Reflections on Japan: An Academic’s Experience in the Land of the Rising Sun

reflectiononjapan1Reflections on Japan: An Academic’s Experience in the Land of the Rising Sun 


In February 1996, the Japanese Ministry of

Foreign Affairs and Japanese corporations sponsored a ten-day visit for myself and the H.U.Jazz Ensemble. The Jazz Ensemble spent ten days touring three cities and performing concerts. I gave a lecture at the Tokyo Ameri- can Center, met with the media, and govern- ment executives, academics and undergradu- ate and graduate students from three univer- sities. I also attended policy meetings with members of the House of Representatives and House of Councillors in the Japanese Diet. The Diet is the equivalent to the U.S. Con- gress. The invitation to the Jazz Ensemble and myselfwasthe finalactivityofatwo-year “Building Bridges Program” sponsored by the Em- bassy of Japan and Howard University. The following remarks are excerpts from a speech I made at the Japan Information and Cultural Center/Embassy ofJapan on Wednesday, May 8,1996.

Reflections on Japan
In presenting my perspective about what

we experienced during our ten-day visit it is important to point out that I can only talk about impressions. This is critical because it


would be either extremely arrogant or patron- izing for me to suggest that I fully understand or have a total appreciation for the Japanese people or their 2000 + year old culture in only

10 days. Nevertheless, I do have impressions about the Japanese people, their culture and traditions. Therefore, I will try to communi- cate my impressions about Japan which are organized around what I call the three “Ps”: People, Principles, and Prospects (past & present).

Impressions of the People 

In my meetings with officials in the J apa- nese Ministry of Foreign Affairs there was a keen interest in my perceptions about the 1996 U.S. Presidential election. A number of these officials in different meetings were also inter- ested in knowing more about the African American experience in the United States. They were all very pleased to know that the Howard University Jazz Ensemble was per- forming concerts in Tokyo and other cities.

Five days after arriving in Japan I had the high honor of attending a private luncheon with Mr. and Mrs. Takakazu Kuriyama, Am- bassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, at “Fuksu” restaurant in Tokyo Prince Hotel. The luncheon was pleasant and the food was tasty, as we exchanged ideas about the future of the relationship between Japanese and Afri- can Americans. I presented Ambassador Kuriyama with a copy of my first book, Imple- menting State Government Export Programs as a small token of appreciation for his many years of service to the Japanese and American people.

Personnel from the Japanese media were extremely interested in my perceptions as a political scientist about the eventual outcome of the 1996 U.S. Presidential election. The Editor of “SEKAI SHUHIO” (The World

Weekly) wanted to know “why isn’t the race problem being debated by the presidential candidates?” As a result, I was commissioned to write a commentary based upon some spe- cific criteria to address this issue. That article is published in the April 13, 1996 issue of The World Weekly entitled, “Ideology and Lan- guage in the 1996 Presidential Election.”

On February 21, 1996, I gave a lecture on

The Role and Concerns of the Diverse Afri- can American Community in the 1996 U.S. Electoral Process. The lecture was co-spon- sored by the American Embassy and ]apan Institute for Globalism. Approximately 70 people attended the lecture and half were

journalists from the] apanese media. The lec- ture was well received and I gave interviews to six journalists about U.S. politics and j apa- nese/African American relationships.

I was encouraged when I met the politi- cians because they all seemed to be receptive to African American/] apanese Business Summit to be hosted at Howard University. They all offered to help and indicated they were aware of a number of major Japanese firms who might be interested in participating in such an event. We all agreed that a number of impor- tant logistical and financial issues would have to be reconciled before such an important event could take place. I presented these offi- cials with copies of CDs from the Howard University]azz Ensemble and University pub- lications, including Government & Politics Journal where I serve as editor. Many of the politicians gave me small gifts to commemo- rate our meeting. I was honored by a token of friendship from Mr. Tuutomu Hata, a former Prime Minister of ] apan, with a copy of his favorite poem, Epithalamium [Ep-i-tha-la-mi- urn], which means a poem or song for con- gratulations on marriage or friendship.

Another memorable meeting occurred with Mr. Kabun Muto, former Minister ofthe giant Ministry of Industry and International Trade (MIlT). We were scheduled to meet for only 20-30 minutes, but both meetings lasted over an hour because the exchange was so reward- ing. My regret was I had not mastered ]apa- nese well enough to speak with these two gentle- men directly without an interpreter.

reflectiononjapan2As an academic, I always enjoy and welcome the opportunity to chat with students. This opportunity came when I traveled to the University of Tsukuba. In Tsukuba I was hosted by Associate Professor, Yasuko I. Takezawa, Ph.D., a scholar I knew from her visit to Howard University in 1995. She scheduled a large classroom and put up flyers about my visit but did not have any idea how many people would attend. To our surprise and delight over seventy people were waiting for us upon our arrival. After a brief introduction the students had a lot of questions about public policy as well as African American Japanese relations. They wanted to know my opinions about affirmative action, the 1996 U.S. Presidential election, African American perceptions about the Japanese, Why are there so many poor people in such a rich country as the

United States? Were there any Caucasians or Asian people at Howard University? Why is Howard University called a Black university? My greatest surprise in the exchange came when I made the assertion that the “Emperor” was a central and important aspect of the ] apanese culture. Many of the students groaned and shook their heads in disagreement with my assertion. I realized that many of students


the classroom are from a generation that grew up in the economic boom years of Japan and were not connected to the hardships of the post war period. I made the assertion because the Emperor’s Palace is in the heart of downtown Tokyo and occupies a very large amount ofland in an area where land is limited and extremely valuable.

After fielding questions for over an hour, the next class came into the room and we had to leave. Dr. Takezawa invited the students to an informal discussion with me in another classroom. To our surprise, over 36 students continued our dialogue. Dr. Takezawa thought this was somewhat unusual because students were in the midst of taking and preparing for final exams. The students’ enthusiasm and receptiveness was similar to the response of our students when professor Kazuko Kawachi of Keio University visited Howard University in October 1995.

Most important of all for me was the recep- tion and courtesy afforded me by many people I met in the, train station, taxis, restaurants, hotels, gift shops, stores, and at the Kabuki theater. For me this was the real Japan. The kindness, hospitality and respect afforded me by strangers gave me a feeling that I want to know more about the Japanese culture.

Perhaps the most unexpected but very re- warding experience I had during my tour was the meetings with three prominent African Americans living and working inJapan. Karen Hill Anton is a columnist with The Japan Times and Lance Lee is the President & CEO of 1GCOapan) Ltd., both are married to Japa- nese. The third African American is Reggie Life, a film maker and executive producer of two major films-“Struggle and Success” and “Doubles.” Mr. Life does not live in Japan but he has studied in and traveled frequently to

Japan on business. Both of his films have received praise and are financially successful.

Mr. Lee and I are currently looking for a publisher for his autobiography highlighting his 23 years of experience as an entrepreneur in Japan selling his health supply products in the Chinese market. A former airman, Mr. Lee is 43 years old. His other business is a school that teaches gymnastics and martial arts. Lee has a black belt in the martial arts. He rents a building in Tokyo for his enterprises, where he has employed 20Japanese for over 12years.

He is also the founder and Chairman ofthe African American Associate in Japan. His wife is a physician and he is the father offour sons.

Mr. Lee never went to college, but he has learned a lot in life about achieving success by developing a strong sense of discipline, pa- tience, and harmony with himself and nature. Lee learned his craft by apprenticeships, self- study and the skills acquired while in the u.s. Air Force.

Impressions of Principles
Certain principles and rules of conduct

that I have discerned help to account for japan’s impressive rise in world visibility and commerce. My impressions of the office work- ers in the various bureaus that I visited in the

Ministry of Foreign Affairs gave me, as an outsider, a sense that there was a set of core values, namely respect and harmony. On the other hand, in personal relationships, some Japanese men never tell their wives or girl friends that they love them. As one Japanese gentleman whom I had several conversations with said, “Japanese men don’t do that. They know we love them.”

Other central principles and values worthy of commentary include respect, courtesy, and not tipping for services rendered by vendors. For instance, the majority of the musicians in the Howard University Jazz Ensemble are young African American men in their early 20s. Many of the young men were surprised and pleased with the courtesy and respect they received during a visit to a store to purchase

gifts. In the United States, young African American men are often, unfortunately, re- garded in many retail and commercial estab- lishments as unwanted customers. Therefore, for some members in the band, receiving com- mon courtesy and respect in stores was a new expenence.

I was very pleased with the respect that I received as a university professor during my visit to the University ofTsukuba. Many of the students had never seen a Black professor and scholar. Several of the students sent me e-mail messages before I returned to Washington, D.C. A number of Japanese students were interested in the e-mail addresses of some of my students so they could initiate a dialogue with people their age.

When I visited the shrines in Kyoto, people in the hotel, shops, and restaurants were all very courteous and helpful. I never felt on any occasion that race was a factor in the type of treatment I received anywhere in Japan. Al- though it was obvious to everyone that I was a foreigner, perhaps people were extending themselves. Again, it was a pleasure to be treated with courtesy and respect.

As far as the Western custom of tipping is concerned, it is frowned upon in Japan. My escort, Mr. Saito, informed me immediately when I arrived in Tokyo that tipping for com- mon courtesies is frowned upon. In short, why should people pay a waiter, porter, vendor or a supplier for doing their job. I immediately had a flashback to a luncheon meeting at Union Station in the District of Columbia where I paid the bill and left a waiter a $5.00 tip. The waiter followed me to the door and wanted to know if he had offended me or was he disre- spectful in anyway. I answered no. He de- manded more money for providing my group with good service, even though he was receiv- ing a salary.

Impressions of Prospects: Past and Present 

reflectiononjapan3The modern Japan is less than 150 years old, but the real cultural foundation of Japan stretches back over 2000 years. Japan is a nation of shiny new buildings, impressive cit- ies, a low crime rate, high quality electronics and automobiles. Japan is also a society that values respect, courtesy and harmony. In 1995, Japan and the United States were the world’s two largest economic aid donors, each provid- ing over $1 0 billion annually. The United States sold Japan $75 billion worth of goods last year, making it the U .S.’s second largest market.

Until slightly more than a century ago, Japan, by its own choice, was almost com-

pletely isolated from the rest of the world. Reluctantly opening itself to Western coun- tries in the mid-19th century, it adopted mod- ern technology and quickly became an indus- trial and military power. Following the de- struction of World War II, Japan rebuilt its economy and now ranks among the world’s leading industrialized nations.

It is interesting to note that modern Japan has its roots in Meiji Restoration from 1868 onward, when the seat of government was moved from Kyoto which had been the capital of Japan for 1000 years, to Tokyo. One year earlier, in 1867 in the United States, Howard University was founded with the explicit mis- sion of providing ed ucational opportunities to promising Black students. Both years, 1867 and 1868, were defining years for the Japanese government and the founding of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (i.e., Howard University, Bowie State College, Fisk Univer- sity, ete.) in the United States. During this period, the Japanese were modernizing by converting from wood and bamboo to iron and steel in the material sphere and dealing with the external modern world, African Ameri- cans during this period were beginning their quest for social justice in the legal sphere and

the context of freedom for emancipated slaves. African Americans, like the Japanese, have gone through developmental stages. The Japa- nese went through stages and were able to meet on equal terms with other nations at sea. I am referring to japan’s defeat of the Russian fleet in the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-05.


Just as the Japanese were branching ou tin the world, African Americans were branching out from the South that held them in bondage for over 250 years. African Americans, were seeking out economic employment opportuni- ties in freedom and migrating to northern cities in the U.S. This was the period of the great Booker T. Washington and Dr. W.E. B. DuBois who were spokespersons for African American rights, educational opportunities and social justice. One of the greatest misconcep- tions that some Japanese and others have is that African Americans have squandered op- portunities. Frederick Douglass, the great African American abolitionist and leader says it best, “at the time of emancipation, the newly freed man began life with nothing other than the clothes on his back and the blue sky above him.” The Japanese in a sense started off with nothing when compared to other Great Pow- ers in 1868. However, because Japan was able to absorb new ideas and influences and adapt them to their own needs they have been able to make great strides in science, industry, and technology. At the same time, Japan remains a nation with distinctive cultural traditions. J a- pan will continue to move forward, challeng- ing other nations with its capacity for hard work and innovation, while retaining its own heritage.

Prospects for the Future 

1. Today, there are 45,000Japanese study- ing at colleges and universities in the United States, whereas there are only 1,700 Ameri- cans studying in Japanese colleges and univer- sities. That gap is widening each year, and it is at the root of the astounding lack of under- standing between the peoples of the two world’s largest economies. In 1995, Howard University’s Department of Modern Languages initiated its first-ever Japanese language pro- gram and wants to expand it in the near fu- ture. As a result of this program many of

Howard students are planning to study in Japan.

2. Scholarships and fellowships are avail- able for visiting scholars and students inter- ested in studying or teaching in Japan. Japan’s Ministry of Education announced an increase in the $190 million it provides in scholarships to foreign students, during an April 1996 meet- ing in ] apan between President Clinton and japan’s Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimito. Less than 3 percent of this in scholarships now goes to Americans.

3. In the near future, Howard University President H. Patrick Swygert and japan’s Ambassador Saito may meet to consider poten- tial ways the two carr cooperate and collabo- rate. Once these two leaders agree upon a course of action, then resources can be mobi- lized to accomplish specific objectives. For instance, the proposed African American/] apa- nese Business Summit to be hosted at Howard University could lead to a multitude of collabo- rative business ventures, franchises, techno- logical exchanges, educational exchanges for faculty and students, etc. Moreover, such a summit could help to improve mutual under- standing and could reduce some of the cul- tural and psychological barriers that exist in the hearts and minds of African Americans and] apanese people.

4. The prospect of sustaining the practice of publishing essays and articles in publica- tions controlled by the Embassy of] apan and Howard University, specifically, japan Now and Government & Politics journal will be im- portant as we continue our dialogue.

In conclusion, as I reflect back on my experiences in the land of the rising sun, I am more convinced than ever before that African Americans and] apanese must continue to cul- tivate cultural interactions which can become a process of mutual learning. As the renowned writer Maya Angelou has observed,

“Human beings are more alike than unlike, And what is true anywhere is true every- where.”

And so it is with African Americans and Japanese. We are at the end of the day, more alike than unlike, because we are all human beings. We are well advised to remember this simple truth, as our world is fast becoming more a neighborhood rather than disparate continents and cultures separated by vast oceans.









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