Opening photo: Even in a country often perceived as homogeneous and untouched by racial issues, thousands marched to protest in Tokyo, showcasing their outrage over the death of George Floyd, June 14, 2020. Photo by Eugene Hoshiko
By Thanh C. Kim
Mission Japan’s ongoing efforts toward promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion accelerated when current events presented opportunities to promote America’s core values abroad. Mission Japan champions these values by speaking up, showing up, and lifting up marginalized voices to lead through the power of example.
When the Black Lives Matter movement spread worldwide following the murder of George Floyd, Japan’s only public broadcaster, NHK, released an animated video, June 7, 2020, that completely missed the mark. The broadcaster portrayed African Americans as angry and poor and did not mention George Floyd, police brutality, or the fact that people of all races worldwide have marched in solidarity for justice.
Mission Japan’s Chargé d’Affaires Joe Young swiftly responded in a social media message, “…it’s unfortunate that more thought and care didn’t go into this video. The caricatures used are offensive and insensitive.”
Young’s Twitter message reached millions and was picked up by many prominent Japanese and Western outlets, including Kyodo, Reuters, The Washington Post, and many others. Due to the mounting criticism, NHK quickly pulled the video and issued a public apology.
Recognizing the need to speak up against racial injustice and showcase America’s diversity, Mission Japan continued to engage with the public to promote understanding of contemporary issues surrounding race and inequality in America.
In the first live-streamed webinar from all six post’s Facebook sites on Juneteenth (June 19), complete with simultaneous interpretation, the Mission invited an African-American studies professor and a renowned African-American journalist in Japan to discuss racial injustice in the United States and Japan. A survey conducted at the end of the event indicated that the program helped an overwhelming majority of participants better understand American society.
Through myriad outreach programs and media interviews, American diplomats throughout Japan demonstrate that the United States is honest about its issues, open to talking about them, and committed to doing better. Mission Japan continues to speak up against injustice, whether at home or abroad. Only by confronting these truths can the Mission be found credible when it speaks out against inequality in Japan.
Mission Japan also promotes equity through participation and representation. Consul General Andrew Lee and his team in northern Japan published an official statement in the program book for the September 2020 Sapporo Rainbow Pride march and then joined several local political leaders in the socially distanced march to demonstrate American solidarity for equal rights. The official statement and the consul general’s official participation—both significant firsts—highlighted U.S. support for the event.
“This was my first year participating in the Pride march, and I felt it was important to participate officially. I wanted to show that the U.S. consulate general supports the local community in Sapporo and that most certainly includes the local LGBTQI+ community,” said Lee on a Hokkaido LGBTQI+ radio show one week later.
In addition to supporting the LGBTQI+ community, Mission Japan continually strives for the greater inclusion of women in society. Year after year, Japan has repeatedly been ranked lowest of the G7 (Group of 7) countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report. In 2021, it placed 120 out of 156 countries.
In February 2021, Tokyo Organizing Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games President Mori Yoshihiro made international headlines when he opined that increasing women’s representation would prolong meetings because they talk too much. His apology was seen as insufficient, and public pressure, notably the resignations of Olympic volunteers and torch runners, ultimately pressed him to resign a week later. Hashimoto Seiko, a seven-time Olympian who was the cabinet-level minister for the Olympics, women’s empowerment, and gender equality, was named as his successor. Young met with her and expressed support for her appointment and advancement of women, including creating an Olympic Gender Equity Working Group in the first week of her new role.
The Mission further responded publicly with a full slate of programs and messages to celebrate Women’s History Month in March by honoring women and their many contributions to the United States, Japan, and the world. The Mission presented the first Mission Japan Woman of Courage Award to Tokushima Mayor Naito Sawako, the youngest female mayor in Japan. Naito, joined by other leading experts and a virtual audience of 400 countrywide, discussed the obstacles women face when pursuing political office and how to break down those barriers.
The extent of the challenges facing women in Japanese society is most evident when talking to youth. During a student outreach program, Embassy Tokyo’s Information Programs Center Assistant Raquel Diaz Dominguez was speaking about her background as an electronic engineer and her love for math and science when a female student said, “We were told that girls are not as smart as boys…and since we will only take care of the house, it’s okay that we are not good at math or science.”
Frustrated by what she heard, Diaz Dominguez responded, “You can be anything. You can be an astronaut, an inventor, a director—whatever you want to be, and nobody should ever tell you that you can’t do it.”
Inspired by Diaz Dominguez, the student stated after the event that she wanted to be a leader. Diaz Dominguez donated a NASA poster of Women of Color: Pioneers & Innovators to the classroom to serve as daily motivation for girls to follow their dreams and for boys to see women in a professional setting.
Mission Japan’s efforts to promote disability awareness and accessibility for all are equally robust. In a country where accommodation and accessibility measures are limited, achieving social, economic, and political inclusion can be quite challenging for individuals with disabilities, and greater advocacy is needed.
In celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Mission launched an eight-month campaign throughout 2020, including several countrywide programs, videos, and a month-long social media campaign featuring photos of staff holding their personal ADA pledges.
In southern Japan, Consulate General Naha’s Public Affairs Officer Richard Roberts and his team worked with the Okinawa Global Deaf Network to launch the Department’s first American Sign Language class for Japanese Sign Language (JSL) users. The Mission has also committed to ensuring its public programs offer accessibility accommodations like JSL interpretation and live captioning.
American View, the Mission’s online magazine, is another platform to elevate underrepresented voices. In addition to ShareAmerica content, it regularly features articles to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion, written by Mission staff and family members. For example, eligible family member Uyanga Erdenebold has written about her past experience studying in America and her current experience using a guide dog in Japan.
Uyanga is a member of the Mission’s new Council on Diversity and Inclusion (CDI), which is both active and action oriented. Since its inception, CDI has hosted numerous programs on unconscious bias, disability awareness, and “Black Lives Matter 101,” as well as listening sessions on the storming of the Capitol and the mass shooting in Atlanta. CDI also closely works with Mission leadership to ensure fairness and transparency in the bidding and recruitment process. It now serves as a resource for more than a dozen other CDIs globally. Although there is still a long way to go, Mission Japan is committed to breaking down conventional norms toward greater diversity, equity, and inclusion through modeling leadership and being better allies.
Minister Counselor for Public Affairs Carolyn Glassman, who leads a team of more than 70, stated, “The fight for equity and inclusion is not a new one. I’ve seen it throughout my 26 years of serving in the Foreign Service, but I have never been more enthralled and inspired than now by the incredible people in Mission Japan, who are taking on these initiatives to drive real change both within the Mission and in Japanese society.”
Thanh C. Kim is a public diplomacy officer in Embassy Tokyo’s Public Affairs Section.