The Dignified Diplomat // Yuko Kaifu
Nurturing a Deeper Appreciation of Japan
A graduate of Nara Women’s University, Yuko Kaifu started her career at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, a government agency responsible for the country’s diplomacy and international relations. Her previous assignments with the Ministry include the Embassy of Japan in Canada and various departments at the Ministry’s headquarters in Tokyo. During her time in Tokyo, she was the official interpreter for dignitaries such as Her Majesty the Empress Heisei and several Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers of Japan. In 2001, she became a consul in charge of political affairs at the Consulate General of Japan in Los Angeles. She left the government in 2007 to work at the Japanese American National Museum as Vice President in charge of its international programs, and then at MUFG Union Bank as Managing Director of Corporate Communications. When the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan launched JAPAN HOUSE Los Angeles, a public diplomacy institution, Yuko joined as its president in January 2016.
Yuko has served on the boards of various nonprofit organizations that serve the Japanese and Japanese American community.
May 2022, Takashi Murakami ✖️ Etsuko Price in conversation
Iroha: Please tell us about your past work, projects, or initiatives.
Yuko: When I graduated from college, I joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, where I worked at the Japanese Embassy in Ottawa, Canada. Later I returned to Tokyo and worked in a few departments. One of the most memorable projects I led there was to restore and conserve paintings by the avant-garde Japanese French artist Leonard Foujita (Tsuguharu Foujita) in Paris.
Fostering relations between Japan and Japanese Americans has been my personal commitment. When I worked at the Consulate in LA, I was the liaison officer with the Japanese American community. I worked on establishing an annual Japanese American Leadership Delegation, an invitation program by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that connected/reconnected a group of Japanese American leaders with Japan. In those years, the relationship between Japan and Japanese Americans was not strong due to a long-time dissociation after WWII, and we felt it was important to strengthen this relationship, as it could be the basis of a stronger bilateral relationship. The program has lasted for more than 20 years.
In 2016, I started my work as the president of JAPAN HOUSE Los Angeles. The purpose of JAPAN HOUSE is to cultivate awareness of and appreciation for Japan by showcasing the best of Japan in a wide range of areas from culture and art to science and technology, design, architecture, entertainment, gastronomy, and much more. There are three locations of JAPAN HOUSE: LA, London, and Sao Paulo. We celebrated our 5th anniversary in the summer of 2023. We are currently presenting the exhibition Pokémon x Kogei: Playful Encounter of Pokémon and Japanese Craft, which will continue until January 7, 2024.
Pokémon x Kogei：Playful Encounters of Pokémon and Japanese Craft
Iroha: Please share your story in relation to the Asian glass ceiling. Based on your experience, have you been involved with any organization or activism to address the problem?
Yuko: "Hate is a Virus," a non-profit organization that works against Asian hate, hosted an event at JAPAN HOUSE LA to raise awareness and mobilize united efforts in late 2021, and I participated in the program. I haven't had any personal experience of becoming a target, but I have heard stories from my friends and acquaintances of verbal assaults.
Iroha: What is your advice to younger Asians who want to break through the Asian glass ceiling?
Yuko: In recent years, this issue has been taken more seriously so that more Asians are given opportunities for promotion and better positions. However, we must not only prove ourselves, but we must also be more vocal and assertive so that people around us and above us will hear our voices and recognize us.
Iroha: What causes do you support and what activities are you involved in?
Yuko: I have been actively engaged in and have sat on the boards of a few non-profit organizations such as the U.S.-Japan Council and the UCLA Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies. I believe these efforts will facilitate the relationship between Japan and the U.S. in multiple ways.
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Iroha: Based on your work and your background, do you have any advice or a message for young people who want to follow in your footsteps?
Yuko: When I joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs fresh out of college, I never imagined that I would leave the Foreign Service mid-career, relocate to LA, and change jobs. However, I made big decisions every time a new opportunity was offered to me. I encourage young people to stir up their courage and take on new challenges if they look enticing and attractive. I am sure that Gen Z enjoys much more mobility and opportunities than when I was their age. Strong desire, passion, and continuous efforts will ensure their success in whatever area they are in.
With actor Ken Watanabe at Dodger Stadium
Iroha: Outside of work, what are you most interested in right now?
Yuko: I practice yoga weekly to regain my mental and physical energy, and I want to improve it.
written by Susan Miyagi McCormac photography: © JAPAN HOUSE Los Angeles
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