Creating Bridges of Friendship

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Lawmaker Rui Matsukawa brings diplomatic acumen to U.S.-Japan relations.

Sen. Rui Matsukawa, a member of Japan’s Upper House, poses in front of the Shoseian Whispering Pine Japanese Tea House in Glendale.

By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor

GLENDALE — Last month, Rui Matsukawa, a member of Japan’s Upper House representing Osaka, traveled to sister city Glendale to support relations between the two cities.

Matsukawa, 47, was elected to the Upper House in 2016 as a member of the Liberal Democratic Party. She received her Masters of Science in Foreign Services from Georgetown University and was a diplomat serving in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before deciding to go into politics.

“I have two daughters who are 10 and 5, and when I decided to run for election, I was hesitant, to be honest,” Matsukawa said.

“The reason I decided to run was I had been in diplomacy for more than 20 years and I had experienced a really bad time during DPJ (Democratic Party of Japan) administration. I realized that politics does matter for diplomacy: you have to have good politics to have proper diplomatic policies. I thought, this is my destiny, this is my work. I could help make better policy for our diplomacy.”

Matsukawa’s diplomatic skills were on display during her trip to the Shoseian Whispering Pine Japanese Tea House in Glendale’s Brand Park.

Greeting local residents and city officials, Matsukawa was friendly and inquisitive about the city. One of the purposes of her visit was to see the progress on renovations to the teahouse and a garden, a vital gathering place for Japanese cultural events.

In January, eight gardeners traveled from Japan and worked side-by-side with local staff to restore the garden to its original splendor. Shoseian was built in 1974 through the combined efforts of sister cities Glendale and Higashi Osaka. It is one of the few traditional teahouses open to the public in the United States. The renovation was initiated as a result of a request to the city by the Consulate General of Japan in Los Angeles and is supported by the Japanese government.

Matsukawa was clearly delighted to see a traditional wooden Japanese bridge installed for the restoration and warmly greeted Chris Peplow, Glendale parks services manager, who constructed the bridge out of leftover pieces of wood from other construction projects. Other improvements to the garden include a reconstructed waterfall and bamboo fencing.

“The original plans showed a bridge and it never got built. So I was working there and I thought, hey, a bridge would be great,” Peplow explained.

Matsukawa acknowledged that the installation in 2013 of a comfort women statue at Glendale’s Central Park has been a source of friction. In March 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal filed by local Japanese residents seeking the statue’s removal.

“Because of the statue issue, it was difficult for a while. However, the Japanese government feels it is an important relationship. From a larger perspective, we shouldn’t allow small things to damage our relationship. I hope this garden will be a place for further nurturing and enhancing our friendship,” Matsukawa said.

The senator said that Japanese Americans are important in bridging relations between the two nations.

“I hope that Japanese Americans play a role to make our alliance, our friendship between Japan and U.S. strong. Like a garden, unless you are making efforts all the time. It cannot be maintained without effort,” she said.

This year has been a particularly difficult one for Japan in terms of natural disasters, including a 6.7 magnitude earthquake in Hokkaido and devastating storms and landslides in the Kansai region. Nikkei organizations including the Hiroshima Kenjinkai and Nanka Okayama Kenjinkai started relief efforts to assist people in western Japan.

Matsukawa speaks with Chris Peplow, who has worked on the restoration of the garden, including building a traditional wooden bridge.

Matsukawa thanked the local Japanese American community for their concern, but expressed confidence that Japan would emerge from the latest round of hardships, as it had after the devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

“Belive in your ancestors. We Japanese are a strong people, we face difficulties all the time, but every time we recover from difficulties and become stronger,” Matsukawa said.

She said one of the biggest challenges facing the nation is a shortage of labor due to its rapidly aging population. Matsukawa said the solution rests in empowering the women of Japan.

“Maybe the traditional image of Japanese women is stepping three steps behind the man, doing housekeeping and taking care of children alone,” she observed. “This picture has changed. More than 70 percent of Japanese women work, which is actually a higher percentage than American women.”

She said that under the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the role of women has improved, but challenges remain.

“We’re trying to make a huge revolution that will create a level playing field for men and women both, so women who have the ability and want to work can be promoted and be promoted fairly,” said Matsukawa.

“The traditional mindset on gender divisions has to be addressed. It’s not government necessarily; it’s more culture and society. But as more women are in companies and organizations, people’s minds change. As time goes, Japan will have more families with both working mothers and fathers who are sharing child care and housekeeping together.”

Photos by GWEN MURANAKA/Rafu Shimpo

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