American Ohaka Mairi
This episode is supported by JapanCulture•NYC, the English-language website about all things Japanese in New York City.
Please fill out our Listener Survey!
Ambassador and Consul General of Japan in New York Kanji Yamanouchi began his fourth post in the United States in October last year, and he has since become a friend among the Japanese American community. With Toshiki as sound engineer and science consultant, Susan and Ambassador Yamanouchi visit The Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx to perform the Buddhist ritual of ohaka mairi, visiting the gravesites of two prominent historical Japanese figures who settled in the United States. Ambassador Yamanouchi offers flowers to Dr. Hideyo Noguchi (1876–1928), a biologist who made seminal discoveries in infectious diseases and is now immortalized as the face of the 1000 yen note, and Dr. Jokichi Takamine (1854–1922), a chemist and philanthropist who founded the social organization The Nippon Club.
Appreciating Noguchi’s onigiri-shaped gravestone, Ambassador Yamanouchi shares his personal connections to the scientist, reflecting on trips to Noguchi’s hometown of Inawashiro and on a visit to the Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research at the University of Ghana in 2006 with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. After a brief intermission listening to “America” by Simon and Garfunkel, Susan and the Ambassador have the opportunity to open Takamine’s stately mausoleum, and gazing at its stained glass window of Mt. Fuji, they discuss Takamine’s dedication to the Japanese American community. To the Ambassador, friendship is the cornerstone of US-Japan relations, and he praises the importance of community organizations in New York that symbolize the strength and independence of the Japanese spirit.
“Nagasaki's Frenzied Spirit Boat Procession 長崎精霊流し” by Greg Goodmacher (Japan Visitor)
“Sakamoto Ryoma, the man and the myth” by Jun Hongo (The Japan Times)
This episode was edited by Toshiki Nakashige and transcribed by Susan McCormac. Thanks to Maki Mizusawa, Takahiro Yamasaki, Gerald Demattia, and Emma Fahey from the Consulate General of Japan in New York. Thanks to David Ison, Susan Olsen, and Barbara Selesky from The Woodlawn Cemetery and Conservancy. Photos courtesy of the Consulate General of Japan in New York.
Toshiki Nakashige: This episode of The Big Root is supported by JapanCulture-NYC, the English-language website about all things Japanese in New York City. Discover your next favorite Japanese anything at JapanCulture-NYC.com.
Susan McCormac: Toshiki and I want to make this podcast better. One of the ways you can help us do that is to share your feedback with us. We created a Listener Survey, where we ask about you and your listening preferences. It’ll only take a few minutes, and it helps us so much. Please fill out our Listener Survey at thebigrootpodcast.com/survey. Thanks, and enjoy the show!
SM: Welcome to The Big Root.
TN: A podcast about everywhere Japaneseness. My name is Toshiki Nakashige.
SM: I’m Susan McCormac.
SM: So Ambassador, can we get you mic’ed up here?
SM: On September 19, we had the honor of interviewing Ambassador Kanji Yamanouchi for The Big Root. The setting for our interview was Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. And we met at the Visitor Center at the Jerome Avenue Entrance. A consummate diplomat, Ambassador Yamanouchi was dressed in a suit and a blue tie. Wanting to look professional, I wore a late summer/early fall dress from MM.LaFleur.
TN: I was also there for sound engineering wearing an undiplomatic casual outfit and a pair of Audio Technica headphones.
Kanji Yamanouchi: Same as my headphones!
Susan Olsen: Are we ready to go?
SM: Yes, we are ready to go.
SO: Okay, let’s go to the back door, and I’ll take you in the golf cart right over to Dr. Noguchi.
SM: Oh wonderful!
KY: Dr. Noguchi.
SM: Woodlawn Cemetery is a sprawling, 400-acre National Historic Landmark in the Bronx. The cemetery has a serene quality, and you almost forget that you’re still in New York City. The layout of Woodlawn comprises winding paths that crisscross where dignitaries, celebrities, scientists, and average people call their final resting place. As a nondenominational burial ground, you’ll find headstones and mausoleums bearing the names of novelist Herman Melville, suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker, songwriter Irving Berlin, and salsa queen Celia Cruz. Two important Japanese figures are interred there as well: Dr. Jokichi Takamine and Dr. Hideyo Noguchi.
TN: Along with Ambassador Kanji Yamanouchi, two people from the Consulate General of Japan in New York, Consul Maki Mizusawa and photographer Emma Fahey, accompanied us throughout our time at the cemetery. The historian at the Woodlawn Cemetery and Conservancy Susan Olsen guided our group to the gravestone of Hideyo Noguchi on a golf cart.
KY: We can have a conversation right? Naturally.
SO: Let’s get on the cart everybody!
SM: Yeah, this is a natural conversation.
KY: We need to sit [next to] each other.
SO: Stop being so polite! Let’s go!
SM: We’re Japanese! We’re Japanese!
SO: I know! Every time I have a Japanese group, it’s like, come on! Alright, is everybody on? Let’s go!
SM: Here we go!
TN: Hahaha, I was on the back of that golf cart with Emma, and we both almost flew off when it departed.
SM: The trip to Dr. Noguchi’s gravestone is routine for Susan Olsen. The New York Hideyo Noguchi Memorial Society and the Japanese Medical Society of America host a memorial ceremony each year on the anniversary of Noguchi’s death, May 21st.
TN: The drive to Noguchi’s grave from Jerome Avenue was quick.
SO: Okay, we’re here. I’m going to circle around; I’ve got to go back, but I’ll come get you.
KY: Onigiri, onigiri shape onigiri-like shape.
SM: Oh, it didn’t even occur to me that it’s shaped like an onigiri. Okay. Thank you, Susan.
SO: You don’t need me right now, correct?
SO: Alright. So if I come back in 20 about minutes, is that good?
SM: Yeah, that’ll be great.
SO: And then we’ll go to Dr. Takamine.
SM: Ambassador Yamanouchi placed a bouquet of flowers in front of Dr. Noguchi’s gravestone, which the Ambassador carefully assessed was shaped like an onigiri. I saw the resemblance to the roughly triangular rock. In front of the gravestone is a plaque with the names of Hideyo Noguchi and his wife Mary Noguchi, where she is also buried. Then he offered a prayer and bowed deeply.
TN: Every time I see Ambassador Yamanouchi, he’s light hearted and happy, but this was a solemn moment. From where I was standing, I could tell that the Ambassador was tearing up, and he was wiping his eyes as he walked back toward you under the shade of a tall tree. He took a moment to compose himself, and then we started the interview.
SM: Okay, we are at the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York. Have you visited the cemetery before?
KY: This is my first time to come to this place.
SM: Had you heard about Woodlawn Cemetery?
KY: Yes, very much, very much.
SM: What kinds of things did you hear about it?
KY: It’s a very huge cemetery, and there are so many famous people are interred, including Dr. Noguchi and Dr. Takamine. So I really wanted to come; thank you very much for giving me this opportunity.
SM: Oh no, thank you for giving us the opportunity to talk to you about what you do here in New York and also kind of share this this moment. It’s a beautiful day.
KY: Yes, beautiful .
SM: The weather is perfect for us to visit.
KY: It’s not too cold; it’s not too hot. It’s very nice.
SM: End of summer, and pretty soon my favorite season is going to start. You had mentioned Dr. Hideyo Noguchi, and so he—wait, hold on one second.
KY: Yeah, Sure, sure, sure, sure.
SM: I went to my purse to take out an important note to show the Ambassador.
SM: For our listeners, I’m handing Ambassador Yamanouchi a 1000 yen note.
SM: So can you tell me about this 1000 yen note? Who is the person that’s on it?
KY: It’s an easy question! Well this is radio so people don’t see it. Here is Dr. Noguchi’s profile. Very famous profile.
TN: Hideyo Noguchi was a physician-scientist who was born in 1876, but he’s probably most recognizable for being a face on Japanese currency. In 2017, I moved to New York to do research at The Rockefeller University, formerly The Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, and whenever I tell people in the Japanese American community that I worked there, they are always quick to cite his name as a prominent Japanese person affiliated with the institution.
SM: So Yeah, Dr. Hideyo Noguchi was a researcher at The Rockefeller Institute here in New York, and he worked on yellow fever. And unfortunately, that is what he died of .
KY: Not only yellow fever, but he found all sorts of - what can I say? Bacteria ja na kute...
SM: Yeah, So I’ll defer to Toshiki, who’s a scientist.
TN: That’s me saying “viruses.”
KY: Viruses. Yes. So not only yellow fever, but he found many viruses, which caused serious diseases in those days, and it was a great discovery.
SM: My question to you was are you familiar with him, and you answered is yes, you are very much familiar with him!
KY: Yes, very much familiar with him. Because all the Japanese kids usually read his biography. Very impressive. He grew up in a very poor village and poor family, and he got burns on his fingers like a touched, so he was kind of mistreated by his friends when he was younger age, partly because of his burns, and partly because of his poverty. But he was a person who made serious efforts to make his way. And not only just in Japan, but also he travelled to the United States, then his ,all the talent bloomed. So he’s the kind of person who has enormous inspiration to the Japanese kids. So I myself included when I was a little kid, I read his biography. So I think all the Japanese people know him, and he’s very inspirational to all the people.
SM: Obviously he is revered in Japan or else his face would not appear on the 1000 yen note.
KY: And also if I may, I have some sort of connection.
SM: You have a connection?
KY: Yes, my personal connection is, actually I love outdoors, sort of camping and things, and there is a place called Inawashiroko. That is his hometown, and there’s a very kind of nice camping area. So from time to time, I drove up to that place. And then on the way home I usually stopped by the museum of Dr. Noguchi’s sort of native house. It’s small, and it’s kept in a, as it was. So it’s very inspirational. So now I was actually remembering my memory to, my memory of visiting there. And the other one is more impressive, I think. He passed away in Ghana, but his body was sent back and contained to back to New York, and he’s buried here, right? And I think it was 2005 or 2006 when Prime Minister of Japan visited Ghana, I was a part of the delegation because I was a director in charge of press, so wherever the Prime Minister went I accompanied him together with media reporters. Then the Prime Minister visited Ghana. And obviously we went to the University of Ghana Medical School, and that’s the school where Dr. Noguchi researched yellow fever, and he devoted himself, and he sacrificed himself. Then the University kept his research center, or room, as it was. So I had a, yeah, I was very fortunate that I had an opportunity to get inside of the place where actually Dr. Noguchi researched. It’s not a big room, tiny room, and the microscope—of course, that was probably the most advanced microscope in those days, but for our eyes it’s very like old-style.
SM: Yeah, old-fashioned. He passed away in 1928, so that really, technology obviously has improved.
KY: So I was almost crying. Oh my goodness, this person researched with this microscope, seeking the small, small virus. Then you know what, there’s one plate. There’s two Chinese characters: Nintai. Patience. Perseverance. In his situation, it was never easy, right? In Ghana. Tropical weather. And he didn’t have much resources except his passion and his commitment. Then, so try, trying his best to achieve what he was seeking, right? Then unfortunately, his wish was not fulfilled, and he passed away before the actual achievement. It’s a very touching moment. And I think the Prime Minister himself also felt the same way.
SM: It was 2006 when Ambassador Yamanouchi accompanied Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on an official visit to Africa. They went to the Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research at the University of Ghana. It’s the leading biomedical research facility in the country, where Dr. Noguchi conducted research on yellow fever. Established by two professors with support from the Japan International Co-operation Agency, the Noguchi Memorial Institute was built by the Japanese government and donated to the Ghanaian government and people in Dr. Noguchi’s honor.
TN: That very trip, the Japanese government established the Hideyo Noguchi Africa Prize. This award honors people who have made outstanding contributions to fighting infectious diseases and improving public health in Africa. The award ceremonies take place in conjunction with the Tokyo International Conference on African Development.
SM: I was pleasantly surprised by how emotional the Ambassador became when he spoke of Noguchi’s achievements. But when he explained his personal connection to the doctor, it came together for me.
TN: I thought of the idea of centering a Big Root episode on a visit to a grave because visiting the family’s grave is a deeply Japanese activity for me. When I was growing up, I went to Japan with my parents to see relatives, and I remember going on what’s called ohaka mairi, which is a Buddhist tradition of paying respects to your ancestors. I wanted to do something like an ohaka mairi for the podcast, and when we were brainstorming someone for this episode, we thought that Ambassador Yamanouchi would be an excellent guest. Needless to say, we were excited that the Consulate thought it would be a great opportunity to frame an interview with the Ambassador about the history of Japanese people in New York.
SM: We are in a cemetery. And my podcast co-host, Toshiki Nakashige, reflects that many of his childhood memories visiting Japan every summer involved visiting the family haka. The, what is it, the ohaka mairi, the Buddhist practice of visiting the family grave. So did you practice such rituals when you were…
KY: Occasionally, yes. I grew up in Sasebo in Nagasaki Prefecture. They do shoro nagashi. It’s like a shed—ship. Ship. Right? Then go to the water.
SM: It’s that with the candles?
KY: Yes, with candles. And with flowers and fruits and something ancestors’ favorite. Then we float.
SM: Shoro nagashi is an Obon tradition in Nagasaki Prefecture. Obon is the three-day period in the Buddhist calendar during the summer when the Japanese honor their ancestors. When I think of Obon, I picture a festival with people dressed in yukata and traditional dancing. I had never heard of the practice of shoro nagashi, and I assumed it was an activity that you would find at any other Obon festival. But it isn’t! It’s much more boisterous than I imagined. In my mind, it was simply putting a candle on a washi-paper boat and quietly floating it down a river, but shoro nagashi actually means “Spirit Boat Procession.” It takes place on the last day of the three-day celebration. The people of Nagasaki Prefecture build actual wooden boats that have generators in them to power the lanterns, and the photos I’ve seen of this ritual look like a parade on the streets. These “spirit boats” are to honor loved ones who passed away during the last year, and they’re decorated with the things that the dearly departed loved. No candlelit rivers, but people light firecrackers during the procession. Then the boats are destroyed after the ceremony.
KY: My mother passed away last year, so we did it. She loved a lot of fruits. So oranges, bananas, pineapples, you name it.
SM: Pineapples in Nagasaki?
KY: We put a lot of fruits. Yes.
SM: Are there other rituals tied to Japanese culture that you are fond of, that you like to practice?
KY: Yeah, I’m not quite sure we should call it “ritual” or not, but think of this way, in Oshogatsu, on New Year’s Day, New Year’s Eve, we hear—nan da ko kane?
SM: Yeah, the tolling of the temple bells.
KY: One hundred eight. One hundred eight.
SM: Right. Tolls of the bell.
SM: The chime the bell, they hit the bell 108 times per Buddhist tradition.
KY: So that is part of daily lives, especially in New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. And also we go to hatsumode. We go to shrine or temple, and people just go there to wish the very best of luck in the new year. So it’s not so much religious, but it’s part of the Japanese daily life.
TN: To me, Japan is all about rituals. From ohaka mairi to tea ceremony, I think there’s a connection between tradition and modernity in Japan because people today participate in ritual activities that have existed for generations.
SM: You received your Masters from Wesleyan University. And so what, why did you want to attend college in the United States?
KY: That’s a very good question. When I joined the Foreign Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, Foreign Service of the Japanese government, they asked us, “Which country do you want to go?” So my first selection was I really wanted to go to the United States, United Kingdom, France, China. If government hire me, any other country just fine. That’s what my philosophy was answering the sheet. Fortunately, I was picked for the US. That’s why the government sent me to the United States.
SM: But this was before—this was after college or before college?
KY: After college. After college. So after, upon graduation I took the exam, and then I entered government. Then government sent me to the US through the certain selection.
SM: But was that after you got your Masters at Wesleyan? Or did you get your Masters…
KY: No, I was sent to Wesleyan by the government, then I got Masters degree there in Political Science.
SM: I thought you had done it the other way around. Like you got your Masters, and then you became a diplomat.
KY: To be very honest with you, I had never been to a foreign country before I joined the Foreign Ministry. So I grew up in the countryside of Japan, up to high school. And I went to Tokyo to study in University, so. After joining the Foreign Ministry, then my world expanded.
SM: Ambassador Yamanouchi’s world certainly did expand. Since the beginning of his diplomatic career, he’s served different roles in international relations, most recently as the Assistant Minister/Director-General for the Economic Affairs Bureau at the headquarters of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Japan. His tenure in New York is his fourth time to be stationed in the US, and he details all the previous times.
KY: This is my fourth time to be stationed in the United States. The first one was at Wesleyan. And also I went to Cornell and UC Berkeley, too, during a short period of time. But basically, I studied at Wesleyan. And that was my first two years. Then the second time was in Washington, DC, as the first secretary of political section. That was the late in ‘90s. Then third time was up to three years ago, two years ago, in Washington again as the Minister for Economic Affairs, so I did a lot, a lot of trade works, free trade agreement, TPP, and things like that.
TN: We’ll get more into his musical passions later, but the Ambassador didn’t always want to go into diplomacy. In fact, he wanted to pursue art. But that changed when he encountered the four-volume historical novel about Sakamoto Ryoma called Ryoma ga Yuku. Sakamoto was a samurai who wanted to modernize Japan, and he helped to overthrow the Tokugawa Shogunate.
KY: What can I say? My wildest dream was like artist. I didn’t have much interested in politics, policies, or those things. I got really interested in art, especially music. Rock. So I spent my most of the time doing the band and shooting movies and writing novels, things like that. And it took some years to realize, oh I’m not that talented. But I had to do something. So I decided to be a diplomat. One interesting moment—I still remember. Not many American people know this guy, but most of the Japanese people know this person. His name is Sakamoto Ryoma. Ryoma Sakamoto. He’s a kind of hero during the very difficult times of the modern Japanese history. Before the Meiji Restoration as you may know, right? And Choshu and Satsuma was “…” but they are fighting each other. And this Sakamoto facilitated the alliance between Choshu and Satsuma. That was a driving force to bring about revolution, kind of civil revolution to overthrow the Tokugawa Shogunate. So this Sakamoto’s life if so interesting And the very famous novel about his life, Ryoma ga Yuku written by Shiba Ryotaro. And he described Sakamoto Ryoma as a great diplomat who intermediated two powers which conflicts all the time, but because of him, the alliance between Choshu and Satsuma was realized. And a person like him made a big difference in modern history of Japan. I was so much inspired. Oh, diplomat is a nice profession! I want to be like him. That was very, very first motivation of it.
TN: Inspired by Sakamoto Ryoma, Ambassador Yamanouchi went to the bookstore the next day and bought a book about becoming a diplomat. He figured out what subjects he needed to study, and he hasn’t looked back since.
SM: During your time in New York, what has impressed you the most about the Japanese American community here?
KY: Oh, its power. Or its unity. Or its commitment and vision. I didn’t know much about the Japanese American community in New York before I came here. And honestly, when I was in Washington, DC, I was with, I was the head of the Economic Department of the Embassy, so I didn’t have much association with Japanese American community as a whole, so I didn’t know before I got here. But I was very much impressed by the commitment, unity, and vision of those Japanese American people. And honestly, I have been very much helped by JAA. While I am doing my mission here, JAA’s contribution and cooperation is essential.
SM: So what is JAA doing to help you?
KY: I mean, to organize all sorts of meetings, and introducing the various local communities in New York City. And say, when I meet with the journalists, journalists like The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, we could do it. And we meet various business people all the time. And that is only part of New York City. All politics is local, and especially in a diversified city like New York City, and there’s various communities and various people who are doing their works, their missions. So unless I got help from JAA, I would not have had the opportunity to meet with them, and I really appreciate it.
SM: As a board member of The Japanese American Association of New York, Inc., it makes me so happy to hear that the Ambassador feels that way about the organization. Another connection to our theme of ohaka mairi is that JAA was founded by Toyohiko Takami to memorialize Japanese ex-pats and immigrants who died in New York without any family members. So in the early 1900s, he purchased a plot of land at Mount Olivet Cemetery, which is in Queens. Woodlawn was so serene, we were deep in conversation, but when I glanced at my Fitbit for the time, I realized that we needed to get a move on to pay our respects to Dr. Jokichi Takamine. Although I needed the steps, I followed the Ambassador into the Consulate’s van to drive to Takamine’s gravesite. Before we share that part of our beautiful day at the cemetery, let’s take a break.
TN: This episode of The Big Root is supported by JapanCulture-NYC, the English-language website about all things Japanese in New York City.
It’s no secret that we enjoy sake on The Big Root, and the fall is the perfect time to learn more about this traditional Japanese beverage. October marks the beginning of the sake brewing season in Japan. In 1978, the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association recognized October 1st as Nihonshu no hi or World Sake Day.
Breweries, restaurants, bars, and people in New York and around the world celebrate the occasion with events that raise awareness and cultivate appreciation for sake. On this year’s World Sake Day this past week, Susan McCormac attended a blind sake tasting at Brooklyn Kura, New York’s first sake brewery and where we recorded our interview with Rona Tison on our episode “The Blue Door and the Green Bottle.”
At the event, sake experts from the American Sake Association taught Susan on how to evaluate sake through visual cues, aroma, and taste. The blind tasting included sakes from Kiminoi, Born, and Hakkaisan breweries. Susan and I have spent many years learning about different aspects of Japanese culture, but we know that continuing education about sake and other topics is important. That takes the form of going to blind tastings, interviewing experts of Japanese culture, and reading blog posts.
Discover your next favorite Japanese anything at JapanCulture-NYC.com.
SM: You don’t have to be serious with me!
KY: That’s why I’m just myself.
SM: Yeah, no, we want you to be just yourself!
SM: Before the break, Ambassador Yamanouchi and I visited the gravestone of the scientist and the face of the 1000 yen note Hideyo Noguchi. The Ambassador performed an ohaka mairi. Woodlawn Cemetery encompasses 400 acres of land, and it’s a relatively long walk from Dr. Hideyo Noguchi’s grave to Dr. Jokichi Takamine’s grave. Because the Ambassador was on a tight schedule, the Consulate provided us a van for transportation. In her golf cart, Susan Olsen guided us.
TN: When we got into the van, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor was playing. Ambassador Yamanouchi’s phone was connected to the car’s bluetooth.
SM: Can I ask you about the Beatles?
KY: Yeah, of course you can ask about the Beatles, but Beatles are from UK. But Simon and Garfunkel are from New York City. There are so many songs about New York City.
SM: When did you first hear a Simon and Garfunkel song?
KY: When I was in first grade of middle school. When I was 13 years old.
SM: When you were 13. And what song was it? Do you remember?
KY: Basically, it was three songs: “The Sound of Silence,” “Mrs. Robinson,” and “America.”
SM: So that inspired you?
KY: Yeah, in looking back, yes.
SM: Did you think that when you listened to American rock ‘n’ roll music, did you think you’d ever live in a place like New York City?
KY: It was kind of a dream. I remember I had a big poster of Simon and Garfunkel, the two guys, and there’s a I think Brooklyn Bridge, or 59th Street Bridge.
SM: I think it’s the 59th Street Bridge. That’s the cover of their album?
KY: No, it’s the poster. They were the poster, not the album. I had every album with them. In this song, there is the lyric describing New Jersey Turnpike. So look for America. So this two, one couple, boy and girl, hitchhiked from Saginaw, Michigan, to New York City. So describing things. That is this song. And New Jersey Turnpike. And when I first listened to this song, I didn’t know what New Jersey Turnpike. I knew New Jersey, but I didn’t know the turnpike.
SM: So they make more sense—the lyrics make more sense to you now that you’re here and you know.
KY: There was slightly more than ten years later, when I came here first the time, then I realize, “Oh, this is New Jersey Turnpike!”
SM: I worked at the previous night’s Yankees game against the Los Angeles Angels, and I saw him enjoying baseball with his wife and friends.
SM: You went to the Yankees game last night. So how was it? Did you have a good time?
KY: I had a very good time. I really enjoyed it, yes.
SM: I saw you eating popcorn.
KY: I know. On the air?
SM: On the air, yeah.
KY: Someone told me, '“Oh, you’re on the TV!” And showed me the footage. I was just eating popcorn.
SM: Yeah, you were really enjoying it! Here’s Takamine. He’s in a, in a mausoleum. Okay, we have arrived.
SM: We arrived at Takamine’s gravesite. Unlike the onigiri likeness of Dr. Noguchi’s gravestone, Dr. Takamine is interred in a stately mausoleum. I’m not sure of the proper architectural terms, but it has clean lines with Greco-Roman-style columns. Barbara Selesky, the Director of Marketing and Media Relations of the Woodlawn Cemetery and Conservancy, accompanied us throughout our interview, and she sent for a groundskeeper to open the Mausoleum for us. As we waited, the Ambassador impressed us once again with his knowledge of Takamine.
KY: Taka-diastase was the name of the… [speaking in Japanese]
TN: Koso means enzyme or a catalytic protein. Dr. Takamine discovered taka-diastase in Japanese or taka-diastase in English, and this enzyme breaks down starch into sugar. Jokichi Takamine was born in 1854 in Toyama Prefecture and was raised in Ishikawa Prefecture. He is known as the Father of Modern Biotechnology. His story is complicated, but his achievements are nonetheless multitude. Briefly, he isolated the diastase of the fungus koji, named it taka-diastase after his own name, marketed it as a digestive aid, and sold the discovery to a US pharmaceutical company. Takamine amassed a fortune as a result. People also recognize his name for his scientific contributions producing fertilizer and isolating adrenalin.
KY: So he was very, very much successful in New York. And I think he was the first Japanese person who got a patent in the American patent office. And also not only that, he utilized his fortune helping the Japanese Americans here in New York. And so he was very much successful in early 20th century when not many Japanese Americans are so successful, so helped a lot. For example, Dr. Takamine was very successful and had an enormous fortune by the time Dr. Noguchi came to the United States. So Dr. Takamine helped Dr. Noguchi. And also he’s the founder of Nippon Club.
SM: I was actually going to mention that, but you knew that already!
KY: I did my homework!
SM: Yes, you’re teaching me about!
KY: To me, his name is very familiar because he’s the founder of Nippon Club.
TN: Founded by Dr. Takamine with the help of Consul General Sadatsuchi Uchida, The Nippon Club is a social organization that was formed to bring together Japanese businessmen living in New York and to improve the relationship between those Japanese businessmen and American businessmen. Today, 114 years later, The Nippon Club still reinforces the business ties between Japan and the US, but it also introduces the richness of Japanese traditions to New Yorkers through art exhibitions and other cultural events.
SM: Considering how important both the US and Japan were to Takamine’s achievements and legacy, we imagined what his mausoleum might look like on the inside.
KY: I think, I think he kept his affection towards his home country of Japan so much, so there must be some kind of things which remind us of Japan.
SM: On the inside?
KY: Yes, maybe.
SM: Oh now I can’t wait to see.
KY: Amazing, amazing person, right? Today, like many scientists, athletes come to the United States to be the top of the game, to be the top of the world. But in those days, very courageous, very outstanding because Japan itself was developing, and most of the people had never visited foreign countries. So there was inside Japan this person, very evolutionary get out of home country and come here.
SM: The Western facade of the structure opened up to reveal icons that indeed showed his connection between Japan and the US.
SM: So someone from Woodlawn Cemetery
KY: Oh, it’s Mount Fuji! And cherry blossoms!
SM: Oh my gosh! Yay!
KY: And national flag.
SM: The groundskeeper opened one of the doors to the mausoleum, and we peered inside. There was a stained glass window of Mount Fuji illuminated by the sun, and in front were two vases holding the Japanese and US flags. Ambassador Yamanouchi walked around to the back of the mausoleum to appreciate the window.
Barbara Selesky: Maybe we could open the other door.
SM: Barbara Selesky helped us open the second door to the mausoleum.
KY: Ja, ikimasu.
SM: Ambassador Yamanouchi offered flowers to Dr. Takamine.
Sounds from inside the mausoleum
SM: Jokichi Takamine made critical discoveries in science, but to the Ambassador, he symbolizes international friendship.
SM: It really makes you like feel what he did for both Japan and the US.
KY: Even today it’s not so easy for Japanese to come to the United States to pave his or her own way, to be a great success. But when he did it, it’s very, very difficult, I think. Transportation, reputation of Japan was not as high as today. In early 20th century, still a young modern country in a way, so what he achieved is just amazing. Our pride. And also, he maintained his affection, respect, and commitment to his home country, so he created Nippon Club, and he contributed to many things, especially the friendship between the two countries. So providing the cherry blossoms to Washington, DC, and New York is part of it. And also, I do understand that he graduated from Harvard, and President Teddy Roosevelt is also an [alumnus] of Harvard, and they were acquainted. Therefore, when Japan fought a war against Russian then Takamine played a significant role to get support from the United States through his connection with alumni. And also, it is said that Dr. Takamine urged President Roosevelt to facilitate the war in favor of Japan.
SM: How does that make you feel, as not just a diplomat, but as a Japanese when you stand before such a stately resting place?
KY: So he started a great torch, right? Then the torch is passed to the next generation, and next generation. As Ambassador here and Consulate General here, I am a person who got the torch from him, then I just determined myself that I will do my best for the friendship between our two countries.
SM: What is the most important element, in your opinion, of US-Japan relations?
KY: Friendship. There are two or three things: One is, of course, strategic calculation matters when we talk about nation-to-nation relations. The business opportunities—business opportunities and economic connotation, strategic calculation. But most of the time, the country-to-country relation is stemming from people-to-people relations. So mutual understanding, mutual respect, trust, mutual trust. Those things are so important.
SM: We didn’t get a chance to talk about the details of the Consulate’s many ongoing activities, but during our interview at Woodlawn Cemetery, I noticed the Ambassador was wearing a lapel pin of Mount Fuji with the text “Japan 2019” underneath. Japan 2019 is an initiative, where the Japanese government highlights cultural activities throughout the city such as Jazz at Kitano, The Tale of Genji and Kyoto exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Satoshi Miyagi’s Antigone at Park Avenue Armory, and bunraku performances at Lincoln Center.
KY: Everybody feel that we are living in a very difficult time recently. so rapidly. The world of today, it’s very different from twenty years ago, forty years ago, fifty years ago. So more than ever, the relationship between US and Japan is so important, alliance is important. But alliance is not just military-to-military or government to government. As I just said, people-to-people relations are so important, and Japan 2019 is an initiative to let American people know, New York people know more about us through cultural activities, art, food, music, and so on. So this initiative is so critical. And especially next year is so important because we have Olympic games, Paralympic games in Tokyo. So now is a good time for us to promote cultural exchange between our two countries.
TN: One-point-five million Americans visited Japan in 2018, the highest that number has ever been. To the Ambassador, what makes Japan special is the unique combination of the traditional and the modern, and he hopes that more Americans make the international trip in 2019.
SM: It is 3 o’clock, and we know that your time is limited and precious. So we truly, truly appreciate your time. And thank you so much! Can we have a little photo op?
KY: Yeah, sure, sure. So you have a recording of my talk on Simon and Garfunkel, my gateway to New York City.
SM: Yes. I was going to ask you about The Beatles, but Simon and Garfunkel makes more sense!
KY: The Beatles were also equally inspirational to me. It was totally new world to me, I mean, a country boy.
SM: Thank you so much.
TN: It was such an honor.
SM: Yes, we are honored.
KY: [to Toshiki] You are always smiling.
TN: As sound engineer, I was smiling because I was in awe about how incredible the interview went and how beautiful that day turned out.
SM: Although we visited only Noguchi and Takamine, there are other prominent Japanese people interred at Woodlawn. If you want to take a stroll along the winding paths of the cemetery, you might run into the burial sites of businessman Rioichiro Arai and sumo wrestler Sorakichi Matsuda.
TN: Ambassador Yamanouchi started his position in New York in October 2018, and in that short time, it’s incredible how active he has been in the community. It was an honor to have him on the The Big Root.
SM: Thank you to the Consulate General of Japan in New York, especially Ambassador Kanji Yamanouchi, Maki Mizusawa, Takahiro Yamasaki, Gerald Demattia, and Emma Fahey.
TN: Thank you to the Woodlawn Cemetery and Conservancy, especially David Ison, Susan Olsen, and Barbara Selesky.
SM: Please go to thebigrootpodcast.com/survey to fill out our Listener Survey. We want your feedback to make this podcast better. There are 13 questions about you, how you found out about the podcast, how you like to listen to the podcast, what episodes you thought were good or bad, and what subjects you’d be interested in hearing more about. Please go to thebigrootpodcast.com/survey. And while you’re on our website, you can subscribe to The Big Root mailing list at thebigrootpodcast.com/subscribe for news and updates, including information about live events.
TN: Oh! We have a live podcast recording coming up. On Thursday October 17, Susan and I are hosting a U.S.-Japan Council New York regional event. We’ll have leaders speaking about storytelling in the Japanese American community. It’s a USJC-sponsored event, but it’s open to non-members as well.
SM: You’ll find out more about this event and other news when you subscribe to The Big Root mailing list. Once again, that’s thebigrootpodcast.com/subscribe.
TN: If you think that the stories we tell on The Big Root are important, please consider supporting the podcast through my Patreon page, patreon.com/toshnaka. Monthly listener support goes toward producing more podcast episodes, and it helps a lot.
SM: For more information about the Consulate General of Japan and the Woodlawn Cemetery and Conservancy, please go to thebigrootpodcast.com.
TN: We’re also on social media. We have a Facebook group called The Big Root, and we’re on Twitter @thebigroot and Instagram @thebigrootpodcast. We post photos and about new episodes. It’s fun.
SM: Ambassador Kanji Yamanouchi spoke about the music he enjoys listening to, but one subject we did not get to talk about is the music he performs! The Ambassador plays the guitar.
TN: Earlier this year, he performed with his band for Japan Day at Central Park and at the JAA Tanabata Festival.
SM: In line with Japan 2019, he will be at the Kitano Hotel for Jazz at Kitano in November. The venue usually features professional musicians, this is a special concert for charity.
TN: On our next episode in two weeks, we’ll be talking with Japanese jazz composer and big band conductor Miggy Miyajima, and we’ll hear some of her music on the podcast. But if we want more, we should record Ambassador Yamanouchi’s band, what an episode. Susan, let’s go to Jazz at Kitano in November.
SM: The Big Root is an independently produced podcast.
TGN: The theme song was performed by Kento Iwasaki, and this episode was edited by me and transcribed by Susan McCormac.
SM: For more information about the podcast, please visit thebigrootpodcast.com.
TGN: My name is Toshiki Nakashige.
SM: I’m Susan McCormac. Until next time.