Interview by: Katia Hadjiyska
Katia: First, tell us about yourself and walk us through your background.
Hon. Fukushima: During my 34 years in the Japanese Foreign Service, I have been assigned to the United States three times, in addition to other overseas postings such as Rome, Moscow, and Bangkok. The first time I was assigned to the U.S. was in the mid-1980s, when I was attached to the Embassy in Washington D.C. while studying there as a graduate student. That was my first experience abroad, and I found American society and culture to be fascinating. Of course, there were moments of culture-shock. English was difficult, and the portion-sizes of food seemed gigantic. I also remember the euphoria of seeing the Washington Redskins win the Super Bowl. That was a period of heightened political sensitivity for the bilateral relationship. While the vast majority of Americans were friendly to Japan, the issue of “trade friction” between the two nations was such a major part of the discourse. During the Reagan years, there were some harsh reactions to the large trade deficits the U.S. ran with Japan. I saw congressmen and their supporters crush Japanese TV sets in front of the White House. That episode always reminds me just how important diplomacy and management of the bilateral relationship can be.
Around 20 years later, I was again assigned to Washington D.C. as a minister of the Embassy. The political and social landscape that I saw had changed quite significantly during my years away. The Cold War was long over, and Barack Obama had just won the presidency with a message of “yes, we can” and “change” for the American people. Several years had passed since 9/11 and the beginning of the War on Terror, and people seemed ready to turn their attention back to their domestic well-being. As I joined the huge crowd at the National Mall to celebrate President Obama’s swearing-in, I felt a real sense of hopefulness in the air. Meanwhile, my wife and I were overjoyed that D.C. again had an MLB team, and became big fans of the Washington Nationals.
Now, a decade later, I have the good fortune of being posted in the United States for a third opportunity, this time, not in the familiar surroundings of Washington D.C., but rather in the wholly different world of Houston, Texas. You might ask which city I like more. Sorry, but I can only answer that question diplomatically, after all that is my line of work. However, I can tell you without a doubt that I love this city. It is so open and welcoming, and its people are friendly and laid-back in spite of the thriving business sector. I see that my fellow expats feel quite comfortable here, since the city nurtures diversity and recognizes it as an important source of dynamism. It should also go without saying that my family and I have become huge fans of the Houston Astros! Both on a personal and professional level. I really feel fortunate to serve as Consul-General of Japan in Houston right now.
Katia: Tell us about the Consulate General of Japan in Houston. What parts of America are covered by the Consulate and what are the services it provides?
Hon. Fukushima: TH. E. Fukushima: The Japanese Consulate in Houston covers the Texas-Oklahoma region as one of 18 diplomatic missions that the Japanese government has in the United States and its territories. You might think that covering only 2 states is no big deal, but Texas alone is almost twice as large as Japan. Honestly, attending events and meetings in major cities around the state and traveling between them takes up most of my working hours.
One of the consulate’s major duties is assisting residents of local Japanese communities. This includes our so-called “consular services” of issuing passports and various other government certificates, as well as ensuring the safety of Japanese nationals in case of a disaster. We are always ready to provide 24/7 email alerts with information on potential dangers in the region and how residents should respond. After Hurricane Harvey, the Houston city government has grown more prepared for extreme weather, and the consulate is grateful for all of their advice and guidance.
Katia: What are some past, present and future goals for the Japan’s relationship with the U.S.? Tell us about your perspective on ways that U.S.-Japan cooperation may be furthered.
Hon. Fukushima: An important aspect of our work is strengthening the relationship between Japan and Texas, which has really come to thrive in recent years. According to our provisional numbers, the Japanese population in the state reached 12,000 people in 2018, which is a 16% increase compared to the previous year. That figure looks only at the number of Japanese citizens registered with our office and does not include the 11,000 plus Japanese-Americans who call the state home. The number of Japanese businesses in Texas has also been growing at a substantial pace. Excluding any American subsidiaries, a total of 414 Japanese companies had established themselves here as of 2018, for a 12% increase over the previous year.
Basically, much of this growth stems from a rising awareness in Japan of the terrific business opportunities available in Texas. So many Japanese companies are choosing the state because of its booming economy, business-friendly environment, low cost of living, low taxes, and convenient geographic location. A little over three years ago, the Japanese airlines ANA and JAL joined the American carriers UA and AA in offering direct flights from cities in Texas to Tokyo, and ever since, there has been an increase in the number of major Japanese companies locating in the state. To name a few, the air-conditioning manufacturer Daikin opened a massive factory in Waller; Mitsubishi Heavy Industries moved their North American headquarters to Houston; and Toyota Motor likewise moved their North American headquarters to Dallas.
Katia: What are some big picture issues facing Japan today? How is the Japanese business community uniquely positioning itself to help Americans who are interested in doing business in Japan?
Hon. Fukushima: A number of Japanese companies in the region are part of the energy sector; so quite naturally, many have operations in and around Houston. Japan is importing much more energy from the United States than in the past, around a $4 billion increase in just the last few years. Historically, much of this business focused on oil and petro-chemicals, but the LNG sector is also proving to be extremely vibrant. One project that will be a game-changer for both Texas and Japan, is the Freeport LNG export terminal, which is itself a mega-joint-venture between American and Japanese companies. It is expected to begin production later in 2019, and has signed long-term contracts to export LNG to several electric companies in Japan for at least the next 20 years.
Another major project on the horizon is the Texas Central Railroad, which hopes to connect Houston and Dallas via a convenient 90 minute train ride. It plans to utilize Japanese bullet train, or “shinkansen”, technology which has earned a prefect safety record in Japan, with no crashes or fatalities during its entire 55 years in operation. Historically, Houston was recognized as an important railroad hub for the American South, and this project has the potential to build on that reputation with cutting-edge technology that can further boost the local economy.
In fact, the Texas Secretary of State’s office recently informed me that Japan leads all other nations as the number 1 job creator in Texas, having generated almost 17,000 new jobs in the state over the last 8 years. Japanese companies invested almost $5 billion in the state’s economy during that same period, but that’s not the only contribution they have made to the region. These companies are always grateful to the hardworking people of Texas, and try to give back to their communities with programs and activities like STEM education for local kids. People around Texas really value these sorts of activities, and they show how Japanese companies are always trying to assimilate into local communities, becoming socially engaged and “Americanized” in the process.
Katia: Is there anything we have not discussed that you would like to mention?
Hon. Fukushima: One of my favorite stories happened about 6 or 7 years ago. At that time, the Space Shuttle Endeavor was being retired and moved from the Johnson Space Center in Houston to a museum in Los Angeles. It was announced that Toyota’s powerful Tundra pickup truck, which is manufactured locally in San Antonio, would be used to tow the massive spacecraft. Some people were critical when they learned of this, arguing that such an important symbol of American science and technology should not be led by a “Japanese” truck. But other Texans were strongly supportive of the decision and argued that the Tundra should be considered an “American” truck, because the share of its parts made in the U.S.A. is actually higher than any domestic brand. Over 80% of parts in the Tundra are manufactured in the United States, with 70% being manufactured locally in Texas. When people learned the details of this argument, the Tundra became more popular than ever before in the state, and local Toyota factories now describe themselves fittingly as making American cars with Japanese technology.
I am glad to be of any assistance when it comes to developing such mutually beneficial business relationships, including forging new partnerships with organizations like GHP and the Japanese Business Association of Houston. The city’s Mayor Turner, who I admire for his passion and dedication to diversity, has been a very active ally in promoting these relationships, saying that the Japanese community should feel “at home” in the city. Those words typify Houston’s spirit of hospitality and openness for which I am deeply grateful.
Another vitally important aspect of our mission is to foster mutual understanding between the people of Japan and Texas. On that score, we are lucky to be located in Houston, where so many people are not just aware of, but also interested in Japanese culture. Just over the last few years, we have seen a wide variety of Japanese restaurants open their doors for business in the area, including sushi bars, ramen shops, and izakayas. That is certainly a pleasant surprise for us Japanese expats, and we are so glad to see the people of Houston take to our culinary culture.
One event that put this growing popularity on full display was this year’s Japan Festival Houston, which was recently held in Hermann Park, home to one of the most authentic Japanese garden in the United States. This was my first time participating in the event, and frankly I was stunned by the size of the crowds. Around 25,000 people attended the 2-day festival, mostly consisting of local people who enjoyed the grand showcase of Japanese culture on display. The event’s organizers, including the Japan America Society of Houston and Hermann Park, worked tirelessly to provide everyone with a vast array of activities and exhibitions centering on traditional and contemporary Japanese culture. I am deeply thankful for everything they did to put together such a lively fun event. As I walked around the festival grounds and saw so many people enjoying themselves, I felt so lucky that I am able to serve in this remarkable city. I know that those memories will be a constant reminder to me of how meaningful the Japan-Texas relationship is to so many people, and also a source of encouragement to develop those bonds of friendship as much as possible.
On that subject, next year will present a golden opportunity for the people of Texas to visit Japan for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. I genuinely hope that many people will come, not just to see the games, but also to see the country and its many sights.
The person-to-person exchanges between Japan and Texas extend over a number of spheres, including academia. There are so many fruitful partnerships between researchers in the two areas, and last fall we saw one such collaboration get its due recognition with the joint conferment of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Medicine to professors from Japan and Texas. Together, Professor Tasuku Honjo of Kyoto University and Professor James Allison of MD Anderson broke new ground in furthering our understanding of cancer and its treatment with work that was truly worthy of this great honor. When I learned that that someone from Texas and someone from Japan had received such global recognition for research that will benefit all mankind, I felt a deep sense of pride.
At the level of our individual citizens, the sister city relationship between Houston and the Japanese city of Chiba has been truly noteworthy. Thanks to the dedication of the City of Houston and organizations like JASH, that relationship has been thriving for over 45 years now. One of its most beautiful aspects is the youth exchange program, where groups of students alternate visiting each other’s cities in immersive homestay experiences. Second Lady Karen Pence, who is also an Honorary Vice-Chairwoman for Sister Cities International, spoke to me about her wonderful memories spending time with some of these students when she visited Japan. The mayor of Chiba visited Houston along with the rest of the delegation last time, so we anticipate Mayor Turner will likewise visit Japan soon!
The U.S.-Japan bilateral relationship has long been a key alliance for both countries, and it will doubtlessly continue to be so into the future. The modern form of the alliance was agreed to about 60 years ago, and it laid the groundwork for the fruitful relations we enjoy today. In the years since then, there have been up and downs, and occasional hiccups as the global geopolitical situation has evolved, but the close ties shared between Japan and the United States have been constant. If you look at opinion polls of the American public in recent years, such as the annual Gallup poll, Japan is consistently among the top 3 nations, alongside Canada and the UK, when people are asked whether they view a country favorably. The proportion of Americans who view Japan in a positive light has hovered above 85% in the last few years, and the proportion of Japanese who view the United States favorably is similar.
These mutual positive perceptions were not achieved overnight, but rather are the product of long-standing efforts to build trust by parties on both sides of the Pacific. Both nations have stood by one another offering aid and support during times of need, such as after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, or the 2011 Great Tsunami in Japan. These memories of beneficence and kindness during moments of national trauma are deeply held in the minds of our citizens, and they help to build long-lasting trust and friendship between our people.
The U.S.-Japan alliance will surely continue to bolster stability and prosperity throughout the globe, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region. The bedrock of this steadfast partnership is our body of shared interests and core values with regards to democracy, economic prosperity, the rule of law, and human rights. The current geopolitical situation is one of flux and uncertainty, where threats like terrorism and economic challenges can easily cross borders, but the U.S.-Japan alliance provides a solid foundation of stability from which these problems can be addressed and resolved.
In regards to that, we look forward to President Trump visiting Japan as the first state guest of Emperor Naruhito, who was just enthroned as the new Emperor of Japan on May 1st. It is sure to be an occasion full of deep symbolism with momentous events that will highlight and reaffirm the bonds between our countries. His Majesty Naruhito, as Emperor of Japan, is a symbol of the unity of the nation and its people, and by warmly welcoming the U.S. head of state, he will provide an opportunity for everyone to reflect on the deep friendship that exists between our two nations.
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