By J.K. YAMAMOTO
Rafu Staff Writer
Nearly 400 people gathered at the Quiet Cannon restaurant in Montebello on Thursday to bid farewell to Consul General of Japan Junichi Ihara and his wife, Makiko.
Ihara, who was assigned to Los Angeles in April 2008, has served for an unusually long time for a consul general, three years and four months. The dinner was jointly sponsored by Japanese and Japanese American community organizations in Southern California that he got to know during that period.
Yuko Kaifu of Union Bank, formerly of the consulate in Los Angeles, served as emcee. She noted that Ihara was “building relationships with political, economic, cultural leaders and residents of Southern California and Arizona” during his tenure and will be “leaving a lot of great legacies.”
“I used to work with him many years ago when I was still with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tokyo,” she added. “He must have been in his early 30s. He was young, fresh, casual, friendly, very smart … So many years have passed and I was wondering if he’s changed at all. Sometimes some people become promoted and become erai hito … very arrogant … But he hasn’t changed at all.”
No matter where he is posted, Ihara “will continue to be the honorary mayor of the Japanese and Japanese American community here in Southern California,” Kaifu said.
The planning committee chose Toshio “Terry” Handa, president of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Southern California, to be the sole speaker for the community organizations in order to give the honorees time to go table to table and talk with their friends.
“It is so sad for us to have to see you off after over three years of such friendly and enjoyable association with us,” Handa said. “You have been considerably active … in support of our community, and you have done great work promoting goodwill between the United States and Japan … With your charm, you have made many, many new fans.”
Calling Ihara “one of the most admired and outstanding consul generals” that the local Nikkei community has known, Handa said, “I wish the best of luck on your new assignment in Tokyo … Thank you and see you again — not sayonara or goodbye. I hope that we will surely see you again … Maybe in the near future see you as the new ambassador to the USA.”
Ihara, who is scheduled to leave Los Angeles on Sept. 8, said that he and his wife were “overwhelmed by this massive show of goodwill and so many kind words. We really thank all of you for your support and friendship.”
Before coming to Los Angeles, he recalled, “I went to see as many of my predecessors as I could, and I met nine out of 10 who were still living at the time. They told me that they really enjoyed their posting here, and now I can say to my immediate successor, Mr. Jun Niimi, and to future successors, from my own experience that Los Angeles is the best assignment for a Japanese diplomat.”
Niimi is currently deputy minister of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau and the Southern Asia Division.
“Of course, the weather is agreeable, life is comfortable, people are hospitable, and the work is enjoyable,” Ihara said. “But above all, the Japanese consul general in Los Angeles can always count on the thriving Japanese and Japanese American communities and long-time friendships among Americans and Japanese. I think my wife and I are truly fortunate to have been surrounded by good people like you. We have been so well treated that I’m afraid that we have been spoiled, and we will have a hard time readjusting to life in Japan.”
Japanese newspapers have reported that Ihara will be director of the ministry’s North American Affairs Bureau, but he said that is not a sure thing: “Last time I returned from abroad — that was in September 2006, from Washington, D.C. to Tokyo — the position I was told to assume was taken by somebody else when I arrived in Tokyo due to the Cabinet change. So I had no post.”
Ihara said he was told at the time by Vice Foreign Minister Shotaro Yachi, former consul general in Los Angeles, “I’m sorry, but the situation has changed.”
Referring to the resignation of Prime Minister Naoto Kan and the selection of Yoshihiko Noda as his successor, Ihara said, “This time again, in a few hours, a new Cabinet will be formed and announced in Tokyo. So that’s why I don’t know. But … so long as I’m working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I will deal with U.S.-Japan relations because they are the cornerstone of Japan’s diplomacy.”
The most important thing he learned during his tenure here, Ihara said, is that government-to-government relations are only the tip of the iceberg. “The rest of our relations are so solid because they are made by a huge amount of friendships among Japanese and Americans. We government officials should not take it for granted. I think we must do more to encourage grassroots interactions.”
On behalf of the various organizations, a gift and flowers were presented to the Iharas by 2011 Nisei Week Queen Erika Mariko Olsen and Japan Business Association of Southern California President Koichi Kinoshita, respectively. The gift, selected by committee member Kitty Sankey, was a plate by local artist Samantha Fuller inspired by the light of the Pacific Coast.
The Japanese Women’s Society of Southern California presented an additional gift to Mrs. Ihara, who is their honorary president.
The toast was led by Akemi Miyake, former president of the Nanka Kenjinkai Kyogikai (Prefectural Association of Southern California). The entire gathering joined in singing the Japanese standard “Furusato” (Hometown).
The Japan America Chamber Ensemble, conducted by Ark Sano, played “Hana” by 19th century composer Rentaro Taki and “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” from the musical “Oklahoma.” Olsen, a member of the Grateful Crane Youth Singers, performed “One More Kiss” from the musical “Follies” and the classic “Over the Rainbow.”
Ihara’s final public appearance will be on Wednesday, Sept. 7, from 6 p.m. at the JACCC Plaza in Little Tokyo. He will speak at an event thanking Southern Californians for contributing to disaster relief in Japan.