In 1964, Tokyo hosted the Summer Olympics, and Hiroshi Inomata, age 10, happened to live near the stadium. One day, buoyed by the excitement of the sudden surge of foreigners, Inomata rallied enough confidence to approach a man snapping a photo of his wife, and offer, in his best elementary school English, “Shall I take picture?”
The man gazed at him, not comprehending.
Inomata rephrased his offer a few times, and finally, disheartened but determined, resorted to body language. His meaning suddenly clicked. “Oui, oui,” the man enthused, “Merci beaucoup!” Not all foreigners, Inomata realized, are necessarily English speakers.
Inomata recounted the tale of this early foreign encounter, which helped spark his interest in international relations, on the occasion of another momentous encounter: his official welcome as the new consul general of Japan in San Francisco.
A diplomat for more than 30 years, Inomata arrived at his post on Sept. 23, and was honored at a dinner celebration at Hotel Kabuki in San Francisco’s Japantown held Oct. 22, arranged by the Japan Society of Northern California and 27 other local organizations.
The sold-out event, attended by more than 250 people, provided a chance for the consul general and his wife, Midori, to continue making connections and for these organizations — many representing the Japanese American community — to introduce their roles.
In an interview at the event, Inomata said that one of his main duties as consul general is to “establish heart-to-heart relationships with as many people as possible.” As such, in the past month, he has visited San Jose, Millbrae, Palo Alto, Sacramento, Berkeley, Colma, Napa, the former site of the historic Wakamatsu tea and silk colony, and has a trip planned to Stanford this week.
“I’ve found a really good reserve of good will,” Inomata said.
His wife Midori said she was impressed with the weather that greeted their arrival. “It was like, ‘Welcome to San Francisco!’ weather. It was so nice!” She’s also been impressed — though not in an entirely positive way — by San Francisco’s trademark hills, which she said she’s worried about driving on.
June-ko Nakagawa, the executive director of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Northern California and, along with Kaz Maniwa, one of the event’s emcees, described Inomata as “outgoing,” “cheerful,” “energetic” and “active,” adding that she thinks he’ll be wonderful to work with, and that there will be more work to do.
“Japanese business is getting back energy right now,” Nakagawa said. “It’s been quiet for a long time because of the economic situation, but now we see the light. I think more Japanese companies will come here and be more active in the future.”
Dana Lewis, president of the Japan Society of Northern California, remarked on Inomata’s comfort in his new role.
“I’m very impressed that his background is in very hardcore policy issues but he’s stepping into this totally different role with such ease,” said Lewis, referring to Inomata’s most recent positions as director general of the Southeast and Southwest Asian Affairs Department and the deputy director-general of the International Legal Affairs Bureau.
However, Lewis noted that this position is not without its difficulties.
“I think all Japanese consul generals around the world are facing the challenge of showing communities that Japan is still relevant, at a time that so much attention is shifting to China and India.” While the previous consul general had the built-in public relations boost of the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the Kanrin Maru, the first Japanese ship to visit U.S. soil, the coming year will be quieter for Japan, Lewis added.
However, one milestone for U.S.-California relations could come during his term, with the decision on high-speed rail, Lewis said. The project of securing this major, and competitive, contract for Japan will represent a huge task for the Consulate General’s office.
But on this night, at least, Inomata emphasized his high hopes and eagerness to build community, describing himself as “an optimist and a positive thinker.”
Inomata’s introductory speech — filled with impromptu flourishes and jokes — was funnier, franker and more casual than one might expect from a newly arrived political figure making his formal debut.
“I’m not going to make a mission statement tonight,” Inomata announced off the bat. “I’m not the president or someone to make a political speech.” He added that though he doesn’t mind being called “Consul General,” he prefers being called “Hiro” or “Hiroshi,” which drew laughter from the audience — a not infrequent occurrence during the short speech.
After relating his initial childhood foray into the world of international relations, Inomata described how he failed the Tokyo University entrance exam three times before entering the renowned but slightly less prestigious Waseda University — a friendly derision of his alma mater that did not go unnoticed by a table of fellow alums who audibly, but lightheartedly, jeered. He quickly added that his choice to attend Waseda turned out to be a good decision, since he met his wife there; a moment later, he summoned Midori to the stage, and she remained at his side for the duration, several times filling in information when the consul general stage-whispered her questions about their past experiences, which include posts in Bangkok, London and Washington, D.C.
“This is the place we’d like to be,” Inomata said of his current position, adding with a satisfied laugh, “If I told that to my colleagues in the Foreign Ministry, they’d kick me, but this is a really nice place.”