OCC dean shares experiences of recent trip to Japan

By: Sherri Kolade | Farmington Press | Published February 3, 2016


FARMINGTON HILLS — Henry Tanaka, academic dean of art, design and humanities at Oakland Community College, recently took the trip of a lifetime to Japan.

“This first visit to Japan for me was an amazing personal experience. I was brought up in post-World War II, and growing up, my Japanese heritage was an important factor,” Tanaka said in a press release.

As a fourth-generation Japanese-American, Tanaka said connecting with his cultural roots, among other things, was a highlight of the trip.

In December, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan hosted a delegation of Asian-Americans who traveled to Japan for eight days. The group included Tanaka. 

The visit was to strengthen and encourage global relations and cultural understanding, and to prepare for potential policy and business ventures, according to a press release. 

The delegation met with Japanese leaders who work in the fields of business, government, academia and culture. Each delegate represented a number of U.S. geographies, backgrounds and careers. Tanaka was the only Japanese-American in the delegation, according to the press release.

The MOFA program resulted from a 2014 meeting between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe. The trip was planned to become an annual event; Tanaka’s group represented the second visit to Japan since the program’s inception.

Inside Tanaka’s office at the Orchard Ridge Campus of OCC are educational knickknacks, pictures and traces of his heritage, including an intricately designed obi, or kimono sash, hanging by his office door.

Tanaka said the trip to Japan was needed because although Japan has a strong business presence in Detroit, and there are about 500 Japanese companies in Michigan, there is not a lot of fanfare.

“Japan is leading foreign business ... and those companies create around 40,000 job opportunities in this area,” he said. “The recognition is very small. So in addition to the empowerment of the Japanese community, we try to make ... very good PR to the people in this area: Japanese are very good (business) partners and friends.” 

The delegation learned of many geopolitical issues and the current U.S.-Japan relationship, and had meetings with representatives of government, business and academia, according to a press release.

The group took bullet trains to Tokyo, Hiroshima and Kyoto. They also visited temples, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, the Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion), the Meiji Shrine, the Theatre of Traditional Japanese Performing Arts, and other historic and cultural sites, according to a press release.

“We were shown tremendous respect and graciousness by everyone we encountered, including dignitaries and the people of Japan,” Tanaka said in a press release.

As a former commissioner on the Michigan Asian Pacific American Affairs Commission, Tanaka said the group reached out to the Japanese-American community, and while there are people from Japan living here, central to Novi, there is not a strong Japanese-American base.

“There is a dwindling population here,” Tanaka said. “Japanese-American (people) used to be a strong area (here).”

Gov. Rick Snyder appointed Tanaka to the commission about three years ago.

Tanaka said he grew up in post-World War II America in the ’50s and ’60s in the South, where there were no “Asians, particularly.” Tanaka and his family traveled between Houston, Tampa and Louisiana for his father’s wrestling career.  

“There were black and white drinking fountains, and I didn’t know which one to go to,” Tanaka said. 

Tanaka said that during the trip, he learned that there is still a lot of uninhabitable land in Japan after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and some people are nervous to eat the food because of radiation from a nuclear plant that was hit.

“Right now, they are doing rigorous testing on the food to make sure it is fine and quell rumors, and everybody is scared to eat it on the West Coast,” he said.

From learning about the country dealing with an aging population and a decreasing census count, to a low crime rate and “just fields of skyscrapers,” Tanaka said the trip was eye opening.

“It was an honor for the Japanese government to reach out to all of us on the delegation. During the trip, their leaders spoke about the geopolitical environment and international dynamics,” he said in a press release. “It is important to understand there is great interconnection of all countries worldwide related to political and social issues, as well as trade.”

 Ryoji Noda, of the Consulate-General of Japan in Detroit, assisted in helping Tanaka take the trip to Japan. He said recently in a phone interview that the trip was much needed, and that he hopes it will bolster the 500 or so Japanese businesses in metro Detroit.

“Japan is a leading foreign investor in Michigan,” he said in an emailed statement. “There are 27 sister cities between Japan and Michigan, in addition to (the) Michigan-Shiga state-level relationship. There are about 13,000 Japanese nationals in Michigan. The bilateral relationship looks like (it is) better than ever.”

He added that Tanaka is one of the core figures promoting not only Japan and the United States, but Japan and other countries’ relations in Michigan. 

The trip marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in 1945.