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Beyond bridging US-Japan ties (Amended)

Center for American Progress senior fellow Glen Fukushima, who has lived roughly half his life in America and the other half in Japan, believes Japanese Americans should strive to be players in bringing the nations closer.


AT a cocktail party several years ago at the German Embassy in Tokyo, Glen S Fukushima, then serving as a senior executive with major multinational corporations, including as president & CEO of NCR Japan, was speaking with several guests, when one of them, a German businessman, asked him: "Mr Fukushima, are you Japanese or are you American?"

Before Mr Fukushima had a chance to respond, one of the other guests, a senior Japanese businessman he had known for over 20 years, said to the German businessman: "Mr Fukushima is more American than Americans and more Japanese than Japanese."

"He explained that I could be logical, analytical, legalistic, individualistic, assertive, articulate, vocal and self-confident, as many Japanese view the typical American to be," recalls Mr Fukushima, now a prominent public intellectual and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal public policy think-tank headquartered in Washington, DC.

"But I could also be gentle, caring, sensitive to others, empathetic, polite, deferential to elders, and team-oriented, as many Japanese view themselves to be," adds Mr Fukushima, who has by now lived roughly half of his life in the US and the other half in Japan, and who continues to commute across the Pacific Ocean, between the US and Japan as well as other countries in Asia, sometimes on a weekly basis.

Currently, Mr Fukushima spends about 60 per cent of his time in Washington, at his residence in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and in his office at the Center for American Progress, lecturing before various audiences and serving on the boards of several non-profit organisations. The rest of his time is spent in Tokyo, where his wife works, and in San Francisco where he owns a home.

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In fact, my interview with Mr Fukushima is taking place between several trips of his to East Asia, a region that American policymakers now regard as central to US geo-strategic and geo-economic interests. And Mr Fukushima, a product of two civilisations who feels at home both in Washington and in Tokyo, seems to literally be at the centre of it all.

He says: "I am asked quite frequently what it means to be a Japanese American today. Do Japanese Americans exhibit the enryo (self-effacement), gaman (perseverance) and deference to consensus, conformity, and authority that some believe 'run in the veins' of all people of Japanese ancestry? Or have they absorbed the self-interest, shareholder value, and glorification of market forces that some say define the American ethos of the early 21st century?" And his answer? "Japanese Americans are so diverse that it all depends on what kind of Japanese American one is."

So what kind of Japanese American are you, I ask him. "Although I am a sansei (a person whose grandparents were immigrants from Japan), I am somewhat atypical," Mr Fukushima explains. Indeed, when it comes to his personal bio and professional career, "atypical" would probably be an understatement.

Mr Fukushima's father, Fred, was a nisei (one whose parents were immigrants from Japan) but his mother was from Japan. His father grew up in Los Angeles and was attending high school there when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec 7, 1941.

While Mr Fukushima's family, like other Japanese American families, was incarcerated in an internment camp the following year, his father enlisted in the US army and was sent to the Philippines and later to Okinawa, where his main duties were to intercept Japanese codes, translate documents, and interrogate Japanese prisoners of war. In Okinawa, one of his father's jobs was to persuade Japanese soldiers to come out of their caves so that they would not be incinerated by the flame-throwers of the US Marines. "For his valour and service to his country, the US Army awarded my father the Bronze Star," says Mr Fukushima. "But working in the Philippines and Okinawa was in many ways a deeply traumatic experience for him, since at times he needed to be guarded by his fellow American soldiers so that he would not be shot at by other American soldiers who might mistake him for being the enemy. My mother told me that even in his 70s, he continued to suffer during his sleep from nightmares about his harrowing experiences in Okinawa."

After the war, Mr Fred Fukushima was assigned in Tokyo in 1946 to work for the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers. There, in 1947, he met a Japanese woman whom he married, and Mr Fukushima was born there as a US citizen in 1949 in a US military hospital. "My father brought my mother and me, then age six, to the United States, to San Francisco in June 1956, and growing up as an army brat (a child of a career military person), I moved between the US and Japan frequently, so much so that by the time I went to college, I had attended 12 different schools - eight in the US and four in Japan."

But Mr Fukushima always felt a personal attachment to one place in particular that - in terms of its location, history and demographics - is probably America's most Pacific city, San Francisco. From 1956 to 1958, his father was stationed at Fort Ord near Monterey and from 1958 to 1960 at the Presidio of San Francisco.

Mr Fukushima later spent more time in the area when he was an undergraduate at Stanford University where at the 22nd Annual Japan-America Student Conference of 1970, he first met Sakie Tachibana whom he married in 1972.

Fifteen years after their wedding, in 1987, Mrs Fukushima obtained her MBA from the Stanford Business School, joined Bain & Company, and later headed the Japan operations of Korn/Ferry International, one of the world's leading executive search firms, and sat on the boards of Korn/Ferry, Sony, Kao, Benesse and other major companies.

Encountering many Japanese Americans growing up in the US and Japan and later as an undergraduate at Stanford and graduate student at Harvard, Mr Fukushima concluded at an early age that it was exceedingly difficult to predict the characteristics of a Japanese American based simply on the fact of having ancestral roots in Japan.

"When I was growing up, many of the Japanese Americans I knew were, like me, army brats who had a nisei father and a Japanese mother. I therefore found it natural that most of them were bilingual, at least in spoken English and Japanese. However, when I attended high school in the United States, I discovered that this was not the case with my sansei classmates, most of whom had never been to Japan."

Then, as a Stanford undergraduate, he met many sansei from Hawaii, who were quite different from the Japanese Americans he knew as an army brat or as a high school student. "And as a graduate student at Harvard, I ran across many Japanese Americans who had grown up in places other than Hawaii and the West Coast." Among them were individuals such as Francis Fukuyama who, having grown up on the East Coast, had had virtually no contact with Japan or Japanese Americans. "By then I concluded that Japanese Americans are an immensely diverse group and, in fact, represent the diversity of America."

After graduating from Stanford in 1972, Mr Fukushima had the good fortune to benefit from several programmes aimed at strengthening US-Japan ties. These included the Fulbright Fellowship, on which he did his Harvard doctoral dissertation research at the University of Tokyo, and the US-Japan Business Fellows Programme, which enabled him to spend one summer during his Harvard Business School stint as an intern at Dentsu, Japan's largest advertising agency. From 1971 to 1972, he spent one academic year in Tokyo studying at Keio University, where a seminar on US-Japan relations piqued his interest in pursuing a career in US-Japan affairs.

After graduating from Harvard, at a time when the strategic and economies ties between the US and Japan dominated the policy agendas in both Washington and Tokyo, Mr Fukushima's government and business career - including working as a senior official at the Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) in Washington from 1985 to 1990, and later as vice-president and president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan - led him to recognise the complexities of the economic and political ties between the two countries and the role that he and other Japanese Americans could play in the process.

"Soon after it was announced that I would be leaving my law firm in Los Angeles to join USTR, I was interviewed by several Japanese journalists in Los Angeles who wanted to learn about my future role as a US government trade negotiator," recalls Mr Fukushima. "At the end of one of the interviews, a journalist's words to me were: 'Just as your father fought Japanese soldiers in World War II, now you must go battle Japanese trade negotiators.' It was then that I realised that not a few Japanese viewed economic relations with the United States in explicitly military terms."

And quite a few Japanese have maintained an ambivalent attitude towards Japanese Americans such as Mr Fukushima, an approach that seemed to mirror the sentiment of many Japanese Americans towards Japan. Hence while members of many ethnic groups in the US - Irish, Poles, Italians, Jews, Chinese, Koreans - are proud to be associated with the countries of their ancestors, that tendency is less prevalent among many Japanese Americans. Mr Fukushima describes the phenomenon as the "abnormal" relationship between Japanese Americans and Japan.

Most Japanese Americans probably don't devote much thought to Japan, he explains, since the country doesn't quite figure as a part of their daily lives. At the same time, there are some Japanese Americans who actively distance themselves from Japan, often rooted in their belief that nothing good can come from being identified with Japan. After all, it was the US government's "identification" of Japanese Americans with Japan that led to their or their parents' imprisonment in wartime internment camps.

According to Mr Fukushima, another reason for the "abnormal" relationship between Japanese Americans and Japan can be traced to the fact that unlike China, India, and many other countries, Japan in the post-war period had not welcomed or embraced Japanese Americans as friends and allies. "Just as there was a distance felt by many Japanese Americans toward Japan since the 1940s, there was a distance felt by many Japanese, especially government officials and some business executives, toward Japanese Americans," argues Mr Fukushima.

The late US senator Daniel Inouye, a Democrat from Hawaii, told Mr Fukushima about his meeting in Tokyo in 1959 with then-prime minister Nobusuke Kishi. The senator explained to the prime minister that with the passage of nearly 15 years since the end of World War II, the constructive role played by Japanese Americans during the war, and the advancements they had made in American society, he thought that the time had come for a Japanese American to be selected as US Ambassador to Japan. According to Mr Inouye, Mr Kishi answered with a question: "How would you feel if Japan appointed a Caucasian to be the ambassador to the United States?" Mr Kishi asserted that most of the Japanese who left Japan in the 19th and early 20th century were "failures" and that the sons of the noble families in the Japanese Foreign Ministry would feel uncomfortable working with the sons of those "failures".

"These attitudes were reinforced by certain Americans who believed that it was in their self-interest to exclude Japanese Americans from activities between the US and Japan," according to Mr Fukushima, who thinks that while the sentiments prevailed for 50 years, from the 1940s to the 1990s, they have changed in recent years as a more "normal" relationship is now evolving between Japanese Americans and Japan.

On the American side, the passage of time has led to fewer Japanese Americans resisting closer ties with Japan. "With globalisation and the increasing acceptance of diversity in the US compared to, say, 30 years ago, yonsei (great-grandchildren of Japanese immigrants) and gosei (fifth-generation descendants of Japanese immigrants) are expressing an interest in Japan that is in many cases being encouraged and supported by their parents, unlike the period when I was growing up, when many Japanese Americans discouraged their children from involvement with Japan."

There is also the phenomenon of kikoku shijo, or Japanese who have spent considerable time during their childhood growing up abroad due to their parents' work overseas. This too has led many Japanese to question the definition of "Japaneseness" and to accept the notion that it may be possible to be Japanese while having experiences and adopting values that are not traditionally considered Japanese. These changes in Japan have been taking place at the same time that American society, and its political institutions and businesses, have become more open to Japanese Americans, and members of other Asian American communities.

In a way, Mr Fukushima's personal and intellectual odyssey, and his professional career, demonstrate the dramatic transformation of the perception of Japanese Americans by both Americans and Japanese, and explain why some of them have become success stories in the age of globalisation.

In 2005, Mr and Mrs Fukushima were featured in the Wall Street Journal as a "high-powered Tokyo couple" that could be "poster children for the globalisation of corporate boards". Noting that Mr Fukushima was a veteran of four US multinational companies and the first American board member of Mizuho Financial Group, then Japan's biggest banking group, while Mrs Fukushima was a board member of Korn/Ferry International, the WSJ suggested that the two then-56-year-old high-powered executives - who both hold degrees from Harvard and Stanford, and speak each other's native language fluently - "show how corporate boards are starting to globalise".

Mr Fukushima believes that the racial and ethnic closeness between the US and Europe was one of the reasons that few eyebrows were raised when Henry Kissinger (born in Germany) and Czech-born Madeleine Albright, both naturalised US citizens, became secretary of state under president Richard Nixon and president Bill Clinton, respectively, or when Zbigniew Brzezinski, another naturalised US citizen, became president Jimmy Carter's national security adviser. "This was, I might add, despite the obvious 'foreign' accents of Mr Kissinger and Mr Brzezinski," he notes.

From that perspective, the growing ties between the US and East Asia are creating an environment conducive to Asian Americans rising to senior positions in the corporate world and to being elected to public office. In fact, Mr Fukushima created a PAC (political action committee) last year aimed at supporting Asian Americans who run for political office. Among the beneficiaries was David Yutaka Ige who was elected Governor of Hawaii in 2014.

One piece of advice that Mr Fukushima has for Japanese Americans who wish to engage in US-Japan relations has been: "Don't be a bridge, be a player!" Contrary to the stated desire by some Japanese Americans to be a "bridge" between the US and Japan, he contends that such aspirations are far too low.

A bridge is an infrastructure built to allow people to walk over. "To aim to be a bridge seems to me unnecessarily to relegate Japanese Americans to a limited and subordinate role. Instead, Japanese Americans should strive to be players, actors, and decision makers in the relationship."


Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress, Washington

1949: Born in a US military hospital in Japan

Educated at Stanford University, Harvard University, Keio University, University of Tokyo

1982-1985: Attorney, law firm of Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker; Los Angeles

1985-1988: Director for Japanese Affairs; Office of the US Trade Representative; Washington, DC

1988-1990: Deputy Assistant USTR for Japan and China; Washington, DC

1990-1998: Vice-President, AT&T Japan Ltd; Tokyo

1993-1997:  Vice President, American Chamber of Commerce in Japan; Tokyo
1998-1999:  President, American Chamber of Commerce in Japan; Tokyo
1998-2000:  President & CEO, Arthur D. Little Japan; Tokyo
2000-2004:  President & CEO, Cadence Design Systems Japan; Tokyo
2004-2005:  Co-President, NCR Japan; Tokyo
2005-2012:  President & CEO, Airbus Japan; Tokyo
Since 2012:  Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress, Washington, DC

The bio box has been amended to correct errors in an earlier version.  

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