Unsung hero

Parkway Drive resident Sam Kidder found 19th century ambassador to Japan John Bingham to be a fascinating subject for a biography.

While working for the U.S. Foreign Service in Japan, Sam Kidder would at times give talks and interviews about his role. He often would start his story with the line: “I first came to Japan when Mike Mansfield was ambassador. He was the longest serving ambassador in Japan.”

Then it dawned on him that he’d better check to make sure that’s accurate.

That’s when he stumbled on John Bingham, the actual longest serving ambassador of Japan, who received far less attention in the history books. Through his research, Kidder became fascinated with Bingham’s work, specifically how he shaped America’s initial diplomatic relations with Japan.

“I wanted to find out more about him and the more that I found out about him, the more interested I became,” Kidder said.

He published his findings in Of One Blood All Nations: John Bingham: Ohio Congressman’s Diplomatic Career in Meiji Japan (1873-1885). The book is available on Amazon and Kindle and focuses on “the unseen but critical history of the early relationship between the United States and Japan.”

dinner hosted for me in Tokyo following a speech I made to the Tsukiji Historical Association. This was just before the pandemic hit and travel became problematic. The woman seated is my wife, Miyako, and the Japanese gentleman, Professor Nakajima, a Japanese expert on the early foreign presence in Japan in the late 19th century.

Kidder has long been interested in East Asia. His grandfather once served as a missionary in China and his father grew up there. His uncle later became a professor in Japan.

“We always had this family connection to the area,” he said.

As an undergraduate student at Beloit College in Wisconsin, Kidder studied history, government and language in Korea. After graduating from Beloit in 1970, he served three years in the Army as a Korean linguist. Kidder later received a master’s degree in East Asian Studies from Harvard University and pursued a doctorate from the University of Washington, although he never completed the work.

Kidder’s Foreign Service appointments included serving as Minister-Counselor for Commercial Affairs in Tokyo, Seoul and New Delhi. Later, he served as executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.

Kidder moved back to the United States and landed in Mt. Lebanon seven years ago. He currently serves on the board of the American Friends of the International House of Japan.

His interest in Bingham grew over the last several years. He felt a personal connection to the longtime ambassador, who grew up in western Pennsylvania with a family similar to Kidder’s.

Bingham later moved to Ohio, where he served in the U.S. House of Representatives, and served as the lone civilian prosecutor in the Abraham Lincoln assassination trial. Perhaps most notably, Bingham was the primary author of the 14th amendment of the Constitution, which granted citizenship and equal rights to African Americans who had been emancipated after the American Civil War.

“He was a big guy, but all the heroes of those days were military heroes and he wasn’t one of those,” said Kidder. “So he’s been somewhat neglected by popular history. But, in constitutional history, if you start talking to people who are constitutional experts, historic experts, they all know this guy.”