Interview: Daniel I. Okimoto Professor Emeritus, Stanford University
Dr Daniel Okimoto was born in 1942. Like others of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast, the outbreak of the Pacific War caused the Okimoto family to be uprooted from their home, job, and community. They were herded into shabby detention barracks at a makeshift relocation center in Southern California while ten wartime internment camps were being built in remote and desolate areas scattered around the North American continent.
Daniel Okimoto was born on the sprawling compounds of the Santa Anita Race Track, which had been converted into a relocation facility for nearly 20,000 Japanese immigrants and Nikkei Americans. From Santa Anita, Okimoto and his family were taken to Poston Arizona, where they were forced to live until the Pacific War ended in 1945.
After the War, Okimoto moved to Pasadena, less than 10 miles from his birthplace, Santa Anita. He graduated from Princeton University, received his Master’s Degree from Harvard, and earned his doctorate from the University of Michigan. He took his first job at Stanford University in 1977, where he has remained as a member of the faculty (now Emeritus) over the past 40+ years.
(Interview conducted by Yasuo Naito): The timing of my employment at Stanford—1977-2017–coincided with the emergence of Silicon Valley as the world’s hub of global entrepreneurship and innovation.
Many of the key start-ups whose swift development supplied the kinetic energy behind the emergence of Silicon Valley were born in the cradle of research laboratories at Stanford’s School of Engineering—such as Hewlett-Packard, Cisco, and Sun Microsystems.
Silicon Valley’s rise to global prominence has lifted Stanford into the ranks of the world’s top universities.
For both Stanford and Silicon Valley the final quarter of the 20th century was a historic era of profound ferment and creative growth.
Destiny could not have treated me more kindly. I have had the rare opportunity of witnessing, first-hand, the historic emergence of Stanford and Silicon Valley—just as the circumstances of my birth in a wartime relocation center gave me the very unfortunate experience of being personally involved in one of the most unjustified dragnets in American history.
The pendulum of history swings in long, wide, and sometimes wholly unpredictable directions.
The period from 1970 – 1990 happened to be the period in which Japanese corporations rose to world pre-eminence in consumer electronics. Vertically integrated giants like Toshiba, Sharp, and Sanyo took full advantage of state-of-the-art process technology to make products bearing the label, “Made in Japan”–a stamp of the highest and most reliable quality.
The contrasts between the big, vertically integrated Japanese giants and the small, niche-oriented start-ups in Silicon Valley were stark. The Japanese corporations were cautious, risk-averse, bureaucratic, and slow while Silicon Valley start-ups were bold, aggressive, nimble, and quick.
Nowhere was the contrast more striking than in their respective attitudes toward failure. Japanese corporations sought to avoid failure at all costs. Silicon Valley start-ups, by contrast, embraced failure as an inescapable aspect of corporate growth. Failure in Silicon Valley was seen as a chance to learn from mistakes and to move speedily down the highway of growth.
What was the outcome of these contrasting business models? Japan’s electronic giants stagnated, lost global market share, and failed to ride the cresting waves of IT developments—particularly, the development of a robust internet eco-system, open-sourced software platforms and the spontaneous combustion of software applications.
Japan has suffered a monumental setback. Where are Sharp and Sanyo today? Gone. And Toshiba? Struggling to survive.
Japan has fallen so far behind the five digital giants—Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft—that catching up will be nearly impossible.
Meanwhile, the small, dynamic Silicon Valley start-ups have produced a burst of new products, new technologies, and entirely new sectors in the global economy. Their impact has been transformative.
Never before has the world seen such a dazzling display of entrepreneurship and innovation, giving rise to soaring productivity and spiraling economic output.
At the heart of Silicon Valley stands Stanford University, birthplace of over 40,000 successful start-ups. Yes: 40,000! From the labs of a single university!
Stanford-related companies in the State of California alone generate more than $2 billion in corporate profits and employ over a million workers. Talk about an impact!
(Note: In 2015, Okimoto launched the Silicon Valley Japan Platform—SVJP—a non-profit organization, designed to build bridges of collaboration between Silicon Valley and Japan.)
Today, Japan is facing a decisive turning point. Either Japan will ride the Hokusai waves of technological transformation and land safely on the white-sand shores as an advanced digital economy; or, it will miss the surging tides and be left stranded offshore, slowly receding and sinking as a national economy.
The mission of the SVJP is to expand the nexus of ties connecting Japan and the mainstream of Silicon Valley.
Japan hasn’t enjoyed much in the way of direct access to the mainstream of Silicon Valley—the Googles, Ubers, Kleiner Perkins, Silver Lake Partners, and the YCombinators. Nor has Japan developed deep and enduring ties with Silicon Valley “movers and shakers”, like Sergei Brin (co-founder, Google) and Yoky Matsuoka (CTO, Nest).
(Note: In 2014, Dan Okimoto suggested to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that he be the first Japanese Head of State to pay a visit to Silicon Valley. Prime Minster Abe stopped over in Silicon Valley in late April/early May in 2015, a historic visit that kicked off a “Silicon Valley – Japan Boom”.
Professor Okimoto is known to have extensive relationships with prominent political leaders in the United States, particularly among Democrats.
In 2004 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs commended Professor Okimoto for his contributions to US-Japan relations; and in 2007, the Japanese Government bestowed on him the Order of the Rising Sun.)
(Back to Okimoto interview) I happened to be born at the Santa Anita Racetrack, located only 21 miles from downtown Los Angeles. Santa Anita is a metaphor for the historical ordeal of wartime internment. Fittingly, 1942 happened to be the Year of the Fiery Horse (Chinese astrological calendar).
In August 1942, 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast—more than 67% of who were American citizens—were herded into wartime assembly centers. No one knew how long the 120,000 “refugees” would be kept confined or what would happen to them in the future.
Amid the atmosphere of anxiety at Santa Anita Racetrack, Rev. Tameichi and Kirie Okimoto, both ordained Christian ministers, recalled the Biblical story of “Daniel in the Lion’s Den”. The parable seemed to symbolize the dangers facing the Japanese and Japanese American “refugees”.
The prophet Daniel, known for his probity and wisdom, was thrown into a den of hungry lions by the King of Babylon. Why? Because Daniel had dared to interpret the King’s inscrutable dreams in ways that shed unfavorable light on the King.
It was assumed that the savage lions would tear Daniel apart; but miraculously, Daniel survived the night because of his unshakable faith in God. The parable prompted my parents to give me the name, “Daniel”. The name captured the foreboding circumstances facing our family in the summer of 1942.
The Pacific War was the most destructive conflict in history. It gave rise to racial stereotypes and nationalistic hatred. We were called “Japs” and treated as “enemy aliens”.
Nevertheless, my parents and other issei immigrants, who had had all their worldly possessions confiscated by the US government–especially their freedom and Constitutional rights, never gave up hope that bilateral relations would improve someday. My parents had hoped their third son—Daniel—would dedicate himself to improving US-Japan relations.
Only two weeks after my birth, my family and I were put on a black, smoke-belching, one-way train to an unknown destination.
The windows were boarded up so that no one could peer outside. As it was late August—the hottest month of the year—the temperature inside the train rose over 120 degrees.
As a two-week old infant, my body became overheated and I was having trouble breathing. Fearing the worst, my mother pled with the military guards to allow me to be placed in an incubator where I could breathe. They gave permission. It saved my life.
The one-way train chugged through the sweltering Arizona heat and dumped everyone out at Poston, a God-forsaken spot in the Arizona desert, sparsely populated by a small tribe of Native Americans, cactus plants, coyotes, poisonous insects and reptiles.
Scorpions, in particular, posed an ever-present danger. Whenever we put on our shoes, we were told to turn them upside down and shake them vigorously in order to expel any scorpions that might have slipped in.
The Poston community consisted of 18,000 Nikkei detainees. It was the largest of the 10 wartime internment camps.
We all lived in miserable little barracks built out of wood and tarpaper, providing little protection against the searing summer heat of summer and the penetrating cold of winter.
In the small room into which our family of six had to squeeze, my father built partition walls to provide a modicum of privacy. But no one in Poston had any privacy. Everyone had to use common showers, toilets, and mess halls.
Outside our barrack door, my father cultivated a small garden of flowers, vegetables and fruit. The Arizona desert offered fertile soil and a hot climate to cultivate watermelon.
Even to this day, more than 70 years later, watermelon remains among my favorite fruits. I still associate watermelons with sweet juice that made the hot desert days seem temporarily bearable.
I deeply admire the issei and older nisei who had to make a far more difficult adjustment to the deadening life inside internment camps (like Poston) than the gaggle of pre-teenage youngsters (like me).
Imagine the shock of losing all your material possessions, your means of livelihood, and your sense of human dignity.
Imagine having to endure the debilitating impact of imprisonment and isolation in the desolate Arizona desert. All because of a war in the far-away Pacific that Japanese in America had absolutely nothing to do with.
It’s amazing that there weren’t more riots and overt conflicts, more outbursts of despair and depression. More suicides.
What the wartime internment camps elicited, instead, was a sense of stolid resignation —“gaman”—as if to say, “There’s nothing we can do about our predicament.”
The cragged reality of incarceration also gave rise to a disposition of denial. During and after the camps, the issei generation avoided bringing up the subject of internment. I can count on my two hands the number of times that my parents talked about the wartime internment. To the extent that the subject was mentioned at all, it was usually mentioned in connection with the names of close family friends who had lived with us in Poston Arizona.
Instead of wallowing in self-pity or spinning out narratives of victimization, the Nikkei in camp sought to make the best of a situation out of their control.
They tilled and irrigated land for agricultural production, created sports fields, organized baseball, basketball, and football games, renovated the barracks and camp facilities, gave abundant expression to their artistic impulses (poetry, prose, sketches, paintings, wood carvings, sculpture, and calligraphy) and engaged in a diverse array of hobbies (bonsai, gardening, flower arrangements, judo, the martial arts, music, and dancing).
Artistic expression flowered in Poston’s arid desert. It was the triumph of creative spirits. It was the expression of indomitable instincts.
My Christian parents never lost faith in God’s divine providence. Throughout the internment experience, they continued to believe that God was with us, even in moments of despair.
My father, who had taught himself a little bit of Hebrew so as to be able to read the Bible in its original language, carved out an Old Testament proverb on a wooden plaque: “God Is With Us”.
Poston never caused my parents to lose faith in the United States. From the first day of their arrival in San Pedro, California, to the last days of their lives, my parents firmly believed that the US was the best place to live.
America was the land of Abraham Lincoln, President who liberated slaves. America was an open society that offered their four children the fullest opportunity for educational and social advancement.
By example and by words, my parents showed their children the remarkable power of resilience (“gaman”).
My father used to remind us that adversity is a test of character. Either adversity can make you strong, or it can weaken and crush your spirits. It all depends on how you react–your attitude, your resolve, your capacity to adapt. In short: your character.
The Okimoto children, like most of our nisei cohorts, derived a powerful sense of motivation from the adversity confronting us–including wartime internment camp and the remnants of discrimination in postwar America.
The second-generation Nikkei have witnessed, and will never forget, the back-bending labor and untold sacrifices that our issei forbearers have made on our behalf. We understand that if we work hard—harder than our peers—we will have a chance to realize the dreams that eluded our issei parents.
We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to our older nisei brothers who volunteered to serve in the US military at a time when their families were denied their basic rights of American citizenship. Not only did they fight courageously for their motherland, the United States; but in the process, they also won the respect and gratitude of all Americans.
The 442nd Infantry Regiment, comprised entirely of Japanese Americans, will be remembered as the most decorated fighting unit in US history. Thanks to their valor, the gates of opportunity for all future generations of Americans of Japanese ancestry have been pried open.
For many years, as a student of history, I had considered the wartime internment of people of Japanese ancestry to be one of the most egregious episodes of injustice in American history. I continue to hold to that belief.
Yet, I could not have been prouder to be an American than when the US government issued an official apology in 1988 for the grave injustice of incarcerating people of Japanese ancestry, whether citizen or immigrant.
It’s hard to imagine the government of any other country having the conscience to deliver a formal apology.
Until the age of 12, I had always lived among Japanese Americans. Living among people of my own ethnic heritage felt natural and comfortable. I didn’t have to worry about being called “Jap”.
At the age of 12, however, my family moved from San Lorenzo, a small rural community, to Pasadena, a much larger suburb near Los Angeles.
While the grammar school in San Lorenzo had 200 students, 2,400 students attended my middle school in Pasadena. Gigantic: that’s how John Marshall Junior High looked and felt on the first day of school. It was another challenge.
Of the 2,400 students, probably 2,200 were white. I was one of a half-dozen Japanese Americans.
Pasadena was an affluent city. Many of my classmates were the offspring of middle-class professionals—doctors, lawyers, dentists, business executives, accountants, teachers, city and state officials, and owners of small businesses.
As my parents were Christian ministers, earning extremely low salaries, I may have been the poorest kid in school. Yet, I never felt embarrassed about being poor.
In fact, when I saw how easy life was for my classmates—rich kids who had never faced much adversity, I felt a curious sense of reversal: of being blessed! Yes, I was financially poor but spiritually, I felt supremely happy.
I was a believer in the saying, “The best things in life are free!”
Even today, as a senior citizen, material possessions aren’t nearly as important as having fulfilling relationships and being able to serve others.
My parents arrived in the United States in 1937. Yet, because they lived and worked in the Japanese-speaking community, they never mastered English. They spoke to me in rudimentary Japanese. I replied in plain English.
My parents were extremely strict in raising their children. They never tolerated lying, cheating, acting selfishly, or being lazy.
I tried hard to avoid being called “namakemono”—or “lazy”. The way my father invoked “namakemono”, the word seemed to drip with disdain. He considered lazy people to be underachievers.
To support a family of six, my father held two jobs. During the days, he toiled under the hot Southern California sun as a gardener. At night, and over the weekends, he spoke from the pulpit as the Japanese-speaking minister at a Christian (Protestant) Church.
He worked around the clock. Throughout the year. No vacations. No sick leaves. Compared to my father, I felt like a “namakemono”. Maybe that’s why I dreaded hearing the word.
On Saturdays, my older brother, Joe, and I accompanied my father on his gardening route. Of course, I wished that I could be out with my friends playing baseball or basketball. Or going to the beach to do some body surfing. But I was stuck gardening.
One day, in 1955, a wealthy old woman, who lived in an expensive home in the upscale community of San Marino, where my father did gardening work, asked me, “What work do you want to do when you grow up?”
It was an easy question to answer. “I want to be a diplomat,”
“Where do you want to go to college?” she asked.
“Cal Tech.”, located just a few blocks away from Pasadena High School.
My answer caused the wealthy old woman to burst out laughing. As if to say, “You don’t stand a chance of getting into Cal Tech.”
Her laughter was humiliating. It conveyed a tacit message: Resign yourself to a life of manual labor.
As I walked by one of the bedrooms in her San Marino mansion, I noticed a big, red and white banner hanging on the wall: “Stanford”. And on the back windshield of her Cadillac car was a sticker: “Stanford”.
A feeling of revulsion welled up. I hated Stanford. I vowed that I would never go there. A rich, white school. Not meant for me.
Little did I know back then–in 1955, that twenty years later, I would wind up spending more than half of my life—42 years—teaching and doing research at Stanford. Yes: it’s one of life’s ironies. After 42 years, I have been converted into a native son of Stanford.
For college, I chose to travel across the North American continent to enroll at Princeton University. Half of my 800 classmates had graduated from elite private schools—like Andover and Exeter. The other half had attended anonymous public schools.
I discovered that the private school graduates—“preppies”—had a two-year head start in terms of their academic preparation. It meant that I faced tough competition in classes like Physics, Economics, Philosophy, and Modern European Literature.
In Physics, which I had never taken in high school, I came close to failing the mid-term examination. For the first time in my life, I stood face-to-face with the prospect of failure. It instilled a haunting fear. I reacted by doing what my father had taught me to do: work longer and harder than anyone else.
I hit the books around the clock. I went to bed, exhausted, at 2 or 3AM, and woke up at 6 or 7 AM to attend classes and to cycle through another day of relentless study. Like my father, I hardly took any time off. I studied especially hard during the Christmas and New Year holidays, because Final Examinations took place in early January.
The fear of flunking out prompted me to talk in my sleep—something that I had never done before. When I asked my roommate what I said in my sleep, he said,
“Mom, Dad, forgive me for failing you.”
That was how deeply the fear of failure was lodged in my subconscious. I never wanted to repay my parents for a lifetime of sacrifices by flunking out of school. That would have been the ultimate act of disrespect.
Going to the East Coast for college and graduate school took me out of my comfort zone. No connections to my Japanese roots. No Japanese food. Only the fear of failure and cutthroat competition.
The Ivy League was another formidable mountain to climb. Adversity. Either it would cause me to grow stronger or it would crush my resolve and spirits.
Fortunately, the hard work paid off. I didn’t flunk out of Princeton. Every year, college got easier. By the time I graduated—in 1965—I had developed some confidence that I could compete with the smartest and most talented people in the country.
That foundation of confidence has given me the motivation to assume the high risks of seeking to achieve higher goals. It has allowed me to “dream big”. I’m sure the scope of my ambitions would have caused the old woman in San Marino to break into gales of laughter.
(Note: At Princeton, Okimoto was introduced to Japanese literature by Jun Eto, a brilliant young literary critic, who assigned several Japanese classics, including the “Tale of Genji” and “Manyoshu”, as well as modern works, including Akutagawa Ryunosuke’s short stories, Tanizaki Junichiro’s “Makioka Sisters,” and Natsume Soseki’s “I am a Cat”. It was a fascinating journey though a millennium of Japanese literature.
Okimoto also was fortunate to have had as his junior seminar advisor, George F. Kennan, distinguished diplomat, erudite analyst of world affairs, and architect of the “Containment Doctrine” which served as the framework for American foreign policy over the course of the Cold War from 1947 – 1991.
Kennan gave Okimoto a decisive piece of advice: go to graduate school to earn a PhD instead of going to law school. Concentrate on studying one country in depth: Japan–just as Kennan had concentrated his studies on Russia and the Soviet Union).
(Note: During Okimoto’s years at Stanford University, he wrote and edited many books and articles on Japan’s political economy. He co-founded the Asia Pacific Research Center, where a steady stream of Japanese scholars, young government officials, and up-coming business executives came to spend time.
Among the Visiting Fellows was Hideaki Kumano, MITI official who had served as an aide to Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone. As a reward for several years of exhausting service as Nakasone’s aide, Kumano was given permission to spend six weeks at Stanford, studying the dynamics of Silicon Valley.)
(Back to Okimoto interview) Hideaki Kumano was welcomed at Stanford. Everyone understood that he was a rising star at MIT (now called METI—the Ministry of Economy Trade and Industry). We knew that he stood a decent chance of rising to the top MITI post of “Administrative Vice-Minister”.
Yet, it was Hideaki Kumano’s wife, Michiko, who captured the hearts of the Stanford community. Owing to her upbeat and warm personality, Michiko made a flock of new friends.
Although she was a foreign visitor, she hosted many dinner parties at the one-bedroom apartment that the Kumano’s had rented near the Stanford campus. Not only was Michiko a superb cook, she was also a charming hostess, who had a knack for making dinner guests, like me, feel relaxed and comfortable. The six weeks at Stanford in 1988 was the start of my close and long-standing friendship with the Kumano’s.
Whenever I visited Japan, the three of us—Hideaki, Michiko, and I—would meet for dinner, lunch, or breakfast. On weekends, the Kumano’s sometimes invited me to dinner parties held at their home.
In 2004, Hideaki Kumano passed away suddenly of a bacterial infection: “sepsis”. His death came as a huge shock. Throughout his career, Kumano had been the picture of good health. He seldom missed a day of work at MITI.
(From this point, Michiko will tell her story.)
Hideaki’s death was totally unexpected. It threw my life into great uncertainty. Three of my four adult children were married and had children to take care of. But my third daughter, Kaei, who was born deaf and had grown up psychologically impaired, required constant attention. Hideaki’s death caused me to wonder how I was gong to take care of Kaei.
If I died suddenly, what would happen? Would Kaei even be able to notify her nearest of kin–her aunt (Hideaki’s only sibling, who lived next door)?
Never mind an emergency: How was I going to survive from day to day?
In January, 2005, during one of his business trips to Tokyo, Dan and I met for breakfast. I told him about the circumstances of Hideaki’s unexpected passing, explaining that he must have picked up the sepsis bacteria long before he had passed away. Dan expressed his condolences. That was the last time I saw Dan for half a year.
Later, I received an email from Dan, telling me about a fine program in the Bay Area for the hearing impaired. He thought that Kaei would benefit from the Deaf Studies Program. He suggested that I come with Kaei to California.
The Deaf Studies Program was intriguing. But I wanted to be totally open and honest with my sister-in-law, Hideaki’s sole sibling. When I told her about the opportunity, she supported the idea, saying, “It sounds like a good opportunity. Why don’t you go?”
My sister-in-law realized that I was caught in a bind. It was very thoughtful and kind of her to say, “From now on, shouldn’t you do what you and Kaei wish to do? Leave things up to Dan.”
My one daughter, who had never met Dan, may have had reservations but the rest of my family was strongly supportive of my going to California.
Some of my Japanese acquaintances were surprised. A few were openly critical. Only a year had passed since Hideaki’s passing. But I knew, deep in my heart, that moving to California was the right thing to do. It didn’t matter what others thought.
Hideaki and Dan were good friends. They respected and liked each other. Hideaki had once said, “I want to be scholar.” He admired Dan’s life and career. I felt, therefore, that there was nothing wrong about my moving to California. I made the decision to go.
(Note: here the narrative returns to Dan Okimoto)
From California, I proposed to Michiko via email. She accepted. We were married at the ripe old age of 64.
Although we came from very different backgrounds—Michiko from a wealthy, aristocratic family in Tokyo and I from a poor, devoutly Christian family in California—we share much in common. We have the same values, priorities, goals, instincts, tastes, and sense of humor. It’s remarkable how compatible we are.
We have become the best of friends. Partners in life. We understand and respect each other. Michiko is loved and appreciated by my side of the family. I’m accepted warmly by hers. We have made many new friends together.
Michiko has an amazing talent for connecting Japanese and American businessmen. It has been an incredible asset for the Silicon Valley Japan Platform (SVJP), the non-profit organization to which both of us have dedicated ourselves.
(Note: The Silicon Valley Japan Platform (SVJP) has developed rapidly since its inception in 2015. More than 16 companies have joined as Corporate Sponsors. More than 50 respected business executives in Silicon Valley and Japan have agreed to serve as Senior Advisors. Over 100 Silicon Valley professionals have volunteered to put their knowledge and networks to practical use in connecting Silicon Valley with Japan.
The SVJP has hired four talented and dedicated members to its Staff, two in Tokyo and two in Silicon Valley. The SVJP has launched a bunch of signature events–conferences, seminars, benkyokai, and other programs–on both sides of the Pacific. We have gathered a dynamic core of energetic participants.)
(Back to Okimoto interview): As we haven’t yet moved into official offices in Silicon Valley, we have been using my home on the Stanford campus as the SVJP’s de facto office and reception facility.
Everyday a steady parade of colleagues, potential members, and guests visit our home. When the weather is pleasant (most of the year), we sit outside in the quiet of our backyard patio.
Being a natural born hostess, Michiko prepares food for lunch, dinner, and breakfast—as well as light snacks for morning and afternoon coffee and tea. Such as carrot cake with very little sugar, butter, or cream.
In 2017, over 550 SVJP colleagues sat down for meals at “Chez Michiko”. This past year, 2017, the count rose to more than 880 guests. At this pace, in 2018, the aggregate number will exceed 1,000.
Chez Michiko has earned a “five-star” rating. Yet, it would be inaccurate to label the food “haute cuisine”, because the daily menu features “basic homemade dishes” (“katei ryoryi”): stir fried noodles (“yaki soba”), pork cutlets (“tonkatsu”), pot stickers (“gyoza”), “tempura”, and Michiko’s unique brand of Japanese/Indian curry.
The food is organic, fresh, and healthy. Very little oil, sugar, or butter. Many of our colleagues and friends have asked us when they are gong to be invited to Chez Michiko.
Among the guests who have dined at Chez Michiko are the Chairman of Microsoft, co-founder and President of Yahoo!, President & CEO of Seagate Technology, Senior Vice-President at Google, former President of Semantec, President of Toyota Research Institute, and the Vice-Chairman, JR East. We have paired these Silicon Valley executives with distinguished executives from Japanese corporations, such as Tokio Marine, Hitachi, Fast Retailing, Mitsubishi UJF Bank, and Suntory.
It is gratifying to have key leaders from Silicon Valley and Japan assemble at our home. Getting to know one another over a tasty Japanese meal may be the most effective way of laying the foundations for enduring bridges to be built across the Pacific.
Japanese food is hugely popular. It’s the favorite cuisine—not only in Silicon Valley but also throughout the United States and around the world.
Curiously, there are few, if any, top-notch Japanese restaurants in Silicon Valley. There are Michelin-star restaurants serving Italian, French, Chinese, and Thai food. But superlative Japanese restaurants? Nearly none.
Only Chez Michiko.
My older sister, Ruth, is fond of reminding me, “You don’t know how lucky you are, Dan, to have Michiko cooking meals for you everyday.”
“Quite the contrary, I do realize how lucky I am.”
“I am repeatedly reminded of it—at least three times a day. I am, after all, the Head Receptionist and Chief Dishwasher at Chez Michiko.”
Every Sunday morning, Michiko and I drive to the local Farmers’ Market, where farmers come from places as far away as Fresno (200 miles) to sell fresh fruits and vegetables. We go every Sunday to the Farmers’ Market. It is like our civil religion.
I am in charge of buying tasty seasonal fruits. Michiko is in charge of finding and buying the freshest and most nutritious seasonal vegetables. It’s a clear-cut division of labor. And this division of labor illustrates that we are full and equal partners in life.
During the late spring, summer, and early fall, I look forward to finding the juiciest watermelons, musk melons, peaches, and nectarines. I’m willing to spend some time seeing, feeling, and patting the watermelons. Living in Poston Arizona for the first three years of my life, I have learned how to identify the ripest watermelons.
Sometimes, other customers, who see me sorting through the watermelons, ask me to select a ripe watermelon for them. I’m happy to comply.
Once, a watermelon farmer from Fresno asked me, “How would you like a job? I’d like to hire you to sell watermelons.”
The job offer was flattering. It made me feel like I had exceptional credentials. Call me “Professor Watermelon” or, “Doctor Watermelon”.
Michiko and I are partners in all of life’s mundane tasks and exciting adventures. From the SVJP to Farmers’ Market.
There are times when I wish I had the time to travel with Michiko to exotic places to which our friends have invited us, such as New Zealand, Alaska, India, and Hawaii. But we just don’t have time.
The free time that we do have is spent with our children and grandchildren. Each of us has a brood of five grandchildren. The oldest on Michiko’s side is 21; the youngest is 17. The eldest on my side is 13 years old, and the youngest is 2. They’re all healthy, energetic, and growing rapidly.
Because the world is engaged in a digital revolution, Michiko and I are motivated to make efficient use of our time—every hour of everyday. No time to waste.
China is advancing at an accelerating pace towards its strategic goal of becoming the dominant power in all areas of global infrastructure—transportation, telecommunications, energy, finance, and the retail services.
Millions of small-medium enterprises (SMEs), representing the bulk of corporate entities and regional employment in Japan, need to connect with Silicon Valley so as to expand into global markets.
Should they fail to globalize, many SMEs will be left hopelessly behind. They may wind up in the dustbin of history. Michiko and I don’t want to see that happen.
I was born in a wartime internment camp at the height of the Pacific War—which also marked the nadir of US-Japan relations. During my life, US-Japan relations have been transformed from the bitterest of enemies to the closest of allies and friends.
My mother died when I was 13. My father was killed in an automobile accident when I was 27.
I had never thanked my parents for all they did to create a fulfilling life in the United States for their children. The most straightforward way that I can thank them now is to double-down on my efforts to strengthen US-Japan relations.
My life as a Japanese American has been filled to the brim with challenges and opportunities, adversity and growth, some sorrow and abundant joy, frustrations and satisfaction.
I have had the blessing of getting to know, and working with, business leaders like Bob Noyce (co-founder, Intel) and Akio Morita (co-founder, Sony); government leaders like Senator Bill Bradley and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, intellectuals like Jun Eto and George F. Kennan, and Nobel Prize Winners like Michael Spence (Economics) and Shinya Yamanaka (Medicine).
I admire and respect them all. But the people whom I honor most—the ones to whom I owe the biggest debt of gratitude—are the poor, hardworking, family-oriented issei farmers and the courageous nisei soldiers of the 442nd Infantry.
They are the ones who made the historic breakthrough, overcoming daunting barriers of injustice and discrimination. They are the ones who made it possible for all younger Americans of Japanese ancestry, like me, to enjoy the fruits of educational, employment, and social opportunities in the United States.
It is to their legacy and to the future of US-Japan relations that Michiko and I, at a mature stage of our lives, have dedicated ourselves.
Daniel I. Okimoto
Professor Emeritus, Stanford University,
A Nikkei Nisei (Second-Generation Japanese American)
Interviewers: Yasuo Naito, Sankei Shimbun