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11-Member JA Leadership Delegation Heads for Japan

Japanese American Leadership Delegation at the Japanese American National Museum. Front row, from left: Kaz Maniwa, U.S.-Japan Council; delegates Michael Takada, Leslie Ito, Lynn Nakamoto; Irene Hirano, USJC; delegates Sawako Gardner, Roy Hirabayashi, Wendy Takahisa, Consul Shigeru Kikuma. Back row, from left: Delegates Jason Fujimoto, David Boone, Ken Russell, Gary Yamashita, Patrick Oishi.

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

The 17th Japanese American Leadership Delegation (JALD) left for Japan on March 3 and will meet with meet with leaders in politics, business, culture, academia and other fields — including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — during their weeklong stay.

The 11 delegates, representing different generations, occupations and geographical areas, continue a tradition that started in 2000 and bring the total number of delegates to nearly 200. The program is administered by the U.S.-Japan Council (USJC) and sponsored by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs through the embassy in Washington and 16 consulates.

The delegates will visit Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, where they will participate in a panel discussion sponsored by the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership and the USJC. They will then go to Tokyo.

The group, who met for the first time during an orientation held Feb. 3 and 4 in Los Angeles, consists of:

• David Boone of Alexandria, Va., president of CB&I Federal Services, which does environmental remediation and construction work. He served in the U.S. Navy for 30 years, including three years at the Atsugi base in Japan. He grew up in Yokohama and his roots in Japan are in Nagoya on his mother’s side.

• Jason Fujimoto of Hilo, president and COO of HPM Building Supply, a diversified building material distributor and manufacturer in Hawaii. A Gosei, he chairs the Military Affairs Committee of the Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce and is involved in the Hawaii Asia Pacific Association’s Young Leaders Program. His roots are in Hiroshima, Yamaguchi and Kumamoto prefectures.

• Sawako Tachibana Gardner of Portsmouth, N.H., a judge for the 10th Circuit Court, Portsmouth District Court. Her legal career includes serving as a public defender and an assistant county attorney. Her father worked for JETRO and the family lived in Los Angeles, New York and Dusseldorf, Germany. Born in Japan, she has roots in Saga and Fukuoka prefectures.

• Roy Hirabayashi of San Jose, co-founder and past executive director of San Jose Taiko, a founding member of the North American Taiko Conference, a judge for the International Taiko Contest in Tokyo, and board member of the Japantown Community Congress of San Jose. His roots are in Hiroshima Prefecture.

• Leslie Ito of Los Angeles, president and CEO of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, formerly program director for arts and health at the California Community Foundation, director of grant programs at the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, and executive director of Visual Communications. A Yonsei married to a Chinese American, she says she has a “pan-Asian background and family.” Her roots are in Fukuoka, Wakayama and Kumamoto prefectures.

• Lynn Nakamoto of Salem, Ore., who was appointed and then elected to the Oregon Supreme Court, becoming the first Asian American to serve in that capacity. She was previously appointed and elected to the Oregon Court of Appeals. Born in Los Angeles and raised in Orange County, she went to law school and worked in New York before returning to the West Coast. Her roots are in Kumamoto and Hiroshima prefectures on her maternal and paternal sides, respectively.

• Patrick Oishi of Seattle, a judge on the King County Superior Court, Washington’s largest and busiest trial court, former chief judge of the Maleng Regional Justice Center, and the state’s first Superior Court criminal commissioner. A Sansei born and raised on Maui, he has roots in Hiroshima and Fukuoka prefectures on his maternal and paternal sides, respectively.

• Ken Russell of Miami, a commissioner of Miami’s District 2 and the city’s first Japanese American elected official. Formerly a professional yo-yo player, a skill learned from his mother, he has chaired the Downtown Development Authority, Coconut Grove Business Improvement District, and Omni Community Redevelopment Agency, and promotes investment and partnerships with Japanese businesses. His roots are in Nara and Tokyo.

• Michael Takada of Chicago, CEO of Japanese American Service Committee, a social service agency primarily catering to seniors as well as a community and cultural center. He has over 30 years of experience in the financial sector and has been elected chair of the Chicago Japanese American Council, whose affiliates include JASC and the Japanese Chamber of Commerce. Born to a Japanese mother and a Nisei father from Los Angeles, he has roots in Miyazaki and Nagano prefectures on his maternal and paternal sides, respectively.

• Wendy Takahisa of New York City, executive director of the Office of Community Relations at Morgan Stanley, where she works on community revitalization, to help low- and moderate-income people get housing and help small businesses achieve economic growth. She is a board member and past president of Asian Americans for Equality. Her father is a Nisei from California and her mother is of Eastern European Jewish descent. Her roots on her father’s side are in Tokyo and Osaka.

• Gary Yamashita of Denver, CEO of Sakura Square, who is overseeing development of that site into a Japanese cultural and community center. He has 35 years of experience in the real estate and banking industries and is executive director of the Sakura Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes Japanese heritage and culture through programs, grants and scholarships. His roots are in Shizuoka and Wakayama prefectures on his maternal and paternal sides, respectively.

California Representatives

For Leslie Ito, the only Southern California delegate, this will be her seventh trip to Japan, but the circumstances will be different. “My first trip, my grandparents took my sisters and I with their redress money and a group of family members returned to my great-grandfather’s house in Fukuoka …

Leslie Ito and Mark Yokoyama, the 2017 and 2016 Southern California delegates. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

“I’ve been there several times in the last four years because we’re trying to revive and strengthen the relationships that helped us to found the organization [JACCC] but also make new relationships as well … I’m really looking forward to the trip and taking on the role of being an ambassador between the two countries.”

Ito said that Japanese Americans can play “an important role … to bridge between the U.S. and Japan,” particularly at a time when “there’s a lot of uncertainty on both sides … because of the leadership transition in our country.”

“We care about and we’re connected and linked to the economic success of Japan,” she added. “Their success is our success.”

Noting that the Japan Business Association of Southern California (JBA) helped make the JACCC a reality by getting public and private financial support in both countries, Ito said that JACCC’s upcoming “Bridge to Joy” concert, which will feature a choir of 300 singers from the U.S. and Japan, is “the perfect example of … how arts and culture can [also]play a role in strengthening our communities.”

Mark Yokoyama, former police chief and current city manager of Alhambra, was last year’s Southern California representative and the only 2016 delegate to attend this year’s orientation. He said of his experience, “It came down to really learning about the culture, meeting new people, establishing relationships. So we now have connections on both sides of the world. That’s really what it was all about, learning different perspectives and viewpoints about current issues.”

Roy Hirabayashi, the lone Northern California representative, has visited Japan a number of times, studying and training with other taiko groups and developing collaborative projects. “This is much, much different, a whole different level that I’ve never worked with before,” he said of his participation in JALD, because it involves deep discussions of the Japanese American experience and current events in both countries.

Having performed extensively with San Jose Taiko, he said, “What’s interesting being Japanese American and doing taiko, as we go around and play, the American public thinks I’m from Japan, but when I go to Japan … they know I’m American.”

Past delegate Alan Nishio and current delegate Roy Hirabayashi.

Since Japanese Americans are “a crossover between two cultures,” Hirabayashi thinks they “really are in a position to help … I feel that through music and culture we can help bridge to the American people better than what [Japan] can do politically … How can the Japanese government help support Japanese Americans in that? … Vice versa, how can we help them?”

This year’s group includes three judges: Patrick Oishi of Washington, Sawako Gardner of New Hampshire, and Lynn Nakamoto of Oregon. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

Lynn Nakamoto, a 30-year resident of Oregon, has visited Japan only once, in 1998 as a tourist. “I think I’m going to learn a lot about contemporary Japanese society,” she said. “There’s not a lot of exchange that I see because I’m not involved in business; what I do is very Oregon-based. I’m very interested in the status of women in Japan.” She would like to become more involved in USJC after her legal career.

Although there are three judges in this year’s group, Nakamoto said, “It’s not as if we’re visiting any judges or courts. It’s primarily political and cultural, but that’s okay … The Code of Judicial Conduct requires us to be apolitical, so it’s not as if we can say a whole lot.”

“Coming Home”

The delegates received an early sendoff at a dinner held at the JACCC on Feb. 4. Yuko Kaifu, executive vice president of JBA, noted that this is the sixth year that the organization has hosted a JALD reception.

She recalled that JALD was originally for “young, upcoming generations of Sansei … Many of them had never been to Japan, had never learned the language, so we thought it was very important to get them reconnected … The first few years, the delegation never got to see the prime minister. The quality of the program has been improving over the years, drastically. Part of the reason … is that your predecessors have proven that this program is very worth doing, very meaningful.”

“I’m also sure that every participant has been contributing to strengthening ties between the U.S. and Japan,” said JBA President Satoshi Okawa. “… This great program originated in California and gradually expanded to cover the entire USA.”

He added that JBA, which was established in 1960 and consists of about 500 companies, “has had a strong belief that it is not possible for Japanese companies to succeed [in the U.S.]without the support and cooperation of Japanese Americans.”

Consul General Akira Chiba stressed the importance of knowing one’s origins. “Make sure you know where you come from. Even if you do not know where your ancestral village is, it’s still very important because Japan, I can say, is your constituency. Your home village is your constituency. Your forefathers must have thought a lot about their villages and so will you, because you are coming home.”

From left: Irene Hirano of USJC, delegate Ken Russell of Miami, Yuko Kaifu of JBA. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

USJC President Irene Hirano, who is leading the delegation for the 17th time, said the visit is also “an opportunity for the Japanese leaders to learn more about the diversity of the Japanese American community. This delegation … has someone who was born in Japan, so we have an Issei, to a Gosei from Hawaii, so it really spans the diversity of the changing Japanese American community. I think that’s an important part of the message that we hope to share …

“Prime Minister Abe has really made a point to met with the Japanese American community … When he came to the U.S. in 2015, every place that he went to from Washington to California, he met with the Japanese American community. When he was in Honolulu to meet with President Obama and visit Pearl Harbor, he had a dinner with 1,100 Japanese Americans … a very special opportunity for him to talk about how much the Japanese American and Japanese leaders have helped to build the relationship.”

She added that Abe’s visit to Punchbowl was very moving because he “paid respects not only to the veterans at the national cemetery … but also made a special point to pay respects to my husband [Sen. Daniel Inouye]. The prime minister has extended a very warm relationship to Japanese Americans, so we look forward to this delegation being able to meet with the prime minister as well.”

For full biographies of the delegates and a list of previous delegates, visit

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