By RAY LOCKER
Japan needs to get closer to Japanese Americans and their experience, several Japanese government officials told a group of four storytellers and scholars participating in the latest round of the Japan Up Close program last month.
“When I look back at my high school days, I knew nothing about the Nikkei (people of Japanese descent outside of Japan),” said Taro Kono, the minister of defense and previously Japan’s foreign minister in the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. “Once in a while, a TV station would make something about the Nikkei,” but that was basically it.
Kono said his father, Yohei Kono, the former speaker of Japan’s House of Representatives, once said in a speech in the Japanese House that “we need to know more about the Nikkei and to be much more involved in Nikkei affairs.”
It has taken 20 years, but the Japanese government seems to be picking up on the elder Kono’s lesson. The Japan Up Close program is part of the Japanese government’s outreach to the Japanese American community, which had traditionally brought business and political leaders to Japan.
The Japanese American experience was a key element of the discussions that the four participants — Shirley Ann Higuchi, chair of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, Go For Broke National Education Center President and CEO Mitchell Maki, University of Hawaii American Studies Professor Dennis Ogawa and Chicago-based storyteller Anne Shimojima — had with the government officials and with students at schools throughout greater Tokyo.
Japan’s increased visibility with other parts of the Japanese American community also included Ambassador Shinsuke Sugiyama’s appearance at the July Heart Mountain Pilgrimage with his wife and a team of Japanese diplomats. There, Sugiyama said all Japanese needed to learn more about the Japanese American incarceration during World War II. Japan’s renewed cultivation of the Japanese American experience comes as the country faces the challenges of a shrinking population and risks posed by the economic growth of its neighbors, China and South Korea.
Those two countries, as well as India, have strong ties to their diaspora communities in the United States. A “howdy Modi” event for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently drew 50,000 Indian Americans to Houston’s stadium in September, an event that also included an appearance by President Donald Trump. Modi also attracted 60,000 Indian Britons to a 2015 gathering in London’s Wembley Stadium. This type of connection between the home country and its overseas community helps both communities, as it increases the flow of money and people from one country to another. Modi, in particular, has used it to bolster his standing with voters in India.
The ties between Japan and the Japanese American community have been damaged by the legacy of World War II, which separated the Nikkei from their ancestors’ native land, and the changing nature of Japan itself. Kono said many young Japanese students no longer seem interested in going to college in the United States, as he did, because they feel more comfortable at home. He added that a fear of gun violence in the United States has led some Japanese students interested in studying in English-speaking countries to go to Australia and the United Kingdom.
As an undergraduate at Georgetown University in Washington, Kono said he immersed himself in U.S. politics and history. He worked as a staff member and campaign aide for then-Rep. Richard Shelby, a Democrat from Alabama, during Shelby’s 1986 race for the Senate. Shelby won that race and later became a Republican. He is in his sixth term in the Senate.
But when he was preparing to graduate and look for a job in Japan, Kono said he was told by many Japanese companies that his U.S. degree counted for little with them. That is finally changing, he said, as Japan realizes it needs to embrace the rest of the world.
Long-term Inward Trend?
The group also met with State Minister Keisuke Suzuki of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Yutaka Arima, head of the North American branch of the ministry. They, along with Kono, asked the delegation whether the inward-looking policies of the Trump Administration reflected a long-term change by many Americans or were a temporary phase in U.S. policy.
Suzuki, who is 42, echoed Yohei Kono’s call for a deeper relationship with the Nikkei community in the United States. “Many of the next generation of politicians in Japan have an interest and attention for Japanese American society.”
“The reason is not just because the United States in an ally,” he continued. “Our Japanese American community is the sister community of Japanese society.”
Maki, whose group commemorates and educates the public about the valor of Japanese American soldiers during World War II and their contributions to society, told Suzuki that he and others in the group appreciated the chance to visit Japan and key leaders.
“We would welcome any opportunities for you and the ministry to know how we can be of support,” Maki said.
Suzuki asked if the current administration, which seems to be turning inward from engagement with many foreign governments, represented just a blip on the radar or a long-term trend in U.S. affairs.
“Many think the United States will close its society and be tough on immigrants,” Suzuki said.
Shimojima called that trend “unfortunate,” while Maki said it was too early to tell if it would be a long-term trend, which would have serious ramifications to the U.S.-Japan relationship.
Photos by Ray Locker