America-Japan Grassroots Summit concludes in San Francisco

LEGACY OF FRIENDSHIP — Kyo Nakahama (L) and Robert Whitfield, descendants of a friendship that began nearly 170 years ago between John Manjiro and William Whitfield, address the opening ceremony of the America-Japan Grassroots Summit on Aug. 25. photo by Kenji G. Taguma/Nichi Bei Weekly

The 20th America-Japan Grassroots Summit kicked off on Aug. 25 with an opening ceremony at the Westin St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. The summit began as a way to honor the legacy of a friendship that began nearly 170 years ago between the shipwrecked John Manjiro and William Whitfield, the captain of a whaling ship.

According to the summit, more than 30,000 people (including host participants) have experienced the grassroots cultural exchange in both countries.

The ceremony opened with a dynamic tsugaru shamisen performance by Masato Shibata. A delegation of 250 Japanese people was greeted with vivacious gospel music performed by the San Francisco-based Glide Ensemble. The participants also enjoyed a dance performance by Yuko Takahashi Dance Company. The Japanese modern dance company choreographed a special piece to pay tribute to Manjiro.

This year’s summit also coincides with the 150th anniversary of the Kanrin Maru’s voyage to San Francisco. The Kanrin Maru was the first Japanese ship to visit the United States. It carried Japanese delegates of the Tokugawa shogunate to ratify the Treaty of Amity and Commerce between the U.S. and Japan. Among them was Manjiro, who brought the American way of thinking back to Japan after spending 10 years in the U.S. with the Whitfields. Their friendship paved the way for the end of a policy of isolationism established by the Tokugawa shogunate.

“San Francisco was selected as the host city of the summit to commemorate Kanrin Maru, and to honor the Japanese delegation,” said Taizo Watanabe, the chairman of the Center for International Exchange, an organization that started the grassroots summit, and the former Ambassador of Japan to Egypt and Indonesia.

Despite the friendly atmosphere at the ceremony, political tension between the U.S. and Japan continues to rise. The two countries have been at odds over the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station in Okinawa since the Democratic Party of Japan came to power in Japan last fall, pledging to the Japanese people that they would renegotiate the issue with their U.S. counterpart. Negotiations have stalled, as the two countries agreed to abandon the Aug. 31 deadline they set earlier.

There has also been talk that the Japanese government might make cuts to the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program, another program that has been instrumental in cultivating a friendly U.S.-Japan relationship.

Ichiro Fujisaki, ambassador of Japan to the U.S., said grassroots exchange is critical for a sound relationship between the two countries.

“People say U.S.-Japanese relations have never been better. But that is not true. The fundamentals were good, but we had ups and downs,” said Fujisaki, who attended the opening ceremony of the grassroots summit for the first time.

He said he has been actively attending meetings to bridge the gap between the Nikkei community and Japan.

“What we have here didn’t come naturally. We put a lot of effort to keep our sound relationship. And this grassroots exchange is a great way to contribute to it,” said Fujisaki.

The Japanese participants were excited about being in the U.S., in spite of the diplomatic uneasiness.

“I don’t want my son to be ‘quiet Japanese,’” said Kazuyuki Nishijima, who participated in the program with his wife Junko and his 18-year-old son Rokki.

“I want my son to be inspired to be a global citizen through the experience,” said the 54-year-old Nishijima from Fukuoka prefecture.

Ryono Watanabe agreed.

“I want to learn to speak English better,” said Watanabe, a 17-year-old participant from Miyagi prefecture.

Watanabe’s family hosted a Malaysian student last year and she said she learned the importance of understanding different cultures. “I am very excited that my host family takes me to the beach.”

Watanabe’s American host family hopes this grassroots exchange will contribute to bettering the relationship between the two countries.

“We don’t usually interact with people who don’t really speak English,” said Todd High, who lives in San Bruno. “This is going to be a great cultural enrichment opportunity for my daughter and hopefully we can keep our relationship,” said High, whose daughter goes to Clarendon Alternative Elementary School, which has a Japanese bilingual bicultural program.

To celebrate the beginning of U.S.-Japan relations, Tsunenari Tokugawa, the 18th descendent of the Tokugawa shogunate, and Matthew Perry, the fourth descendent of Commodore Matthew Perry, were invited to the ceremony. Commodore Perry forced Japan to drop its isolation policy when he sailed to Japan and signed the Convention of Kanagawa in 1854.

Tokugawa spoke the untold stories of how the Tokugawa shogunate decided to open up the country based on the information that Manjiro brought back from the U.S. According to Tokugawa, the Tokugawa shogunate had little information about the United States because most of the information about life outside of Japan came from the Netherlands, one of the countries that the Tokugawa shogunate had a trading relationship with during the isolation period.

“The ministers of the Tokugawa shogunate were very surprised at the political system, that their king is elected every four years,” said the 70-year-old Tokugawa. “They were also amazed that the U.S. defeated the mighty England.”

The ceremony closed with an exchange of a globe by the descendents of Manjiro and Whitfield, pledging ever-lasting friendship between the families and the two countries.

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