Bob Kumaki, Managing Principle
The Ronin Group
With the devastating Tohuku earthquake and tsunami in March of 2011, we witnessed an outpouring of relief funds for Japan from a wide variety of organizations, among them, virtually every Japanese American (JA) group in the country. Similarly, with the Great Hanshin earthquake in 1995 in the Kobe region, support came from hundreds of Japanese American organizations. This seemed perfectly right and natural. JA organizations not only wanted to assist as good global citizens, but also in helping relatives, friends and a country of their common ancestors. However, as I reflected on this humanitarian effort, I realized that this countered the cultural and social separation of Japan and Japanese Americans, which so many JAs grew up recognizing.
Why were there so few relationships between the Japanese and Japanese Americans, especially in the ‘60s and ‘70s? Why did so few JAs travel to Japan? As a professional, why did I recognize that the Japanese American diaspora was one only groups of its kind in the world that had few, if any, direct ties to their country of origin?
With most nationalities, no matter how many generations have separated you and your country of origin, you are still recognized as a part of the family. A Chinese American living in the U.S. since the 1800s still can find a home village in China. It is relatively simple for an American Jew to get citizenship in Israel. Yet, George Yoshinaga, a columnist for the Rafu Shimpo, one of the country’s largest JA newspapers wrote, “The Japanese media doesn’t go out of its way to recognize Japanese American achievements. Probably because the people of Japan don’t recognize Japanese Americans.” What’s different about the situation with Japan?
The geopolitics of the mid-20th century forced many Japanese Americans to shed their own overt Japanese ethnicity and quickly assimilate into an America dominated by white European cultural values. Due to the war, Japan and Japanese Americans were effectively cut off from one another, an action that is still being felt today. Japan currently represents the lowest immigration percentages of all Asian countries with established U.S. ethnic groups and Japanese Americans have the fewest ties to their ancestral homeland of all Asian American communities. However, the pressures of the global economy and resurgence in cultural interest taking place among the 3rd and 4th generation JAs offers opportunities for both the Japanese and Japanese Americans to re-connect.
Japan is facing an aging workforce, a need for skilled workers, a drop in foreign educational exchanges, and the perception of a lessening importance in the U.S. relative to China and India. JAs, as a subset of all U.S. workers, are facing the issues of unemployment, rising costs of goods and services, and the uncertain outlook of the American economy.
Can Japanese Americans, who are predominantly college-educated, white-collar professionals, assist in aiding Japan Inc.? Can they be a resource for Japanese companies doing business in the U.S. in virtually every industry and profession? Can they assist in helping Japanese workers acclimate to the American business environment and promote Japan as the U.S.’ most important trading partner? Can Japan become a new market for JA skills, businesses and employment? In all cases, yes.
But it’s not just in the business world that we can help each other. I find that my Japanese friends are fascinated with the JA experience and how the Japanese culture has evolved in the U.S. Meiji-era references in language, cultural events not often practiced in modern Japan (e.g. mochi making), being a minority vs. living in a homogeneous society and questions of loyalty to the U.S. during the war are all of great interest. Japanese Americans are more interested than ever in the export of “cool Japan” culture. Both can find common ground in a culture driven by family, education, and hard work.
So how can we make connections? First, make a friend. When I was on the Board of Directors of the Japan America Society of Chicago, I took it upon myself to simplify the Mission Statement to read, “create and promote Japanese and American friendships.” It’s as simple as that. Business relations, cultural exchanges, and educational programs all come second. Groups using terms like “nonpartisan,” “fostering bilateral relations,” and “dialogue promoting social interaction” only serve to obfuscate this simple idea.
Go for coffee. Go to lunch. Play a round of golf. Few Japanese businesses would work with an American company with whom they did not have a personal relationship. So too, individual Japanese and Japanese Americans. Develop the relationship. Then look for the business, social and cultural opportunities that only friends can bring each other.
Bob Kumaki is the Managing Principal of the Ronin Group, specializing in brand positioning, creative development and global marketing. Recognized as one of the country’s foremost authorities on Asian American marketing, he is the author of Many Cultures, One Market: A Guide to Understanding Opportunities in the Asian Pacific American Market. Bob can be contacted at 847-477-5209 or email@example.com.