By Hiroyuki Akita, Nikkei commentator
Japanese-Americans demonstrate a significant presence in Japan-U.S. foreign policy. I keenly felt this when I interviewed the late Senator Daniel K. Inouye (Democrat) in 2004.
With discrimination against Japanese-Americans escalating in the U.S. during World War II, Inouye volunteered for the U.S. army to demonstrate his patriotism. He fought in Italy where he lost an arm. Later he became one of the most influential politicians in the U.S. and climbed the rungs of political power to third in line to succeed the president.
In the interview, Inouye told me: “I know one promising rookie Senator. His name is Barack Obama. I want him to serve as a bridge between Japanese and U.S. politicians, so I’ve entrusted him to work as a point of contact in a Japan-U.S. legislators’ exchange program.”
Inouye said he had tasked Obama with this job. It was five years before this rookie Senator became the president of the U.S.
Unfortunately, Inouye passed away in 2012. At the heart of U.S. politics today there is no Japanese-American statesman like him. Japan must cherish and broaden its ties with Japanese-American society.
Japanese-Americans have long estranged themselves from Japan, for in wartime they were sent to internment camps as “hostile foreigners” and suffered racial discrimination. Because of this, after the war they tried not to play up their Japanese ancestry and felt compelled to integrate into U.S. society as “exemplary American citizens.”
Inouye came to dedicate himself to the promotion of Japan-U.S. exchange only in his later years. Japan was not enthusiastic about building close bonds with Japanese-Americans either.
But the situation is changing of late with the rise of a new breed of Japanese-Americans, who are proud of their ethnic background and are active in engaging with Japan.
Inouye founded the “U.S.-Japan Council” to bring together Japanese-Americans across the country ten years ago. At an annual assembly held in Los Angeles in November, about 600 officials of the Japanese and U.S. governments and representatives of various circles in the two countries met and discussed how to deepen the Japan-U.S. bonds.
What impressed me most at the gathering were the positive remarks made by people in their 20s about their ethnicity, such as “I’m proud to be Japanese-American and want to know more about Japan” and “words such as ‘gambaru (keep going to the end)’ and ‘omoiyari (caring for others)’ represent virtues and the strength of Japanese-Americans.”
In the U.S., public sentiment toward Japan has improved with many people growing interested in the country. In the Little Tokyo district of Los Angeles, construction of a large facility, which local Japanese-Americans call the “budokan,” is underway. The project was proposed about 20 years ago. We must make the growing popularity of Japan a lasting trend and translate it into deeper people-to-people ties.
Japan has close governmental ties with the U.S., but it has not established deep personal bonds with people from all walks of life in the U.S. community. Japanese-Americans can serve as a weathervane. Their information and insights are invaluable for Japan to apprehend the U.S.’s true intentions and not to misread trends there.
The U.S. and China set a precedent when their bilateral ties were at risk following the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident. Chinese-American leaders from various circles in U.S. communities joined hands in launching the “Committee of 100” in 1990.
The Committee of 100 was inaugurated by world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, architect I. M. Pei, and Gary Locke, who was elected America’s first Asian American governor, among others. It even opened membership to Taiwanese-Americans. Though details are kept secret, the organization uses personal connections that its members have with the White House and China’s Zhongnanhai and acts as a bridge between the two nations from a neutral position, according to a source close to the U.S.-China relationship.
Japan and the U.S. should have a similar mechanism. “Compared to other Asian Americans, Japanese-Americans are deeply integrated into American society and their personal networks should provide an edge,” said a U.S. government official.
But there are many challenges, too. As many fourth- and fifth-generation Japanese-Americans were not born to two parents of Japanese descent, it is not easy to maintain unity. While Asian Americans are nearly as numerous as Hispanics in the U.S., Japanese-Americans are only the sixth largest ethnic group in the U.S., outnumbered by Chinese- and Indian-Americans. “We also trail Korean-Americans in funding,” said a Japanese-American business owner from the West Coast.
Emblematic of this situation is a recent proposal in the U.S. Every spring, Washington DC hosts a cherry blossom festival as a symbol of Japan-U.S. friendship, attracting over 1 million visitors. The festival started to celebrate cherry blossom trees sent by Japan in 1912, but there is a recent proposal to “change this into an ‘Asian festival’ to be held with other Asia-related events.”
It is important for Asian-Americans to cooperate with each other, but we cannot afford to let Japanese-American society unravel by being subsumed within a larger Asian community.
But Japan must act cool-headedly. Any political move to increase the presence of Japanese-Americans would backfire.
In the U.S., a Korean-American citizen group is taking the initiative in setting up comfort-women statutes and actively involved in other lobbying activities over history issues between Japan and South Korea. This is probably because they have stronger connections with South Korea as about 60% of them are first-generation immigrants to the U.S. Meanwhile, the Chinese government uses well-heeled immigrants and politicians of Chinese background for promotion and campaigning, drawing ire from the U.S. and Australia.
It is neither possible nor wise to expect the Japanese-American community to play a similar role. Many Japanese-Americans are liberals, as their forebears have been through the hardships of wartime internment camps. Several senior members in the U.S.-Japan Council claim that if they were solicited for cooperation in the comfort women issue by the Japanese government, they would be split into those who support the Japanese government, those who opt to take a neutral stance, and those who reject the request.
That’s why it becomes all the more important to broaden personal exchanges. “Young Japanese-Americans have a desire to live and work in Japan and I sincerely hope Japan will provide such opportunities to these people,” said Irene Hirano Inouye, the wife of the late Senator Inouye and president of the U.S.-Japan Council.
With the U.S. presidential election approaching, divisions are growing deeper in U.S. society. At such a crucial time, Japan must step up efforts to build with the U.S.ties that are not swayed by politics.