Chicago Shimpo
Back to Main
New Consul General Arrives in Chicago:
Interview with Naoki Ito

• Naoki Ito, who assumed the position as Consul General of Japan in Chicago late February, has been a career diplomat since 1984. Born in November 1960 in Tokyo, Ito joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs upon graduation from the prestigious Tokyo University’s Department of Law.

• Q: Why did you choose a career with the Foreign Ministry?

• Ito: While in college, I traveled overseas for the first time in my life; I went to Singapore, took the train and bus to Malaysia and Thailand, and then stopped in Hong Kong before coming home. It was 1980, and Southeast Asia back then wasn’t like what it is today at all – World War II was still casting its shadow on its relationship with Japan. As I saw with my own eyes how Japan was viewed by the people there, I started to think that it would be interesting to have a career in foreign relations, specifically with Asia. That’s one of the reasons why I chose to work for the Foreign Ministry.

• Q: You also studied at Cambridge University.

• Ito: The Ministry sent me there, to study international law and international relations for two years. After that, I was assigned to the Japanese Embassy in London for almost two years.
• During that time, I witnessed Prime Minister Thatcher’s speech to the British Parliament to commemorate the 10th anniversary of her premiership. That was quite impressive and a good learning opportunity for me. Then I returned to Tokyo in May 1989.

• Q: Then you went back to the Japanese Embassy in London again from 2011 to 2014, this time as the Minister. How did things change?

• Ito: Unfortunately, relatively speaking, I think the U.K.’s international standing has gone down. I think that the U.K. government still maintains the belief that the country’s international presence is enhanced by getting along well with the United States.
• Then, they saw a surge of parliament members who are skeptical of the EU, and the Cameron administration was forced to resort to a national referendum [on Brexit]. That brought an unexpected result of getting out of the EU. I think that was the transitional period for the British diplomacy.

• While I was there, the Emperor and Empress of Japan came to visit for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012. There were coincidentally the Olympic Games. It was interesting to observe the British diplomacy at work, using the Games as “soft power,” as well as the way the Games were carried out as collaborative events by the government and citizen volunteers.
• In 2013, we had a G-8 Summit in Northern Ireland. It was an opportunity for the U.K. to show that Northern Ireland, which had seen much political turmoil and terrorism, was now politically stabilized and a safe place to host international meetings like the G-8 summit.

• The summit made me consider a plan to establish a new economic tie with Northern Ireland, so I solicited cooperation from Japanese business people in London. There were about five Japanese companies that had invested in Northern Ireland then, but not many business people were visiting there. So I asked people from the Japan Chamber of Commerce in London to visit Northern Ireland, along with the Japanese Ambassador, to evaluate the investment potential. That didn’t immediately lead to any new investment, but after that the prime minister of Northern Ireland visited Japan.

• Q: What do you think of the Japan-U.K. relationship today?

• Ito: I think it’s a very mature relationship. The current focus is on national security. The so-called “2 plus 2” talks, between the foreign minister and the defense minister from each side, have begun, so the mutual cooperation structure is being constructed rapidly.
• Another point is Japanese direct investment in the U.K. While I was over there, Britain was Japan’s second largest investment destination after the United States, with large-scale projects such as Hitachi’s railway car plant construction and Dentsu’s PR company purchase.
• British expectation on Japanese corporations has been high. Prime Minister Cameron once invited some top executives of the Japanese corporations in London to his official residence. Such meeting is rare in the U.K., so that shows how important the country thinks Japanese investment is for them and such investment is seen to have a great potential to grow further.

• Also, I think the food over there has improved a lot in the past 30 years. They might want to be out of the EU because they believe that immigrants are taking away jobs from them, the fact is that the British cuisine has gained a great variety thanks to the immigrants. The choice used to be either fish and chips that you could get from street vendors, or Indian food or Chinese food. Now there’s more variety, more competition, and the food has become much tastier overall. The number of Japanese restaurants also increased. When a country is open to immigrants, it gains diversity, and that enriches one’s life. I feel it’s a shame to throw that away by getting out of the EU.

• Q: Let me go back to 1999 - you were working at the Embassy in Myanmar then.

• Ito: That’s a wonderful country with a lot of growth potential. Back then it was more “closed” under the military regime and there were a lot of restrictions. The average per capita income was around $100, and not many countries were providing aid – perhaps Japan was the only country that was engaged in bilateral assistance at that time.
• People in Myanmar are very diligent, and quite friendly to Japan. A lot of Japanese who visit Myanmar fall in love with it.
• Myanmar is a country that makes foreign visitors – be they may company expatriates or diplomats – want to do something, to try hard, to make it wealthier, better, with its countrymen. Naturally there were limits to what you could do under the military regime, but still, people from the Japanese companies were doing their best. Today, they have more business chances in that country, and there is more competition.
• I was previously with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). Now that the military regime is gone, that agency is involved in building industrial parks, infrastructure, etc. in Myanmar. When I was over there, things weren’t moving that far, so the people who worked there back then still share the sense of camaraderie, I believe.

• Q: Then, in 2001, you were assigned to the Permanent Mission of Japan to the United Nations in New York.

• Ito: Yes, I arrived there at the end of August 2001. When I was looking for a place to live, the 9-11 terrorist attacks struck. I hurried to my office and there I was informed that a plane crashed into the World Trade Center building.

• That was the opening day of the UN General Assembly. During the opening ceremony, they usually ring the “Peace Bell,” a gift from Japan. There were the Japanese ambassador and guests from Japan, along with the UN Secretary General, for the ceremony.
• The terrorist attacks occurred just when the opening ceremony was to begin, and that cancelled everything. It was November that year when the General Assembly was finally able to reconvene to discuss matters as previously scheduled.

• Q: What did you do after that?

• Ito: I assisted in overall operation of the UN General Assembly. The counter terrorism measures and how to coordinate a broad international cooperation were the heavily discussed topic. At the opening of the new century, people were thinking a lot about international cooperation and multilateralism. We also discussed the issues of reforming the UN to keep itself up to date and boosting the UN finance as well.
• One of the tasks I focused on was the issue of “human security.” Following the proposal of Ms. Sadako Ogata, Japan initiated the creation of the Commission of Human Security in the UN. I also assisted in allocating the UN Trust Fund for Human Security to various international organizations.

• Q: In June 2003, you assumed the position of Director, Second Southeast Asia Division of the Foreign Ministry, and then Director, Northeast Asia Division (Korean Peninsula) in December that year. Shortly after that, in May 2004, Prime Minister Koizumi made a visit to North Korea, which made a big push in the abduction [of Japanese citizens by North Korea] issue. What can you tell us about it?

• Ito: I accompanied Mr. Koizumi on his second North Korea visit (in 2004). This visit resulted in the return of some of the Japanese abductees, including the children of the Chimura family and the Hasuike family. Normally, when a prime minister travels abroad, the party uses two planes, the second one being an extra for contingencies. After the visit, we brought the released abductees with us back home, using the extra plane. We were pretty nervous.
• Following that, I assisted the reunion of former abductee, Hitomi Soga, with her American husband, Charles Jenkins, who was allowed to leave North Korea and traveled to Jakarta.

• Q: Did you directly negotiate with the North Korean government?

• Ito: They are such a difficult negotiation counterpart. At that time, the Six-Party Talks [among South Korea, North Korea, Japan, the U.S., China and Russia] were being held; Mr. Koizumi visited North Korea while those talks were going on. That meant that we could directly talk to North Korea in the talks and move things step by step.
• Recently, they have launched missiles, while it’s said that they are preparing for another nuclear test. So we must seek further cooperation between Japan, South Korea and the U.S. for safety and peace in East Asia, as well as more involvement and contribution from China.

• Q: Can the abduction issue be solved?

• Ito: The Japanese government must move with determination for the release of all the surviving abductees. That is a highly critical issue to clear in our relationship with North Korea. It is absolutely necessary for us to work for a comprehensive solution for the abduction issue, nuclear weapons issue, and missile issue.

• Q: You were with the Foreign Ministry’s International Cooperation Bureau in 2006 as Director of the Strategic Planning Division. What were you responsible for?

• Ito: The International Cooperation Bureau is charged with formulating international aid policies. Then the JICA will carry them out. I was responsible for proposing ODA (Official Development Assistance) policies and strategies. I was also involved in the 2008 G-8 Summit in Toyako, Hokkaido, as well as the Tokyo International Conference on African Development.

• Q: Is Japan actively supporting the developing countries?

• Ito: Well, we were once the world’s top aid provider. Now we are No. 4 or No. 5 in the world.
• Japan quickly grew since the Meiji Restoration, adopting the open market system, and there are a lot of countries that view Japan as a model for their economic development and growth. So, it’s critical to assist those countries, as well as to cultivate an environment for Japanese business operation and cooperation.
• Specifically, I think Japanese assistance played an important role in the advancement of the Southeast Asian nations, where the infrastructure and human resources development have been working hand in hand.
• The Japanese government’s foreign aid practice consists of three focal points: infrastructure development; achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals set by the UN; and promotion of peace through projects based on the policy of “Proactive Contribution to Peace.” The JICA follows these principles in conducting its foreign aid activities.

• Q: You were the Minister at the Embassy of Japan in India from 2008 to 2011. How did you like it there?

• Ito: The living environment in India is not easy, and its people and religions are so diverse.
• In India, it seems to us that things don’t move fast, but it doesn’t mean they don’t move at all. You have to prepare, coordinate, negotiate and so on in order to have things done there.
• Japanese companies have had a hard time in India – particularly in the ‘90s. In the late 2000s, more companies began taking up a challenge to do business in India. The Japanese government is increasing the level of support accordingly. Currently, projects such as infrastructure development and a bullet train plan are underway in India with the help from the JICA.

• Infrastructure in India has yet to be improved further. In the residential area in Delhi where I lived, we had tap water available only for two hours in the morning and afternoon each. So we had to save water in the tank in the basement, and when it ran short, we would buy water from the water truck that would come around. So water supply, road conditions, and the power supply – those were an issue.

• Human behaviors and habits are quite different from one nation to another, and the differences affect our way of social interaction. It’s important that we understand cultural differences, particularly when we are to live in that country and do business there. Such understanding also helps us enjoy our living in that country.

• Speaking of enjoying living in a foreign country, I believe that it makes a huge difference whether or not you can find any local food that you really love.
• When I was in India, my favorite was a dish called masala dosa - curry-flavored potatoes wrapped with a kind of wheat pancake. When I visited Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Prime Minister of Gujarat at that time) with other diplomats, he served us masala dosa for lunch, and I loved it.

• Q: The East Japan Great Earthquake hit Japan while you were assigned to India.

• Ito: I was in Christchurch, New Zealand when that happened – helping the staff there after the earthquake hit the city in February that year (28 Japanese citizens were among the victims).
• People in India showed us a heartfelt display of their sympathy immediately after the 3-11 disaster, sending us numerous mails of condolences, and holding a large-scale vigil in front of the Japanese Embassy and so on. I really appreciated their quick display of compassion.

• Q: I understand that you are fluent in English. What is your method of English learning?

• Ito: Nothing special – perhaps studying at a British university was a big help. And I have always read the newspaper sports page in order to learn new vocabulary.
• When I was in Britain, while reading the sports page, I would often run into unfamiliar phrases and expressions, sometimes headlines taken from famous Shakespeare lines, and that’s a great way to learn new words. Watching TV helps, too.

• Q: Do you have hobbies?

• Ito: I played soccer and football when I was in college. I also play golf on my overseas assignment, wherever I can.
• The Chicago Bears were doing pretty well when I was playing football; they won the 1985 Super Bowl. So I would love to go watch them play here. As for baseball, I’ve been a Yomiuri Giants’ fan for the past 50 years. I’m excited that Koji Uehara has joined the Chicago Cubs.
• I’m also a music fan. I visited the Metropolitan Opera when I was in New York; while at Cambridge, I went to Riccardo Muti’s London concert for three days in a row. I heard that Mr. Takaoki Onishi sings at Lyric Opera and I am looking forward to seeing his performance.
• I have a wife and two children, but at this time I’m here alone.

• Q: Lastly, please tell us what you’d hope to achieve while you are in Chicago.

• Ito: I believe it’s my utmost duty to do my best to serve the approximately 33,000 Japanese residents within the 10 states in our jurisdiction, to assure their safety and security.
• In addition, I’d like to participate in as many local events and festivals as possible, and visit the 10 states at an earliest opportunity to see Japanese investors, governors, state officials and other local people face to face.
• With the new Trump administration and its impact on the Midwest in mind, I would keep a close eye on any changes in and impacts on the Japanese residents in the region, so that I would be able to provide information quickly to assist Japanese businesses and investment interest.
• I have a strong respect for the Japanese Americans in the Midwest, many of whom, I understand, have been successful in business and social services. Through communication with them, I’d like to think what we could do to help them make stronger presence in the American society.
• This year is the Consulate General in Chicago’s 120th anniversary. I believe it’s a pivotal year for us to strengthen our relationship with all the Japanese residents and Japanese Americans in the region.

• Q: Thank you very much.


Naoki Ito, Consul General of Japan in Chicago