Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Asian Americans building a key bridge

On Japan Times. The religion angle interests me the most.

LOS ANGELES — A funny thing happened to Tokyo's Masahiro Kohara after he arrived in Los Angeles almost 2 1/2 years ago: He felt right at home.

The intellectually elegant Japanese diplomat had been expecting to feel like a fish out of water. But, taking over as the deputy consul general in Los Angeles, Kohara quickly found his footing as he more or less found himself every other day — and night — at some community get-together or cultural event.

And he was never really bored: Southern California didn't seem half as superficial as had been advertised. Though well briefed at the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo about the well-known diversity on the West Coast of America, he was astonished by the panoramic panoply of demographic cosmopolitanism that was spread out all before him. Asians were everywhere, Japanese Americans were everywhere, and so Kohara felt as if he were swimming in warm and friendly waters.

There were particular reasons for this. One had a lot to do with his boss: the ubiquitous Kazuo Kodama. This peripatetic consul general, a career diplomat who'd served in Washington and India, and who'd handled international press relations for Japanese prime ministers, was not one of those stay-at-home ambassadors who shunned outsiders.

Well-schooled in U.S. politics, Kodama understood, even better than some Americans, the political importance of the West Coast, the real brave new world of Amer ica. And so he pushed himself out to every event to which he was invited — often pushing his very witty wife, Keiko, along with him.

And so when Kohara arrived, he found a boss who was not about to let his No. 2 be a stay-at-home, watching Japanese TV, even if that had been his inclination. On the contrary, Kohara soon recognized that the demographics of the West Coast (and increasingly of America in general) were becoming more Asian by the month. And it seemed that every Asian in the States not only had a well-developed network of business or religious friends here, but also across the ocean.

This is to say that Asians (at least as much if not more than other ethnic and geographical groups) are prodigious trans-Pacific networkers: They network by night and by day — not just at the church around the block or the office where they work but also at business, religious, political and family networks in their home country in Asia.

Depicting these Asian Americans as key players in the Asia-Pacific future, the crack author and celebrated futurist John Naisbitt wrote in his best-selling book "Megatrends Asia": "The pivotal players in the new global configuration of East and West will be Asians living in America and Asians born in America. Many Asian Americans are as comfortable in the Western world as they are in the Eastern. In the global village, Asian Americans, as well as Asians who are educated and have worked in America, will be a bridge between the East and the West."

So, Kohara, in his new assignment, unexpectedly found himself a key bridge-person. It was not exactly a traditional role for the traditional diplomat. Kohara, the author of an incisive book touting the evolution of a revolutionary East Asia community, would not seem aptly cast for the role. Well-schooled and cautious, he nonetheless found himself caught up in the West Coast swirl of Asia-Pacific cosmopolitanism.

Another friend of mine — Southern California entrepreneur Stephen Christopher Liu — uses an obvious truth (that Asian Americans are the country's fastest-growing minority) to tease out a related one: that, assuming trans-Pacific globalization proceeds apace, the need for bilingual Asian Americans in the job market will mushroom dramatically. This means Asians here in America are becoming very hot professional commodities. They will intensify the salience of those Naisbittian networks at the core of the growing and deepening West Coast/Asia-Pacific community.

What this comes down to is that Kohara and his boss Kodama have been, in their own ways, futurists in the Naisbitt and Liu spirit. Instead of playing the traditional boring diplomatic sherry-and-tea game with the usual closed-in elites, they have pushed themselves out onto the public arena of California and the West. They have revised traditional diplomacy to make it more public and less private.

This is to make it more open and more transparent, more tangible and more personal and more future-oriented. In the process, they have done their country and all Asian Americans a considerable service. It must be said, therefore, that Masa Kohara, who is returning to Tokyo for a new assignment, will be missed here. But for the true bridge-person, going back can also mean going forward — and never really ever leaving home.
UCLA professor Tom Plate, a member of the Asia Society of Southern California, is a veteran journalist and author, most recently, of "Confessions of an American Media Man." Copyright 2007 Tom Plate

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