Japanese delegation visits KC, emphasizing need for strong relationships

07/16/2014 11:33 PM

07/16/2014 11:40 PM

Japan’s special relationship with the United States helped bring a special delegation to Kansas City this week.

Ken Shimanouchi, former Japanese ambassador to Spain and Brazil, is leading the small group of men and women who want to help draw America’s attention to what’s happening in his country. The Japanese are trying to do that with grassroots discussions with ordinary citizens as part of a program called “Walk in U.S. Talk on Japan.”

It’s a valuable trip, and especially meaningful to many local residents, given the longstanding history of positive relations between Japan and Kansas City.

On Wednesday, Shimanouchi discussed some of his country’s goals, achievements and challenges before a crowd of about 75 people at the Carriage Club on State Line Road. A reception followed, allowing Shimanouchi and other members of his delegation to network with civic leaders and others.

On Thursday, Shimanouchi is scheduled to hold a public discussion about Japanese issues from 10 a.m. to noon at the Hudson Auditorium in the Nerman Museum on the campus of the Johnson County Community College.

The Heart of America Japan-America Society helped organize the visit along with the Consulate General of Japan at Chicago.

“Kansas City was chosen because of our own strong grassroots support to continue an existing relationship with Japan through cultural, education and business ties,” Francis Lemery, honorary consul general of Japan at Kansas City, said in a statement.

At the Carriage Club, Shimanouchi talked openly about some of the concerns he has about his county’s future. But it was all done against a backdrop of the need to continue the great economic partnership built up over decades between the United States and Japan.

One of his concerns is the lack of Japanese students going to U.S. universities. He said the number has fallen sharply in the last 15 years, partly because the Japanese economy has improved and young people aren’t as interested in going overseas to study. They are more comfortable in Japan, he said, and not always looking for greener pastures elsewhere.

Another concern is the shrinking population of Japan. It lost about 250,000 people last year, or as Shimanouchi noted, close to the size of a St. Louis or Pittsburgh. “It’s really frightening,” he said. And that trend is expected to continue. He said women were marrying later and having fewer children. In addition, he said, child care is insufficient in Japan, with long waiting lists.

But Shimanouchi also spent a good deal of time mostly praising the work being done by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, often under the name of “Abenomics.”

“I think the present recovery is for real,” he said, noting the strengthening of the country’s economy after more than two decades of up and down financial times since the stock market and real estate bubbles burst in Japan.

Shimanouchi also touched on concerns about relationships with China, which is being confrontational on a number of issues.

And he praised the United States’ continued involvement in helping his country recover from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Another delegation member, Masanori Okuda, said Abenomics was lifting the country out of the “two lost decades” problem. The public is ready for reforms, he said. One recent measure increased the national sales tax from 5 percent to 8 percent.

Takao Kawasaki summed up the general will of the day, saying the Japanese and Americans have much in common as “trustworthy partners.” For example, he said, Japan is the second biggest contributor to the United Nations behind the United States.

Overall, the delegation’s visit to Kansas City emphasized that middle America is a meaningful place for Japanese people to visit and know more about.

In turn, Kansas Citians who have an interest in improving the relations between the two countries discovered more good reasons to invest time in that endeavor.

To reach editorial columnist Yael T. Abouhalkah, call 816-234-4887 or send email to abouhalkah@kcstar.com. Twitter @YaelTAbouhalkah.

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