I was recently chosen by the Japanese government as one of 10 Japanese American leaders from around the country to have talks with its nation’s leaders — such as Prime Minister Fumio Kishida – in its business, government and non-profit sectors. The group I journeyed with was hosted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Our mission was to improve ties between the United States and Japan, which both nations see as increasingly important in these dynamic and dangerous times.
I came to be involved in this initiative because I am a member of the U.S.-Japan Council, whose mission is to foster personal relationships among Japanese Americans and native Japanese. Delegations, such as the one I was a part of, seek to reinvigorate connections that link two great democracies.
When I reflect back on my week of travel and meetings, a Japanese proverb with roots in 16th century Japanese tea ceremony comes to mind: ichigo ichie. The concept was explained to us by a tea ceremony master on the first day of our trip in Shizuoka Prefecture. Ichigo ichie is integral to the Japanese tea ceremony, as it creates harmony, gratitude and reverence, which are cornerstones of Japan’s culture and philosophy.
Translated, ichigo ichie means one time, one meeting. The concept emphasizes that an encounter with another person is unique and will never occur in exactly the same way. Because of this, it encourages us to cherish each moment and treat it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
As a Japanese American, I manage my life in a decidedly more western way than the tea master does. I rush through my work and life relying on checklists and efficiency to get through my crowded days. While I grasped ichigo ichie on an intellectual level, actually viewing the world through an ichigo ichie lens does not come naturally to me.
But as each day of my trip unfolded, ichigo ichie revealed itself at unexpected times, and not only during what I anticipated would be the highlights of our trip: engaging with the Prime Minister, dialoguing with Foreign Minister Hayashi, or participating in Digital Minister Kono’s karaoke dinner. (Hey, when in Rome…)
It was as our group walked through a serene Shizuoka pine forest at sunrise and stood at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, some of us skipping stones into the waves, that I suddenly and vividly remembered skipping stones with my grandparents on the Hawaiian shores of the Pacific Ocean over 40 years ago. That made me think about how proud they would be that their sacrifices and toiling on sugar plantations paved the way for their granddaughter, a yonsei (fourth generation Japanese American) to return to Japan as part of this delegation. Ichigo ichie.
Another moment of revelation occurred as my delegation visited teamLab, an immersive art experience that filled us with wonder as we sloshed through water features and gazed at light shows. At first, my western perspective got the best of me as I decided to skip the last display and wait for the others to finish. But my fellow delegate, Mark, refused to let me sit out. Thanks to him, I saw one of the most breathtaking displays of my life as a gigantic roomful of live flowers and plants descended from the ceiling. It was surreal and beautiful at once; and as Mark and I sat there together in amiable silence taking it in, I realized that I had a friend who cared so much that I not miss this incredible experience that he saw it twice, for me. Ichigo ichie.
As a communications counselor, I realize ichigo ichie can help those in my profession be better communicators. First, it encourages us to be fully present in our interactions. By adopting this mindset, we tend to listen more deeply to others. And more importantly, it fosters a sense of gratitude as we express appreciation for the other person’s time and contribution to the interaction. This helps us to see the many gifts we receive daily, if we only are attuned to recognizing them.
I expected my visit to Japan to impart important policy lessons and business insights that I could apply to strengthening the Japan-US relationship; but I got so much more from this trip. What I viewed as an obligatory part of a tea museum tour ended up transforming the way I looked at the world and the way I will spend time with people in the future. The multitude of ichigo ichie experiences that I had with my JALD delegation will stay with me for a lifetime, and will make me be a better leader, mother, wife and daughter.