It is not often that one can point to a single decision that seemed quite ordinary at the time but was truly life-changing.
I made one such decision in my youth. I was at the University of California Berkeley and had completed my first year. As much as I enjoyed all my classes and the beautiful campus environment in Northern California, I was having doubts about whether I would get what I needed from my university education. I decided that if I studied a hard language, it would add a practical element to my studies. I signed up for Japanese even though I had had no connection with Japan up until that point.
When I walked into that classroom and heard the language for the first time, it changed my life. Studying Japanese led to deciding to visit this country for the first time, which led to deciding to go to the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies, attending The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and finally to joining the Foreign Service in the Department of State. The Foreign Service brought me back to Japan – where I served in Sapporo, Tokyo, and Fukuoka and spent a year as Visiting Foreign Scholar at the University of Tokyo – but it also opened the world to me, and introduced me to new languages, new places. It is a grand adventure.
I remember the first time I flew into Tokyo–I looked out the window half-expecting to see quaint zen gardens and old shopping streets. I didn’t find them right away, but I eventually discovered them in my exploration of nearly every prefecture. I remember how hard it was to find restaurants and shops that were open around New Year’s. Now of course Japan has convenience stores that even offer “osechi” traditional dishes for the holiday. I was impressed how everyone watched the NHK “Kohaku Uta Gassen”(Red and White Song Contest) on television on New Year’s Eve – maybe that has not changed much – and then went en masse to a shrine or temple. I marveled at the massive exchange of New Year’s postcards, and the efforts people made to personalize their cards. It was all so exotic, especially for someone whose international experience to date had been family trips to Canada, and one whirlwind family vacation to seven countries in Western Europe in a couple of weeks.
I see everywhere the enduring signs of the friendship that binds Americans and Japanese. In my service at American Consulate General Sapporo and Consulate Fukuoka, and at the Embassy in Tokyo, I was so grateful to see how we had become a natural part of many local festivals and ceremonies.
I have been witness to incredible moments in our alliance, serving under five distinguished ambassadors, from Ambassador Mike Mansfield to Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, and look forward to welcoming our next ambassador. I was at the Hiroshima Peace Park when President Barack Obama made his historic visit and gave his moving speech. I went aboard a Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force ship in Djibouti that was contributing to common goals in the anti-piracy effort in the Indian Ocean. I was part of the team in Washington that worked on developing our Global Partnership Initiative, as we realized how much we could accomplish around the world if we worked together.
I am always excited to see this cooperation firsthand, as I did during my recent visit to Tsukuba Science City, where American and Japanese scientists are collaborating on groundbreaking research, and NASA and JAXA support the International Space Station. Our potential to collaborate in research and development is limitless. That effort continues – just to name a few examples -- as we work together to combat infectious diseases in Africa, look for a cure for cancer, and help women entrepreneurs in developing countries.
In a few weeks we will mark the sixth anniversary since the devastating Great East Japan Earthquake, which claimed so many lives and caused such damage. My prayers go out to all those who lost their lives, and all those who grieve. The U.S.-Japan cooperation after that tragedy demonstrated the strength of personal and government-to-government ties between our two countries. That is what friends are for. The secret of our alliance is that it is built on millions of acts of friendship and kindness and trust.
We are in a time of transition, a time of challenges and exciting opportunities. Through this period of change, I am confident that the U.S.-Japan alliance will become even stronger, and its role in regional and global stability even more important.
You can follow me through this blog, “Diplomat’s Voice,” my Instagram account (@japanologyproject), or check out the Embassy Twitter account, @USEmbassyTokyo, for news on the U.S. Mission and its work in Japan.