Consul General to Chicago Talks about
a Life as a Diplomat
Interview with Kenichi Okada
• Kenichi Okada, 56, arrived in Chicago on October 14 to assume the
new position as the Consul-General of Japan.
• Q: Were you considering a career at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (“MOFA”) when you chose the Political Science course at Tokyo University’s Faculty of Law?
• Okada: I was always very interested in international affairs, and wanted
to work in the field of international politics, possibly as a researcher
or a college professor.
• Q: You went to Peking University just a year after you joined the Ministry. Why China?
• Okada: At junior high school, I studied Japanese history in the first
year, then Chinese history in the second year and world history in the
• Q: What was it like being in China in 1989?
• Okada: I arrived in the late August that year. The Tiananmen Incident
had just occurred in June. Beijing was still under martial law, and the
Red Army soldiers with guns were on the street everywhere, with their
fingers on the trigger. It was tense.
• Q: Was it hard to learn to speak Chinese properly?
• Okada: There are some sounds in Chinese that are not in Japanese pronunciation.
You have to train certain muscles in order to pronounce them, and that
was the hardest part for me. You know, the Chinese word “Japan” [Ri-ben]
is one of the hardest for us to pronounce.
• Q: After two years at Peking University, you then went to study at Harvard University (1991 – 1992).
• Okada: They have excellent Chinese studies programs at Harvard, and
I was supposed to get a master’s degree in one year. That was a great
pressure for me, on top of my inadequate English skills.
• Q: You studied Chinese history at Peking University and Harvard. How different did you feel are their views, in China and in the U.S.?
• Okada: In China, students memorize what the teacher teaches them, and
what’s to be taught is determined by the Party. There’s no room for free
discussions. That’s a stark contrast [to the classrooms in the U.S.].
It was a great opportunity for me to observe the difference.
• Q: Did you begin your diplomatic assignment right after Harvard?
• Okada: Yes, I was assigned to the Embassy in China in 1992. One of the most memorable events there was the Emperor’s visit to China. I was one of the underlings – the Ambassador’s secretary, translator, and record keeper all in one - but I learned a lot from the experience.
• Q: You returned to Tokyo in 1994 and served at the MOFA’s Economic Affairs Bureau.
• Okada: I was put in charge of the Trade Committee in the Bureau. We were in the middle of the U.S.-Japan trade friction, but in terms of security the relationship remained quite stable. Those two aspects of the U.S.-Japan relationship – economic issues and security issues – were two clearly separate matters. I thought it was an “adult” relationship.
• Q: At the end of 1995, you assumed the position of Deputy Director of the China Division, Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau. Could you describe Japan’s relationship with China back then?
• Okada: The following year, 1996, was said to be the worst year since
the 1972 normalization of the diplomatic ties between China and Japan.
• Q: Is diplomatic effort the gold standard in handling international relations?
• Okada: Yes, patience and persistence in diplomatic conversations are in the end the way to work out the bilateral relations. The Japan visit by then Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen was an example of such an effort.
• Q: In 1997, you were assigned as the Principal Deputy Director of the Ministry’s Secretariat, Protocol Office.
• Okada: It was the number-two position in the Protocol Office, which was charged with glamorous works such as handling state guests’ visits and the Emperor’s trip to overseas - you know, things that people typically imagine for a diplomat’s life.
• Q: Then your next assignment was at the Intelligence and Analysis Service in 1999.
• Okada: That was where all the intelligence information collected by the diplomatic missions abroad was analyzed. I was responsible for conducting analysis and then exchanging views with my counterparts in other countries.
• Q: In 2000, you were assigned to the Japanese Embassy in Washington, D.C. as the First Secretary.
• Okada: It was a good time in terms of the U.S.-Japan relationship.
Then President [George W.] Bush and then Prime Minister [Junichiro] Koizumi
were on good terms, and everybody – the State Department, the White House,
and the Department of Defense – was pretty nice to the Embassy staffers.
• Q: Your next assignment was at the Embassy in South Korea as Counselor from 2003 to 2006.
• Okada: Yes. My involvement in the North Korean issue continued during
that assignment. It also included the South Korea-China relationship,
and I occasionally visited the Chinese Embassy in Seoul to have a talk
[with Chinese officials] in Chinese.
• Q: From August 2006 to 2008, you were concurrently the Director of the Crisis Management Coordination Division, Minister’s Secretariat and Director of the Local Partnership Cooperation Division.
• Okada: While at the Crisis Management Coordination Division, I was charged with crisis management during the 2008 G8 Summit in Toya-ko, Hokkaido, and I stayed at the hotel there, keeping watch for two nights in a row without sleep.
• In August 2008, I became the Director, 3rd Division of the Intelligence and Analysis Service. My job was to analyze the Chinese and North Korean affairs. I often visited the U.S. capital to talk to the officials at the State Department and the Defense Department.
• Q: You were then transferred to the Foreign Nationals Affairs Division, Consular Affairs Bureau in August 2010 as Director.
• Okada: I was in charge of structuring the systems for visas and foreign workers. During this time, I oversaw the creation of new types of visas, such as the visa for medical stay and multiple-entry visa for visiting Okinawa (to promote tourism in Okinawa). It was a pretty interesting and creative job for me.
• Q: In August 2011, you went to Taiwan as the Secretary-General, Taiwan Office of the Japan Interchange Association.
• Okada: Taiwan supported us so much when the Great Earthquake and Tsunami hit Tohoku in 2011. It was just like the saying that says, “A friend in need is a friend indeed.” They were just that.
• Q: In August 2014, you became the Deputy Consul-General in Shanghai.
• Okada: I did my best to provide support to Japanese business people and their families in Shanghai. Specifically, helping Japanese schools there was our most important job, because their children’s education was one of their most serious concerns.
• Q: Any local conflicts in terms of operating business there?
• Okada: Conflicts are part of the everyday life. We provided as much
support as possible to Japanese businesses, such as calling and writing
to the local authorities when a problem arose.
• Q: From 2017 to earlier this year, you took on several concurrent positions: Deputy Assistant Minister, Crisis Management and Cyber Security; Deputy Assistant Minister, Consular Affairs Bureau; and Deputy Assistant Minister, Intelligence and Analysis Service.
• Okada: It was the pretty busy period for me; I had about five jobs at the same time.
• Q: The current U.S. administration is not a very predictable one. How difficult do you feel it might be to perform your duties as the Consul General?
• Okada: I don’t feel it will be difficult, because our best path is
[to seek] a win-win relationship with the U.S., considering Japan’s position
in the current global situation. So our goal is quite clear.
• Q: What can you tell us about your personal experiences
• Okada: In the early days at Harvard, I had a hard time getting used
to the new environment. Then, a friend from my Peking University days,
a Scottish American, invited me to his house in Chicago’s suburb for Christmas.
• Q: You achieved a feat of getting a master’s degree in one year [at Harvard]. Did you just study all the time?
• Okada: Well, I wanted to maximize the chance to experience America, so each time an exam was over, I ran to the travel agency and bought a ticket to travel around the U.S. I love to travel.
• Q: What are your memorable destinations in the U.S.?
• Okada: While I was working at the Embassy in Washington, D.C., I drove from Wisconsin to Kansas to [South] Dakota, following the footsteps of the Ingalls family from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “The Little House on the Prairie.” It was a great experience for me to see the American Midwest, outside of Washington, D.C., Boston, or the West Coast.
• Q: I understand that you love rock music, too.
• Okada: I used to listen to the “American Top 40” on the radio for hours
on end when I was in high school. I loved The Styx, a band from Chicago,
and Dan Fogelberg, sometimes called an American troubadour. He was a graduate
of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Those memories flooded
back to me when I received the Chicago assignment.
• Q: You visited the Port of Humanity Tsuruga Museum in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, before your Chicago assignment.
• Okada: Yes. It’s a place that displays the history of Tsuruga Port,
where the Jewish refugees arrived during World War II with transit visas
issued by [the Japanese diplomat] Chiune Sugihara.
• Q: Please tell us about your hobby.
• Okada: My hobby is tennis. I played it in junior high and high schools;
we trained pretty hard.
• Q: That’s a lovely episode. Lastly, please tell us what you hope to achieve in Chicago.
• Okada: My primary responsibility here is to ensure that all the necessary
services are provided to the Japanese people in the Chicagoland and the
10 states under our jurisdiction so that they can live, work and study
safely and without difficulty.
• Q: Thank you very much for your time.
Mr. Kenichi Okada, Consul General of Japan in Chicago