Chicago Shimpo
New 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.
• A native of Osaka, Okada began his career with Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in April 1988 upon graduating from the prestigious Tokyo University Faculty of Law. He has been climbing the ladder of diplomatic career without interruptions ever since.
• A strong interest in international politics and diplomacy led Okada to a life as a diplomat, with specific interest in China and its history. His ability to focus on the task at hand helped him to master the Chinese language in a short time at Peking University and obtain a master’s degree at Harvard in one year.
• The same passion and drive has always been part of his personal life; he dedicated a significant portion of his time playing tennis in junior high and high schools. He is also an avid American rock music fan, who wouldn’t miss a chance to go to a must-see concert as soon as he has set a foot in the U.S.
• Okada answered the Chicago Shimpo’s questions during a one-on-one interview.

********************************************************************************

• 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.
• During my senior year, I chose a career in diplomacy because I had a strong desire to be on the front line, where things are actually happening.

• 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 third.
• When studying Chinese history, my teacher – whose specialty was Chinese affairs – recommended me to read Yasushi Inoue’s books, such as “Tenpyo no iraka” and “Roran” [both historical novels based in China and Central Asia]. That’s how I first became interested in China.
• I was also interested in communism and socialism; when I was in high school I subscribed to “Konnichi no sorenpo” [“USSR Today”], a monthly publication for the Japanese readers issued by the Soviet Embassy in Japan.
• As a diplomat, I wanted to be assigned to somewhere challenging, with ongoing issues to solve – that would mean the U.S., Russia or China. I chose China, with my ongoing interest and a learning opportunity for another language.

• 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.
• The economy was in a rapid decline, and China experts across the world were saying that China would collapse within five years.
• I took courses on the history of Chinese Communist Party at the University. The problem was, I couldn’t understand Chinese much at all – I started studying it only after I joined the Ministry. So it was extremely difficult in the beginning, but we Japanese have an advantage; we share the Chinese characters [kanji] and idioms that we recognize, so we have a head start over western students, for instance.

• 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.
• I was able to serve as a translator for the Japanese team at the 1990 Asian Games, which was held in Beijing in September. I could do that in one year, thanks, in part, to that advantage I mentioned.

• 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.
• I was hoping to improve my English while I was there, but I had more chances to speak Chinese with many Chinese-speaking students than to speak English.

• 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.
• I took the TOEFL test while in China, and applied to a number of universities in the U.S. I was pretty lucky that Harvard accepted me.

• 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.
• Then Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto visited the Yasukuni Shrine for the first time in 10 years as the sitting prime minister; China launched a missile to Taiwan, causing the so-called Taiwan Crisis; Chinese activists heightened their campaign against Japan’s control of the Senkaku Islands and one of them was drowned in the sea.
• I was specifically responsible for the issues involving Taiwan and historical disputes, so those were the hard days.

• 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.
• My primary focus during this period was the U.S.-China relations, but my responsibilities also included the North Korean issue, issues of arms reduction and nonproliferation.
• While I was there, then U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jim Kelly visited North Korea in October 2002. That’s when it was revealed that North Korea had nuclear weapons, and that was the beginning of the North Korean issue that continues today.

• 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.
• The relationship between South Korea and Japan was pretty good at that time, what with the “Korean Boom” in Japan and the 2002 Japan/South Korea joint soccer World Cup games. I hope we will be like that again.

• 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.
• Basically, you follow the Chinese domestic laws and regulations [in disputes]. There are times, though, when you have to assert to the authorities in support of the Japanese businesses, articulating what we think should happen if their law is to be followed properly.

• 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.
• It’s our benefit if we can make America see that Japan is a trustworthy, helpful partner. Furthermore, it’s apparent that a strong U.S.-Japan alliance leads to stability in the Asia-Pacific region.

• Q: What can you tell us about your personal experiences in America?

• 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.
• His entire family welcomed me to their home, and I felt like I was let in and touched the heart of America. So I have a warm memory of Chicago and the Midwest.

• 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.
• I knew that Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band (another of my favorites) were touring and their last concert was in Chicago on October 19. So I bought a ticket before leaving Japan, and went to the concert right after my arrival here. Bob is 74 now, but he gave us a superb performance. It was such a wonderful concert it made me cry.
• I also love classic music; I was familiar with the Chicago Symphony in Japan. I was like, “All right!” when I was told to go to Chicago.

• 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.
• The party of Tsuruga Mayor Takanobu Fuchikami visited the U.S. from October 14 to 20 and stopped in Chicago on the 16th. They visited the Holocaust Museum here and met with Mr. Leo Melamed and other Jewish community members to talk about the Holocaust history. It was a mission to collect more Jewish-related artifacts and stories for the museum expansion, so it has a historical significance. The museum is something we can be proud of, and I hope we can be of help.

• 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.
• A rival of mine back then, who is now the president of an apparel company, took my measurement himself and made two suits for me. (I could never beat him in tennis.)

• 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.
• I also hope to assist in promoting furtherance of the U.S.-Japan ties through a variety of exchange activities based on culture, grassroots, sister-city relationship and sports. Assistance in the economic activities – to help Japanese businesses in the area – is, of course, a critical part of our duties.
• I am aware of the history of Japanese Americans and the hardship they have endured, and I want to visit their cemetery in Chicago very soon.
• I hope to be of help for the Japanese-American community, so please don’t hesitate to contact me.

• Q: Thank you very much for your time.


Mr. Kenichi Okada, Consul General of Japan in Chicago