career, he was twice accused of disloyalty and communist sympathies in U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS) hearings. Although Canadian government probes cleared him both times, he was reassigned from his role as head of the American and Far Eastern Division in External Affairs.

In 1953 he was sent off to New Zealand as high commissioner, and after concerns that he might be a communist died down, he was made ambassador to Egypt in 1956. There he played a key role in mediating an end to the Suez Canal Crisis and helping launch the first United Nations peacekeeping operation, which won Canadian Minister of External Affairs Lester Pearson a Nobel Prize.

By the end of 1956, it seemed like the an­ti­communist frenzy fanned by U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy had run its course and Norman’s diplomatic comeback was assured. But the following March, his name was again aired in proceedings of the SISS as a suspected communist. Exhausted and frustrated, Norman committed his final act weeks later. Ironically, McCarthy, chastised by U.S. Justice William J. Brennan Jr. for conducting witch hunts, died of alcoholism in May, a broken man.

Questions about the extent to which Norman sympathized with Marxism and communism continued after his demise. A 1986 book by historian James Barros that re-examined Canadian government exonerations preceded yet another federal inquiry in 1990. The in­quiry found that, while Norman had con­ducted leftist activities before 1940, he was not a spy.

Today, Norman is remembered for his schol­arship, diplomatic skills and efforts to bring Japan and the West closer together; the library at the Embassy of Canada to Japan in Tokyo is named after him. What is seldom acknowledged is how he helped mould Japan’s postwar character: former U.S. Ambassador to Japan Edwin O. Reischauer credited Norman’s advocacy for ordinary Japanese with influencing the Occupation to foster “healthy democratic growth and sweeping social change.” Sadly, few Japanese have even heard of the Canadianmissionary’s son from Nagano.

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