—— Could you tell us a little bit about the mission of the JSSDT?
We want to promote goodwill and to advance business, civic, educational and cultural interchange and understanding between the people of Japan, San Diego and Tijuana. It has been said that if there had been 100 more Japanese people who understood America and 100 more Americans who understood Japan, World War II would never have happened. I truly believe that understanding is the key, and as a group we strive to promote this.
—— What experiences in your life helped you to realize the importance of international cooperation?
From early childhood, my life has been shaped by international events. In fact, when I was a child growing up in Japan during the war, our teachers evacuated us from the city to the mountains of Hakone in an attempt to “save the future of Japan.” In the cities, everything was destroyed -- our house, my school, and my father’s place of work. I remember going to school and when we heard air-raid sirens, the streetcars would stop and we’d all jump out and hide in the ditches besides the tracks. One day I was walking down a mountain path with my friend when an American fighter plane swooped down at us -- my friend went one way and I went the other. He jumped into a ditch, but there was no ditch on my side! I tried to run and was thinking, “Oh boy, I’ve had it!” but for some reason the pilot suddenly pulled up. He must have realized that I was just a kid and spared my life. I was so grateful for that, and to the U.S. for ending the war.
—— When did you start getting involved on a more formal level?
As a university student I came to the U.S. to study engineering, because this was the best place to do that. I went to a small school in Ohio, the University of Dayton, and there were not many Japanese or international students there, so we got together and decided to form an international club, of which I became the founding president. We would hold various events and programs... one month we would focus on China, the next, Germany, etc. We would have ethnic foods and invited all of the university community to come. At the same time, I became involved with the Japanese Association of Catholic Students, which was headquartered in Chicago, and so I would travel there on occasion for meetings. Later when I went to the Johns Hopkins University, we formed the International Students Association of Maryland and we had all the different schools participate. I was the president of that, too.
—— So you started this way of thinking, reaching people and organizing, back in your college years and the JSSDT was a natural extension of this?
Yes, and you know, it may be due in part to my Catholic upbringing that I wanted to do something to put my beliefs into practice. When I was in Ohio, it was in the midst of segregation, and I used to go to the swimming pool in Sandusky Point, Ohio. There were signs there that said “White Only!” and we often debated whether we should go in (smiling). As a graduate student in Baltimore, Maryland, I also took part in the sit-ins that were designed to bring attention to the discrimination against black people. Some weekends we’d sit-in at local restaurants, protesting discrimination with the African-American students from Howard University. I felt proud that this was the kind of country where you could have that kind of demonstration... and not be shot or beaten. We had to obey the laws, but we were treated cordially. That, I feel, is the beauty of American democracy.
—— What is the background of JSSDT and what makes this group unique?
Our current organization was established roughly eight years ago in 1996 from the merger of two previously competing groups. Our roots, however, go quite a long way back. We can trace our beginnings back 100 years to a group known as the Japan Club, which later became known as the Japanese Association of San Diego. Of course, over the years there have been many groups here that have promoted U.S.-Japan relations, and we have grown from this heritage.
Due in part to San Diego’s unique geographical location, we are the only Japanese-Society that is tri-national... we represent the U.S., Japan and Mexico. Many things have contributed to this; treaties like NAFTA, the maquiladoras in Mexico, and the participation of many Japanese corporations in the region, but I feel it is highly significant that even before this our three countries have been linked. An example of this is the incident with Seaman Tsunejiro Toya, a member of the official Japanese crew who visited California more than 115 years ago on the Tsukuba-Maru. After stopping in San Diego, they were headed for Acapulco, Mexico, on November 22, 1887, when he unfortunately fell overboard and was lost. San Diegans, upon finding his body, made sure that he was given a proper burial at Mount Hope Cemetery.
—— As a group, how do you view your role in promoting this tri-national cooperation?
We consider ourselves to be bridge-builders. We build bridges not only among Japan, San Diego and Tijuana, but we like to build bridges between generations and between Japanese companies, educational institutions and residents of the community. Building bridges among generations ensures that we pass on our legacy to the next generation. That’s why we hold events such as the “Japan Bowl” to sow the seeds for a future of better understanding among all of our people. We want to foster that understanding among our cultures... beyond what most people can get by reading the newspaper.
Building bridges between Japanese companies and the communities in which they exist is also critical. These companies may come here and open an office or plant and hire many local people, but they do not have the time or resources to teach them the Japanese ways. So there are many non-Japanese people who would like to learn more about Japan, but are not given the opportunity. We are providing that opportunity. To further this goal, when a company such as Kyocera or Sanyo becomes a founding corporate member, we consider all of their employees to be our members. This policy was a great help back in our early days when we didn’t have enough people to staff our various events, so these founding companies would send help. Now we have plenty of volunteers, but all help is always greatly appreciated.
Through our Education Council we’re trying to bridge the gap between Business and Education. Kids go through school, become educated and then go to work afterwards... right? We want to expose them and provide them with an opportunity to learn more about Japan. One of the ways we do this is through our Japan-in-a-suitcase traveling exhibit, so they can experience the culture first-hand. Another example is our “Book of Peace,” which was presented at the Kyoto Laureates Symposium and the City of Hiroshima in the name of the JSSDT. We call this our “millennium youth project”. We want to hear all of the viewpoints from this region, so every other monthly meeting of our Education Council now takes place in Mexico. We think that this link is vital and our participants
include almost every major educational institution in San Diego and Mexico as well.
—— Can you tell us about some of your programs and events throughout the year?
There are a variety of weekly and monthly events, including our 8:01 clubs that meet in the morning and the 5:01 clubs that meet after work. We also hold annual events, such as the Leadership Awards Banquet, Japan-in-a-Suitcase, and the Education Summit. This is a very special year because it marks the 150th anniversary of Commodore Matthew Perry’s arrival in Japan. It will be celebrated both here and in Japan from July of this year through March of next year, corresponding with the time of the delivery of the letter from President Millard Fillmore to the time of its acceptance. We look forward to a large variety of groups on both sides of the ocean joining together to celebrate this historical event.
—— How did the “Millennium Bridge” come about?
While visiting the Peace Park in Nagasaki, I noticed that they had monuments donated from many countries around the world, but I didn’t see anything from the U.S. I felt so sad... so I mentioned this to the people at the JSSDT and we agreed that we should do something. Well, upon speaking with the people from Nagasaki, they informed me that they in fact had already received one from their sister city, Minneapolis-St. Paul. I was at once very happy and also a little disappointed. Then the thought occurred to me, “Why not go to Hiroshima?” It turns out that Hiroshima wasn’t accepting anymore donations either, but their mayor, Mayor Akiba, who had received his PhD at MIT and had been a professor there, wanted to change Hiroshima’s image from one involving the atomic bomb to one that fosters friendship with the U.S. You see, previously, as part of an international exchange, Hiroshima received some Dogwood trees, but through the course of the war they had all been destroyed. Mayor Akiba asked if the Japan Societies could help him arrange to get Dogwood tree seedlings as a gift from the American people. On behalf of NAJAS (National Association of Japan Societies), the JSSDT organized the donations of Dogwood tree seedlings from the various Japan Societies, which now grace the banks of the Kyobashi River. We thought this was nice but were afraid that people would not recognize them as a gift from the U.S. We thought we needed something more to catch everyone’s attention -- some type of monument. That’s when our then-Chairman Russell Bennett introduced us to his father, Manuel Bennett, an American artist living in Mexico. After some deliberation we came up with the idea for the “Millennium Bridge” a concept that showed different generations of our three races dancing and living in harmony with one another on three bridges joined together with a dove in the center as the symbol of peace.
—— What are the goals of this organization?
I’d like to show the world that our three nations can successfully coexist and prosper, as an example to people throughout the world. We can show Iraqi people, Palestinian people, Israelites and North Koreans that they can become friends with their former enemies, even with people that they hated so much. We need to show examples of countries that have mistreated each other but have since became the best of friends. JSSDT hopes to set an example -- a small but shining light for everyone to look up to and emulate. What better example can we have than the United States, Japan and Mexico? The United States of America is a country that at one time promoted slavery but which today is the strongest proponent of human rights. Both Mexico and Japan fought wars with the United States and now are close allies. Japan once bombed Pearl Harbor and promoted its own brand of suicide bombers -- the “kamikaze” pilots. As you know, Japan has become a staunch pacifist and now completely forbids the initiation of military power. Finally, the maquiladoras are one example of how Mexico has benefited by working in harmony with the United States and Japan. We know that change is possible if we are willing, and the JSSDT wants to help provide people with that knowledge and understanding.
(04-16-2003 issue, Interviewed by Terry Nicholas)