In March of 2006, I joined fifteen other Japanese Americans on a one week visit to Japan as a guest of the Japanese Foreign Ministry and the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership. The purpose is help build a stronger relationship between the United States and Japan. Certainly, one week does not an expert make. However, let me share some impressions.
The Delegation. Berkeley playwright Philip Gotanda and I were recommended by Consul General Yamanaka (S.F.) to represent the Northern California area. I am the Executive Officer of the California State Personnel Board in Sacramento. Many years ago, I studied near Tokyo at International Christian University (ICU) and met with Prime Minister Nakasone in 1983 as National President of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). However, my recent contact with Japan had been slight. Other delegates were similarly recommended by the Japanese consulate in their area and came from all over the United States. Many had never visited Japan previously. There were nine men and six women, including persons in business, law, politics, the arts, and media. For example, our delegation included Frank Buckley, co-anchor of KTLA Prime News, and Sharon Tomiko Santos, a legislator from the State of Washington. It was a talented, lively, and fascinating group. I felt fortunate to have been included. The group was led by Irene Hirano of the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) and accompanied by Consul Yuko Kaifu of the Japanese Consulate in Los Angeles. Both are veterans of previous delegations and outstanding individuals.
The Orientation. The delegation met in Los Angeles for a two day orientation a few weeks before departure. This allowed the group to meet each other, receive advice from previous delegates, and to be schooled on appropriate etiquette and protocol. Consul Kaifu briefed the group on current issues such as the recovering Japanese economy, declining population, changing role of women, foreign workers, and the possibility of a female empress. Also, UC San Diego Professor Ellis S. Krauss briefed the group on domestic and international issues including Prime Minister Koizumi's stunning 2005 fall election victory involving postal reform, the international pressures caused by the rise of China, the instability generated by the belligerency of North Korea, the reexamination of the U.S. - Japan security relationship, and the debate over amending Japan's Article IX "Peace Clause".
Kyoto. The visit began in Kyoto, the ancient capitol of Japan and today's home for a score of Japanese universities. Although rainy, the group enjoyed the panoramic view of Kyoto from the Kiyomizu Temple, the hundreds of wooden Buddhist statues at the Sanju-sangendo Temple, the famous Gion area, and the demonstration on noh drama at the Kongo Noh Theater. Kyoto reminded the group how old and deep is the culture and history of Japan ? a common heritage shared by both the Japanese and Japanese Americans. This point was particularly apparent when we met Mr. Kongo, the Noh master, who was the 23rd generation of his family to perform and preserve this ancient drama. Kyoto taught us that this island nation is not just a political entity, but supports a unique, continuous cultural tradition stretching back thousands of years.
Nagoya. After passing through snow flurries near Sekigahara, our Shinkansen train glided onto the Nobi plain and arrived at the City of Nagoya ? the industrial center of Japan. After meeting city officials and visiting the U.S. Consulate, the delegates participated in a symposium sponsored by the Japan Foundation (CGP) titled, "From Arts to Business: Japanese Americans in the Professional Arena". The symposium focused on discrimination faced and overcome by five delegation members: Donna Cole, C.E.O. of a Texas chemical business; Philip Gotanda, playwright and filmmaker; Craig Uchida, president of a security firm; Frank Buckley, television news anchor; and Karen Suyemoto, professor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. The delegate speakers, who are all very successful, focused on their ability to overcome initial stereotypes and misconceptions held by many Americans and succeed in their respective fields. Rather than "America bashing", the common theme was how it was possible to succeed in American with talent, hard work, and strategic positioning. We also learned that over 300,000 Brazilian Nikkei worked in Japan, most in the Nagoya area, in "blue collar" industrial jobs. The morning of the second day in the Nagoya area was spent at a Toyota automobile assembly plant where over 2,000 cars rolled off the assembly line every day. The computerized synchronization of man, part, and robot to build individually customized cars was awesome to behold. The ancient Japanese tradition for precision craftsmanship is much in evidence on the Nagoya factory floor.
Tokyo. The final three days were spent in Tokyo meeting top government and business leaders. The delegation stayed at the historic Imperial Hotel across from Hibiya Park and the Imperial Palace grounds. The cherry blossom season was just beginning.
The Japanese Foreign Ministry was especially generous with its time and hospitality. We were fortunate to meet with Foreign Minister Taro Aso, Senior Vice-Minister Katsutoshi Kaneda, and Deputy Vice Minister Masaharu Kohno. All agreed that the U.S. ? Japan relationship was never in better shape, that the joint co-ordination and realignment of military forces was clear evidence of the growing closeness, and they wanted to keep it that way. Mr. Kohno told the delegation he had served as Consul General in Los Angeles and that he helped to start the annual delegation six years before with the assistance of Irene Hirano. "There is no hidden agenda", said Mr. Kohno. "Just a means of exposing younger Japanese Americans to top Japanese officials and helping to stimulate interest in supporting a good U.S. ? Japan relationship." The delegation was also privileged to participate in a discussion at the Foreign Ministry with Forum 21, a group of key emerging Japanese corporate and governmental leaders.
In Tokyo we were also able to meet with Amb. Kazuo Ogura, President of the Japan Foundation and key members of his staff. It was amazing to learn of the extent of the Foundation's language, cultural, and people-to-people programs ? all designed to increase knowledge of Japan around the world. In addition, Mr. Shintaro Ito, Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs, co-hosted a dinner with the Foundation for the delegation at the Kaeyo restaurant. Over good food and wine, the delegation talked informally with MOFA and Japan Foundation officials about everything from nuclear disarmament to Mr. Ito's personal interest (and experience?) in the theater.
The meeting with HE Yohei Kono, Speaker of the House of Representatives, was most memorable. A distinguished elder statesman of Japanese politics, Mr. Kono discussed with great sincerity his wish that nuclear weapons be eliminated from the earth and his fear that the threat of nuclear proliferation had never been greater. He spoke with great eloquence about the tragic lessons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In an unexpected twist of fate, it was revealed that the great grandfather of one of the delegation's members, Frank Buckley, came from the same village as Mr. Kono's father. Further, that Mr. Kono's father had helped Frank's great grandfather get his first job in Tokyo after graduating from college. The meeting ended with a tearful thank you that touched the entire delegation.
The audience with her Imperial Highness Princess Takamado at her official residence was a memorable experience and one which I shall long cherish. Educated at Oxford, recently widowed, the mother of two teenage daughters, the princess was one of the most delightful, witty, and thoughtful person I have ever met. She was not only impeccably dressed, but spoke perfect, understated, Oxford English. Her main passion appeared to be her daughters, the environment, and the carrying on the work of her late husband with the Japan Foundation ? hence her meeting with our delegation as well as the previous five. I still remember her closing comments in which she suggested that we regard ourselves not merely as Japanese Americans, but as Nikkei with special ties not only to Japan but to all other Nikkei around the world. She also indicated that she enjoyed our conversation and would brief others in the Imperial Family on our visit.
Finally, our time in Tokyo included several opportunities to meet with Japanese Americans residing in Japan. We met many Japanese Americans ex patriots at an informal reception hosted by Ann Kanbara of the American Embassy. We also had breakfast with Glen Fukushima and others who reported on some of the problems and opportunities encountered by Japanese Americans working in Japan. Finally, we met with U.S. Ambassador Schieffer and his staff and were briefed on current issues including base realignment, beef, and North Korea. With regard to concern that the U.S. may be moving away from Japan and toward China, Amb. Schieffer said, "We have an old saying from where I come from in Texas. You never trade an old friend for a new friend."
Final Thoughts. The trip was a wonderful, eye-opening experience. I thank deeply Consul General Yamanaka in San Francisco for nominating me. It expanded my horizons and rekindled my interest in Japan from my college days at ICU. In fact, I now intend to return to ICU next year and resume my studies so that I can master the Japanese language. Also, I would like to work with former delegates from the Sacramento area to educate the public on the importance of the U.S. ? Japan relationship to both countries. For me, the trip is only the beginning. Thank you.