THE BLOG
08/18/2011 04:10 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Japan's Ambassador to U.S. Visited Denver for 25th Anniversary of Colorado-Yamagata Relationship

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Photo by Gil Asakawa

It's not often that Denver receives visitors at the highest levels of the foreign diplomatic corps, but the 25th anniversary of the start of the Colorado-Yamagata Sister State relationship brought Ichiro Fujisaki, the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Japan to the United State of America, to the Brown Palace on August 6.

Fujisaki gave a keynote speech during a luncheon hosted by the Japan America Society of Colorado, which was also attended by Takashi Takahashi, vice governor of Yamagata Prefecture (state), and Kozo Taira, Chairperson of the Yamagata Prefectural Assembly. Also with the Yamagata delegation were several assemblymen, the assembly's Chief Secretariat, and representatives of the Yamagata International Affairs Office.

The local speakers included Morgan Smith and James Terada, former chairs of the Colorado-Yamagata Friendship Committee. Smith helped forge the Sister State relationship when he served under then-Governor Dick Lamm, who was not initially supportive of the idea. Smith recalled his efforts to get the relationship approved, and the accomplishments since then that have come out of the Sister State compact. Gov. Roy Romner, who followed Lamm, was much more supportive, as was Bill Owens after that, and Gov. Hickenlooper already has strong ties to Japan and with Yamagata through visits he made while he served as Denver's mayor.

There were also remarks by Colorado state officials including David Thomson, director of global business development in the state's Office of Economic Development and International Trade; Sen. Brandon Shaffer, president of the state Senate; and Rep. Frank McNulty, speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives.

But the luncheon never felt like a dry political summit.

Instead, the warmth of the relationship between Yamagata and Colorado, and the larger relationship between Japan and the United States, shone throughout the event, casting a sense of community and populism over the proceedings.

Partly, that warmth is due to the longstanding relationship between both the states and the countries, and especially the strong cultural exchanges and business bridges that cross the Pacific. But this year, the emotional bonds are even stronger, because of the outpouring of support from America for Japan in the months since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the Tohoku region of northeast Japan. Every Japanese speaker, including the ambassador noted Japan's appreciation for the support. Yamagata prefecture lies within the Tohoku region, and is bordered on the south by Fukushima prefecture, where the stricken nuclear power plant is located, so the donations and well wishes of Americans are especially poignant for people in Colorado's sister state.

The Japan America Society since the spring has raised more than $100,000 and delivered the entire amount directly to aid agencies working on the ground in the Tohoku region. During his keynote address, Ambassador Fujisaki gave an update of the recovery and rebuilding efforts in Tohoku, distributing a printout of remarkable before-and-after photographs showing areas devastated after the tsunami, and how they look just a few months later.

Noting his role as a top representative of Japan in the world's most powerful nation, Fujisaki -- who's clearly a statistics wonk -- shared an analysis he created, comparing Japan and the U.S. in areas such as population and population density, obesity rates (U.S. ranks first in the world for women and second for men; Japan is 32nd and 33rd), education, social indices (women's status is 18th in the U.S. and 57th in Japan; U.S. is first in number of immigrants while Japan ranks 22nd, Japan ranks 8th lowest in homicide rates while the U.S. is 101st) and economic factors. It was an enlightening look at Japan's place in the world.

Notably, Fujisaki also focused on a subject of increasing interest in Japan: Japanese Americans. The ambassador was very familiar with the history of Japanese in America, including the internment years during World War II. He commented on Colorado governor Ralph Carr, who welcomed Japanese Americans to the state and ruined his political career for it, and mentioned that he had read from 9News reporter Adam Schrager's excellent biography of Carr, The Principled Politican.

In a brief post-luncheon interview, Fujisaki said he finds the role and history of Japanese American "interesting" and applauded the fact that JAs have succeeded in spite of the racially motivated setbacks that faced the community.

The one notable absence from the luncheon, the late journalist and diplomat Bill Hosokawa, was named often enough that it was as if he were there. Several speakers, including JASC president Dick Clark and Morgan Smith, who was director of the Colorado International Trade Office when he opened the doors to Yamagata 25 years ago, cited Hosokawa as the gentle but insistent behind-the-scenes driving force behind the warm relationship that the state enjoys today with Yamagata, and with Japan in general.

It's a fitting tribute to Hosokawa's vision that the Colorado Yamagata Sister State relationship thrives a quarter-century later, and that efforts are underway to memorialize Hosokawa with a bust at the Denver Public Library and the Denver Botanic Gardens, and that Botanic Gardens is undertaking an expansion that will rename its popular Japanese gardens as the Bill Hosokawa Bonsai Pavilion and Japanese Garden.

It's because of pioneering leaders such as Hosokawa in Colorado that Ambassador Fujisaki is impressed by the spirit of Japanese in America.

The ambassador and the delegation from Japan were able to tour the Denver Botanic Gardens, and also to attend the more casual annual picnic of the Japanese Association of Colorado the day after the Yamagata luncheon.

The visiting dignitaries got a great introduction to Colorado hospitality; they'll probably remember this trip long after they're back home.

Cross-posted from Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View blog.