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A Missionary for 'Civilian Diplomacy'

Part 1 of 5

From the Nihon Keizai Shimbun (unofficial translation)
By: Tsuyoshi Sunora
Published: May 14, 2007


Nihon Keizai Shimbun 06/07The Shimoda Conferences, the US-Japan Parliamentary Exchange Program, the Trilateral Commission—standing at the helm of these and other foreign exchange programs that shaped Japan's postwar internationalization you will find Tadashi Yamamoto (71), president of the Japan Center for International Exchange (JCIE). Even today, the name "Tadashi Yamamoto" is known around the world as a bridge that connects the political and financial communities of Japan with their counterparts in the United States, Europe, and Asia.

My father worked for a trading company and so I first lived abroad when I was an infant, before I was even aware of my surroundings. I was born in March 1936 in Kobe, and a few months later I was off to Hong Kong. After that, we moved to Bombay (now Mumbai), India, where I lived until the age of three. After that, as the sound of military boots grew stronger, my mother left my father behind and returned to Kobe with her five children.

After the war, I graduated from Rokko Junior and Senior High Schools, which were founded by the Jesuits. I was deeply influenced by Christianity, and my intention was to continue on that route to become a priest. For university, I chose another Jesuit institution, Jochi (Sophia) University, where I studied philosophy in the faculty of humanities.

Yamamoto was aspiring to follow in the footsteps of his older brother, who had entered the priesthood (and who would later become the president of Jochi University), when he encountered the first turning point in his life. He decided to study abroad, attending St. Norbert College, a Catholic university located in the state of Wisconsin in the United States.

Tadashi Yamamoto
Tadashi Yamamoto
Until I studied abroad, I had been a normal student studying the liberal arts. I went to the United States at a time when John F. Kennedy was running for president and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was leading the civil rights movement. I had a lot of friends at the time who participated in the Peace Corps, volunteering to aid those in developing countries as John F. Kennedy was advocating, and I was quite jealous of them.

Once, I was working as a student waiter at a dining hall on campus that became the focus of the country's attention. At the time, in Wisconsin, the future of dairy farming was a key issue in the presidential campaign. Kennedy, who was the first strong Catholic presidential candidate, chose to visit my university and had lunch at the dining hall where I was a waiter.

As I approached his table nervously, he spoke to me in his characteristically high-pitched voice, saying, "Excuse me, but could I please have a glass of milk?"

I am not sure to this date whether he really was thirsty for milk or if it was a political act, but I was deeply impressed by the relaxed way in which he spoke with me. Having these types of experiences, I decided to extend my study in the United States. I passed the entrance exam for another Jesuit university and went there for two years to study business.

Having had the opportunity to see firsthand such great historical figures as President Kennedy and Reverend King, Yamamoto was deeply inspired by the social movement, including the civil rights movement. The object of his interest also began to widen from the closed world of theology to the broader world around him.

There was a dramatic change occurring in the Catholic world at that time as well. The Vatican Council had been held and it set off a movement to make the Church more free and open. As if connected, I also began to feel strongly that, rather than just being a religion that values the commandments, couldn't the Catholic Church contribute to more universal values of love and community? I was baptized in American-style "liberal activism," so to speak.

Having seen the path that I wanted to follow, I decided to return to Japan. That was in the late spring of 1962.

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