By LESLIE ITO
As a Yonsei raised in the 1980s and 1990s, I grew up trying to distinguish myself as a Japanese American, an identity that felt very disconnected from Japan.
My first trip to Japan was the summer of 1993 during my first year of college. My grandparents felt that the best use of their redress money from the U.S. government was to take my sister and me to Japan and reconnect with our family, culture and motherland. We traveled with 20 other family members from Tokyo to visit our great-grandfather’s home in Fukuoka.
I remember feeling a sense of alienation and the general reaction to our Nikkei group as being condescending. When I came home, I admired the connections that my second-generation Chinese, Korean, Taiwanese American friends had and the fluidity with which they traversed cultural and geographic boundaries between the U.S. and their home countries, effortlessly, without the historical burdens of war.
As an adult, I look back on this momentous trip and think about how identity was stripped from our family during World War II in form of language, culture and connection to Japan. My grandparents purposefully used their redress funds to make a cultural course correction.
I strongly believe that in the last decade, the willingness, interest and ability to understand each other, connect and build relationships between Japanese Americans and Japanese nationals has grown much stronger, due in large part to the U.S.-Japan Council, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its efforts and investment to build and nurture people-to-people relationships with Japanese Americans uniquely positioned as ambassadors between the two countries.
Today, one of the most gratifying parts of my job as the president and CEO of the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center (JACCC) is the work that I have been doing over the last four years to develop JACCC relationships, both long standing and new, in Japan. I am learning from every trip and every interaction. The Japanese American Leadership Delegation (JALD) has been a significant milestone as I continue to not only reconnect with my ancestral country, but learn how to conduct business in Japan.
The JALD trip was as much one of cultural diplomacy between the U.S. and Japan as it was of research for JACCC, and personal journey. Our work began in Kanazawa, where I was part of a symposium on arts and culture and community development. I shared the great work that we are doing in Los Angeles with Sustainable Little Tokyo.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that Kanazawa and Little Tokyo have many things in common. In March 2015, Kanazawa, which is in the central part of the mainland of Japan and is the capital of Ishikawa Prefecture, welcomed a new Hokuriku Shinkansen (high-speed railway line) straight from Tokyo. This new transportation line has increased tourism to this culturally rich area, much like the highly anticipated Metro Regional Connector that will be open in Little Tokyo in 2021.
Similarly, people of Kanazawa are asking themselves questions like we are in Little Tokyo — “How do we continue to stimulate the economy and spur cultural tourism and at the same time, protect our cultural treasures and assets?” We have many strategies to learn from each other and my hope would be to create an exchange program between Kanazawa and Los Angeles to continue to explore these issues.
One of the most memorable visits was to the Ohi Pottery Museum in Kanazawa and meeting Ohi Chozaimon, the 10th-generation ceramic master who gave us a tour of the museum, enriched our understanding of Japanese culture and led us through a traditional tea ceremony.
Ohi-sensei explained how his pottery, which is often viewed in a contemporary art context, always embraces history and tradition and the continuation of his family legacy. He reminded us how rare this connection between contemporary and traditional culture is because we no longer learn from our elders due to the discontinuation of multi-generations living together.
As we continued to Tokyo, many of the delegates reflected back on that particular visit, connecting what we learned from the master ceramic artist to the values and traditions of how Japanese government and corporations operate and how all sectors must figure out how to embrace the future, making change while not sacrificing core values.
As an arts and cultural advocate, I loved that this short cultural excursion to Kanazawa that was organized by the Japan Foundation’s Center for Global Partnerships not only reverberated spiritually and intellectually with those of us that work in the arts and culture field, but also impacted my colleagues from the private and government sectors too. Cultural values are the foundation of how we relate to each other; it’s the glue in people-to-people relationships; and it’s the reason why the work of JACCC is so important.
JALD provided unique experiences from addressing Prime Minister Abe on behalf of the delegation with colleague Admiral David Boone, meeting with top Japanese business leaders, and visiting with Princess Takamado.
The greatest gift of the JALD trip was the opportunity to experience Japan with the other ten delegates. We were a diverse group in age, background, geography and our ancestral connection to Japan ranged from Shin-Issei to Gosei. Being able to share this special experience with each of them left me with a surprising sense of kinship.
I am ever grateful for this opportunity and look forward to continuing to develop these relationships in the U.S. and Japan.
Photos courtesy U.S.-Japan Council