10/8: Notes from President Basalla

This is a series in which USJC President & CEO Suzanne Basalla shares her thoughts directly with the USJC community.  

Yesterday, October 7, marks Irene Hirano Inouye’s birthday and also six months since her devastating passing. USJC Founding Chair, Tom Iino, whose own importance in USJC’s founding is unmistakable, generously took the time to capture his memories of Irene’s founding vision.

The Legacy of USJC and Irene Hirano Inouye (2000-2020)

There were four events that shaped the organization as we know it today.

First, in 2000 Irene convened a small group of Nikkeis for breakfast in Los Angeles to chat with Senator Dan Inouye. Among the notables were the then Consul General Masa Kohno and community leader George Aratani. The Senator said, “It has been 55 years since the end of WWII and it is high time that Japan and Japanese Americans begin a process to bond for the benefit of the culture.” That was the genesis of the creation of the Japanese American Leadership Delegation (JALD). The delegation of hand-picked Japanese Americans from around the country have travelled to Japan each year since. As a venture between the Japanese American National Museum and the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo, this initiative had no peers in developing people-to-people relationships.

Second, in late 2007 the Museum Board made a strategic decision to focus its efforts solely on the role and history of Japanese Americans on a domestic level. Irene felt so strongly about the evolution of the Japanese and Nikkei relationship, she formed a new organization and named it the U.S.-Japan Council. The first meeting was again attended by a small group of Nikkei leaders, most notably, Senator Dan Inouye, George Aratani and Dr. Paul Terasaki. Both George and Paul were significant founding donors, which enabled the organization to emerge. Dr. Paul Terasaki said that whatever you do, “you must be unique and distinctive in order to have impact.” This led to a unique strategy and a founding board of distinctive leaders.

Third, the Tohoku crisis in Japan in 2011 created a conversation between Irene and then Ambassador to Japan John Roos. After some contemplation, the two created a public-private partnership to provide a cultural, educational, and leadership exchange of young people between the two countries. That program now famously called “TOMODACHI” has absolutely no peers in people-to-people relationship building. Every year since 2011, major corporations on both sides of the ocean fund and support this strategy.

Finally, Irene’s last strategic dream was to move the Council to be a premier entity that provides leadership attributes to the next generation. The evolution of the Emerging Leaders Program (ELP), one of the most successful leadership initiatives for the next generation, is a testimony to her passion and focus.

Clearly there are many other accomplishments under Irene’s leadership–as examples, the Annual Conference, the Silicon Valley Japan Platform, women’s leadership focus, and Asian American political leadership exchanges in Japan. But the four events noted have shaped the legacy and success of Irene Hirano Inouye. 

There will never be another individual with the insight, passion and commitment to the cause of building people-to-people relationships between the U.S. and Japan. 

Thank you, Irene!!

Tom Iino, Founding Chair, U.S.-Japan Council

Two others who were “there at the creation” were member of the USJC Board of Councilors Ambassador Masaharu Kohno and USJC Board Member Yuko Kaifu. They shared their memories in this recent video conversation.

As I reflect on USJC’s founding, I recognize Irene’s vision and singular impact on the U.S.-Japan Council as essential and unparalleled. At the same time, leaders like Tom Iino, Ambassador Kohno, Yuko Kaifu, Senator Inouye, Dr. Paul Terasaki, and George Aratani are part of USJC’s founding. Many others, including many of the members of USJC’s Legacy Council, should also be celebrated for their contributions. 

To ensure we always take time to reflect on Irene’s vision and the contributions of our founders, USJC will designate October 7 as our Founder’s Day. In the meantime, I look forward over the coming months to sharing some of USJC’s founding legends’ stories with you.