Jul 11

Best of JQ: Ambassador Shinichi Nishimiya: Diplomat, Collaborator, Fly Fisher (Summer 2009)

Anne with Ambassador Nishimiya (photo by Noriko Furuhata)


By Anne Koller (Fukuoka-ken, 2002-2004) for JQ Magazine.

Having been spotted at various local Japan events, JETs were curious to know more about the new Consul General Shinichi Nishimiya.  JQ talked with Ambassador Nishimiya to find out his plans for the consulate in New York and how JETAANY can help.

How are you and your family adapting to New York life?  What has been the hardest part about living in the city and the most satisfying?  What do you miss the most about our beloved Nippon?

We are adapting very well.  The hardest part has been the weather.  Nobody told us that NY weather is this unstable and unpredictable. [Jokingly] I have been told that there is no spring or fall between the long hot summer and a long, cold winter: then how do you describe what we have now? The most satisfying part of living in New York for my wife and I is meeting people.  Everyone has been very welcoming and kind.  I miss ramen!  There are ramen shops everywhere in Japan and they are always open.  You can go to places in New York, but it isn’t the same.  I do think the lack of eating ramen has allowed me to live a healthier life here which my wife is certainly happy about [laughs].

I have heard of your spectacular English abilities from various JETs.  When did you start English and what are some secrets you could give to better grasp the language and perhaps culture?

This boils down to curiosity and working hard, which of course is not what everyone wants to hear {laughs}.  Most people interested in languages will say that cramming doesn’t work.  The key is to learn and study from actual experience by picking up phrases from native speakers and using them.  When you hit a wall, which sometimes happens, don’t give up. I know that bridging two languages is difficult but also rewarding.  The intricacies and differences between languages are what make learning them interesting.  Words that don’t translate have always fascinated me.  In Japanese, for example, we have “Gambatte,” “Hisashiburi,” and “Shikataganai/shoganai” which are difficult, if not impossible, to translate in English.  In English, you have “Identity” which doesn’t truly translate in Japanese; our latest version “Jikodoitsusei” does not fully capture its meaning.

However, adapting to another culture in an organizational or business situation is a tougher question.  I would suggest learning the ropes from colleagues and teachers daily which will help form a base to build on instead of just plunging in.  Immersing yourself in the culture is very important and many JETs have accomplished this by experiencing taiko, ikebana, and other Japanese activities to adapt easier.  Most importantly, people are unique and it is important for them to have the psychological room to enjoy each other’s differences.

What are your hobbies and when do you find the time to enjoy them?

Fly fishing.  I started during my tenure in the UK and have enjoyed it ever since.  I have already been to the Croton River in Westchester, NY and have planned an upcoming trip to the famous Catskills to try the waters there.  When you are a fly fisher you find and make time to do it.

What made you decide to work in diplomacy and foreign affairs?  What advice would you give for any JETs who are interested in pursuing a career in the foreign service?

It was actually by accident.  As a student at the University of Tokyo I was interested in International Relations and pursing an academic life.  The moment of truth was when I failed the post-graduation exam into a Masters program and decided to work in the public sector in foreign affairs. The advice I would give to JETs interested in public affairs or the foreign service is not a general recommendation but more of a specific mindset. Firstly, be ambitious.  As the historically famous William Smith Clarke, who was involved in the opening of Hokkaido University, said, “Boys, be ambitious!”  Secondly, as I am a “relativist,” I would advise people to always see things both in perspective and proportion.  For example, many people focus on the shrinking size of Japan but forget that the size of its economy is still one of the largest in the world, much larger than China. Thirdly, in all careers, be engaged with the real world and learn as much as possible.

After serving in various Japanese embassies in Moscow, London and Beijing, what is the main difference between Japan’s relationship with the US, UK, Russia and China? 

People sometimes forget that Japan and the US are officially allies and great friends.  Opinion polls conducted in both countries consistently show that we like and trust each other.  In Japanese polls that ask “Which country do you like the most?” the US is always # 1 scoring around 75%. The Foreign Ministry conducts polls every year with Gallup and Japan is always a top trustworthy ally; 80% for the general public and over 90% with experts.  The basis for this is the “grassroots” friendship found between everyday people and the interest in each other’s culture.  The relationship between Japan and the US cannot be found anywhere else.

As for the UK and Japan, we have many things in common.  We are both tea lovers and island countries on the edge of huge countries.  From my vantage point, Japan has looked and will continue to look towards the UK model in terms of International politics and also its alliance with the US as a model to consider.

Russia is a very important neighbor of Japan.  There is huge room for us to develop more neighborly relations and work together on mutually beneficial issues together.  The Northern Territory issue is still pending, however. The good news is that it is a rare case in which both sides acknowledge that the territorial issue is there, unresolved, and must be resolved  Although it is taking a long time to come to a mutually agreeable resolution, both governments are eager to resolve the issue.

China is the most important neighbor of Japan and both sides need and should have even more friendly relations.  This is coming at the government level, helped by the expansion of trade and people to people exchanges and travels.  This will position both countries favorably and is fundamental to smoother relationships between Japan and China.

What are the key issues that you will address as Ambassador of Japan in New York? What organizations in New York will be essential to engage to improve Japan-American relations and increase awareness about Japanese culture in New York?

That depends on how long my government keeps me here {he laughs}.  My main goal is to consolidate existing friendships between various groups in New York and bring groups together.  I believe the consulate will be better off if we strive to strengthen the network among stakeholders of Japan.  For example, JET is a prestigious and successful program that exposes people to Japanese culture.  Roughly speaking, there are around 50,000 JET Alumni in the world and around half of them are from the US.  This means that 1 in every 10,000 Americans is a JET Alumni and 1 in 2500 families has a JET.  We hope that through contact with the JETAANY chapter we can work together and capitalize on our mutual interest in each other.

Additionally, Japanese businesses have a strong linkage with the U.S. thanks to the thriving economic relations, and the consulate appreciates the support given to Japanese activities.  Japan Day @ Central Park for example, would not have been possible without the strong business support we received.  I think that when the fun factor gets bigger, it provides a good vehicle for stakeholders and businesses to get together.

It is natural and healthy to have a series of stakeholders in the U.S. who we can collaborate with to improve Japan-U.S. relations even more.  This will be essential to developing a horizontal network instead of through a vertical approach with the Consulate just maintaining relations with the respective groups.

How will the economic crisis affect the number of foreign workers in Japan and most importantly the JET programme? 

JETs are very welcome in Japan and the JET Programme remains strong.  The challenge is that the local and central government fund JETs which can be expensive, especially during these difficult times.  However, structurally I see no changes and don’t think JETs have anything to fear.  Also, with the Monbukagakusho’s ambitious 2011 timeline to establish English classes in elementary schools there will be a big need for JETs. I foresee the number of JETs accepted increasing in the near future.

What expectations do you have for JETAANY and is there anything you would suggest we encompass in the year 2009?

Actually, there is.  I would like not only JETAANY, but other organizations in New York to come together on a specific project.  The consulate organizes school caravan visits where Japanese volunteers go to local schools.  It is a half day introduction to Japanese culture through sharing various Japanese arts, such as origami, shuuji, etc. with students.  Up until now the consulate has done this on their own, but I would love to partner with JETAANY to make it even more successful. JETAANY has many resources and would be better positioned to do the job.  All of you have learned to be more adaptable and would be great examples for the students to learn from and share Japanese culture with.

How has Japan changed when it comes to embracing diversity in the workplace, and how do you think the future looks for more women and minorities to work as public figures and leaders in Japan?

My sense is that women are making strides in the workforce and that trend is not reversible. Although this may be slower in Japan than other countries, there is a steady increase of more female workers in top and leadership positions. It is an issue that Japan has consistently faced but is hoping to change. More and more women and minorities are making a name for themselves in the economic pages of newspapers and through mergers and acquisitions of companies. I don’t foresee any setback for women and minorities in the future, but the question for Japan will be of pace and timing.

For more on Ambassador Nishimiya, visit www.ny.us.emb-japan.go.jp/en/c/2009/japaninfo0904.html#1.

For a summary of the 2009 U.S. Image of Japan Study opinion poll, visit www.mofa.go.jp/announce/announce/2009/5/1191907_1134.html.

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