Heart Aflame: Reflections from Past and Present Japan

I had just booked a flight to return to Japan for the first time in 34 years.

I felt sheer jubilation.

I blared an Eddie Money song on repeat, belting out the chorus in my kitchen:

I want to go back and do it all over, but I can’t go back I know

I’d been dreaming about returning to Tokyo for years. I wanted to go back and see with fresh eyes the country that had shaped my education, marriage and family. 

I longed to see the legendary Anri, who was touring again across Japan, perform live on stage and thank her for the opportunity to tour with her in the late 80s. 

I wanted to tell her face-to-face how that incredible experience – not to mention the full immersion into Japanese language, work and culture — changed the trajectory of my life, career and education. How it’s fueling my passion today to educate friends, family and fellow Tennesseans about this special country and its role in our state. (Did you know more than 200 Japanese companies have collectively invested more than $21 billion dollars in Tennessee and currently employ more than 60-thousand Tennesseans?)

Through a string of what seemed like supernatural greenlights, in September I made the 6,643-mile trek back to Japan, with my grown daughter and a good friend at my side. 

We spent six days in Kyoto and Tokyo, seeing miles of those cities on bicycle tours in blazing heat. We attended service at Tokyo Union Church, a second home and lifeline for me back in the day. 

And yes, over an intimate dinner with Anri and a few of her friends and family, I was able to express the gratitude I’d been storing up in my heart for more than three decades. A new friend, whom I’d met while reaching out to USJC on LinkedIn, graciously translated into Japanese a short speech I had written. I practiced it for days and was so excited to deliver it before dinner. I was just a few lines in when I spotted tears streaming down Anri’s face. We spent the next few hours hugging, laughing, sharing memories and catching up on the present.

The next night I watched Anri sing her hits I Can’t Stop the Loneliness, Listening to Olivia and Circuit of the Rainbow to a sold-out crowd at the Kyoto Theater – the same songs our band and backup singers and dancers performed dozens of times in massive arenas, music videos and pop music tv shows. Anri and I even snuck in a final visit together our last night in Tokyo, shutting down the restaurant with two of her best girlfriends. 

This trip will forever rank among the most meaningful, full-circle experiences of my life for myriad reasons — among them, it helped 54-year-old me rewrite how I remembered Japan as a terribly lonely 18-year-old Tracy.  

But the other transformative takeaway was seeing how much Japan had changed in three decades! And still, it’s managed to retain the cultural values of kindness and respect that I fell in love with as a teen. Seeing the pink signage for “Women Only” subway cars warmed my heart and made me proud. I was struck by how young professionals were sporting casual wear instead of black business suits, as they efficiently shuffled through escalators and crosswalks in quiet synchronicity. I was stunned to see the number of foreigners everywhere we went. Heads no longer turned when our group of tall, blonde Americans walked by.

My feelings of affection for the Japanese were flamed even further attending the 2023 USJC Annual Conference in Washington, DC this November. My heart swelled with gratefulness, just sitting there among the hundreds of attendees who shared a common mission: to make a positive impact in our world by celebrating each other as people and developing real, close friendships with each other. I felt inspired by the panel discussion on gender equality and the need for strengthening the trilateral agreement with Japan, South Korea and the United States. I seized every chance I could get to share words with the engaging speakers and savored each introduction to a new colleague/potential friend during the end-of-the-day happy hour. 

A recurring theme at the conference is how the United States and Japan need each other. How our history of working things out makes us truly unique, and how we continue to model shared values of forgiveness, acceptance, mutual respect and a desire to do the right thing.

This is a message our world is starving for. And one I personally want to help amplify and propel.    

I want to go back and do it all over. 

Thanks to organizations like USJC — and the conferences, conversations and one-on-one relationships it promotes — we can both “go back” and simultaneously move forward, building a stronger U.S.-Japan alliance and, I believe, a more peaceful world.

Thank you to Council Leader Tracy Kornet for the photos and above content!

Tracy Kornet is a 30-year veteran news anchor, host, and writer currently living in Nashville. She attended Vanderbilt University as an undergrad and spent intermittent semesters in Japan: working for Tokyo Disneyland as “Cinderella” and then as a background singer and dancer for Anri, a legendary singer-songwriter known for “City Pop,” a Japanese style of music in the 80s and 90s. A wife and mother of three grown children, Tracy is a first-year USJC Council Leader.