By GWEN MURANAKA and MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Staff Writers
More than 35 years after he was a student at USC, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned to Los Angeles, where he was received warmly at several stops during his one-day visit.
Abe attended a reception at the Japanese American National Museum on Friday evening, along with scores of dignitaries from the L.A. Nikkei community.
Prior to the reception, Abe placed a flowered wreath at the nearby Go For Broke Monument. As May Day marchers worked their way westward on Temple Street with blaring music and banging drums, the Japanese leader solemnly bowed in reverence to American soldiers who played a key role in his nation’s defeat in World War II.
“It’s really quite a surprise to meet him in person,” said Isao Hasama, who served with the Military Intelligence Service and was stationed in Japan during the post-war occupation. “I’m very glad that he came, because I think it makes a good impression about Japan and the United States after the war. If we get along like this, maybe there won’t be so much antagonism.”
Tokuji Yoshihashi, who served in the famed 100th Infantry Battalion, was equally impressed with the event, one he’d never thought possible.
“My dad’s relatives in Japan were in the military – just for the other side,” Yoshihashi explained. “You know, we all fight for what we believe in, and I was loyal and willing to fight for my country, the U.S.”
In an address earlier in the day to approximately 700 attendees of a luncheon at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel, Abe highlighted the strong ties between Los Angeles and Japan, as well as his own personal connection. He pointed out that many things that haven’t changed since the years he studied public policy at USC.
“The uniforms for the Highway Patrol are the same, the governor is the same governor,” Abe joked, referring to the fact that Gov. Jerry Brown was also governor in the late 1970s. “Another thing that hasn’t changed is the blue sky above you and the hospitality of the citizens and the kindness extended to unknown visitors.”
Abe also noted that his grandfather, the late Prime Minister Nobusuki Kishi, stayed at the Biltmore in 1957 during a trip to the United States.
Abe was on the last leg of a trip to the U.S. highlighted by a summit meeting with President Obama and a speech before a joint session of Congress — a first by a Japanese prime minister. In Northern California, Abe visited Silicon Valley and San Francisco. During his Biltmore address, he touted economic growth that has come during his tenure.
The prime minister proclaimed that Los Angeles is home to the largest number of Japanese firms in North America.
“This represents the depth of the bilateral economic relationship and the resurgence of the Japanese economy, which Abenomics has developed,” Abe stated.
The luncheon was co-hosted by the Japan America Society of Southern California, Los Angeles World Affairs Council, and Consulate General of Japan in Los Angeles.
The event was held amid tight security as more than 300 protesters gathered in Pershing Square and outside the hotel to demand that Abe apologize for the treatment of comfort women during World War II.
Carrying signs, the protesters chanted, “Abe! Abe! Apologize!” and briefly blocked traffic on Grand Avenue.
Stella Yen, representing a university alumni association from Taiwan, expressed disappointment that Abe didn’t apologize during his speech to Congress.
“I’m here because I think not just the Chinese, the whole world deserves to know the truth,” she said. “I believe what Abe is doing is wrong, not just injustice to the world but also to the younger generation. They need to know the truth.”
Phil Shigekuni, a member of the San Fernando Valley JACL, spoke to the gathering at Pershing Square about redress and its positive impact on Japanese Americans. In January 2014, the SFV JACL adopted a resolution in support of a comfort women memorial in Glendale.
“It’s important that we as a community call for an apology,” Shigekuni said.
Doug Erber, Japan America Society executive director, said the protests outside the event were an example of the diverse points of view in the United States. He said that the prime minister had been briefed about the protests at the airport.
“He said that’s why America is a great country, they can talk and express themselves freely,” Erber said.
“I understand (the protesters’) concerns. That’s not our job here today. Our job is to promote people-to-people relations and the strong alliance between the United States and Japan,” Erber stated. “Things that happened 70 years ago were terrible, but Japan has apologized on several occasions and the prime minister apologized again, he showed contrition at the joint Senate and House meeting. There will always be people who are unhappy no matter what Japan does.”
Joining Abe and his wife, Akie, at the head table were U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy, Mayor Eric Garcetti and Consul General Harry Horinouchi, as well as Peter O’Malley, former owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Abe noted the Dodgers’ role in introducing Japanese baseball to the U.S.
“It was the Los Angeles Dodgers which accepted a Japanese professional baseball player,” he said. “In fact, Mr. (Hideo) Nomo, who was such a good player with the Dodgers, he is a legend himself.”
Abe announced that Los Angeles has been selected as one of three cities worldwide that will host a Japan House, a center that will provide a showcase for Japanese culture.
“The government of Japan is leading an initiative to set up Japan Houses around the world. The theme is to send out messages about Japan’s viewpoints and charm, and to expand the number of people who have good knowledge about Japan,” he said.
Many Japanese Americans attended the conference, which also featured a business seminar organized by JETRO (Japan External Trade Organization). The prime minister expressed his gratitude to Japanese Americans for their role in improving U.S.-Japan relations.
“We have a large number of Japanese Americans in the audience. So I would like to take this opportunity to express my sincere gratitude to those Japanese Americans who make tremendous efforts to recover American confidence in Japan,” said Abe.
At the end of the program, Nisei Week Queen Tori Nishinaka-Leon presented Akie Abe with a bouquet of flowers.
Afterwards, Nishinaka-Leon said she has reflected on her Japanese heritage during her year as Nisei Week queen. The Nisei Week Court visited Nagoya, Los Angeles’ sister city.
“I always felt very Japanese, but when we went to Japan, I realized that we have maintained our Japanese culture but we are uniquely Japanese American,” Nishinaka-Leon said. “And I feel like that’s really celebrated, especially from Nisei Week. We celebrate who we are but we still stay connected with Japan, which is what’s important about these relationships.”
Paul Abe, a member of the Go For Broke National Education Foundation board, praised the prime minister’s address and pointed out his own connection to the leader of Japan, one that goes back to their days at USC. On Friday, Abe was able to meet the prime minister again after over 30 years.
“My Japanese name is Kenzo, so I am Abe Kenzo, and he is Abe Shinzo. A mutual friend said, ‘I want you to meet my friend because his name is almost the same as yours,’” Abe said. “He’s doing very great and progressive things in Japan, especially getting the women in the workforce. He’s taking a lot of action due to Abenomics that is helping the economy with the weakening of the yen,” Abe said.
Grace Shiba, representing the USC Asian Pacific Alumni Association and Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Southern California, welcomed the prime minister’s visit.
“We’re very excited as Trojans to witness the first time this century that a prime minister comes to Los Angeles,” Shiba said. “For the prime minister to come to L.A. says a lot about our heritage and culture.”
Her father, Paul Kunio Shiba, a Kibei Nisei, was so moved by Abe’s visit that he penned a poem (below.)
“He’s doing a great job,” Paul Shiba said.
With the Prime Minister’s visit,
U.S.-Japan kizuna is stronger than ever
Washington and Japan, in a brighter place
–Paul Kunio Shiba