Celebrating AAPI Month: A Personal Reflection 

I’d like to give a personal shout out this May to Asian American, Native Hawai’ian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (AAPI Month). On May 7, 1843, a 14-year-old fisherman named Manjiro arrived in Massachusetts, hosted by William Whitfield, the captain of an American whaling ship who had rescued him from the island on which he had been shipwrecked. Although the first groups of Japanese immigrants didn’t start to arrive in Hawai’i until the 1860s, Manjiro—who returned to Japan to become a samurai and an emissary between both countries after Japan had opened to the West—is considered to be America’s first Japanese immigrant. In 1992, in commemoration of Manjiro, Congress established May as Asian American and Pacific Islander Month.

My children love the story of Manjiro not just because he was shipwrecked but because he had so many adventures between cultures. It’s one of their favorite storybooks, and it’s something that every one of us in the U.S.-Japan space should be aware of, especially in this day and age. It’s kind of a reverse Shōgun—it’s not about a European being washed ashore in isolated Japan but how a Japanese boy was washed ashore (not quite literally) in the globalizing U.S. And, of course, this took place in Massachusetts, which is the sister state to Hokkaido, where I lived for the first 16 years of my life. I was born in America and moved to Japan at the age of one with my Southern Baptist missionary parents—so I am an American by homeland but I consider Japan to very much be my heartland. That’s the very short version of how I came to be President and CEO of Japan Society.

Takeaways from the JANM Gala
As a leader in the U.S.-Japan space, I was privileged to be invited to the Japanese American National Museum’s Annual Benefit in April by one of the guests of honor. It was humbling to see a veteran from the 442nd Regimental Combat Team—a segregated Japanese American unit known for its bravery in Europe during World War II—thank us for coming and our support. The 442nd is the most decorated military unit in all of American history, not just World War II. So many leaders from the Japanese American community went on to become famous figures, among them Senator Daniel Inouye and former Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, and every one of them can be connected in some way to service to our country.

Being a guest at the JANM’s Gala was particularly humbling given that both of my grandfathers fought against Japan during the war. This is something that I want to make sure that my children and my children’s children never forget and hopefully never have to experience. The Japanese American National Museum is not just about past history, it’s also about the vibrancy of the Japanese culture that fills Little Tokyo, along with a big mural of Shohei Ohtani, who’s just joined the Dodgers. Japanese culture is alive and flourishing in America, from coast to coast. When you think about cultural capitals in America, of course there’s the global stage of New York—but the other center of cultural gravity is Hollywood. Japan Society often partners with the Japanese American Cultural Center in Los Angeles when we tour our performing arts programs, and LA has its own Japan House, a building sponsored by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs that was inspired by our own Japan House in New York. Today, digital programming allows us to partner with the West Coast in a way that was never possible before. And we’re building new connections in Tokyo as well.

Early lessons in bridge-building
I am not Japanese American, and I’m very clear about that. And it is something that I’ve always struggled with in my personal history. I grew up on Hokkaido, in Sapporo, which has a sister city relationship with Portland, Oregon. During the Snow Festival, Japanese Americans would come to visit, and I would take them around and introduce them to the local culture. There was a lot of confusion, as you might imagine, over why a white American boy was explaining bathing etiquette to these visitors and often older men would start to lecture them about proper etiquette—and they just couldn’t understand why what they were saying wasn’t being heard. I would have to be the translator between these two parties in what ultimately became a comical situation. This fostered in me a deep appreciation of being a translator, not only in language, but in a cultural sense, by building bridges—something that that is so critically important in our world today. That’s why I take my role and responsibility as President and CEO of Japan Society so seriously.

I felt so very welcome in Los Angeles and right at home in Little Tokyo. This is a community that is not only worthy of celebrating just for AAPI month, but for the shared history that we all have to remember. As we enter a very divisive and difficult period in our nation’s history we need to be reminded that we have seen much worse and that we have, in the end emerged from a time of crisis into a new world of opportunity, just as Manjiro did on May 7, 1843.

Joshua Walker, Ph.D. (@drjwalk) is President and CEO of Japan Society. Follow @japansociety. The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.