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Japanese Businesses Credit Postwar Success to Thousands of Emigres

xzzzBy Evelyn Iritani
Los Angeles Times

The occasion was an intimate gathering at Tokyo's historic Imperial Hotel, where Akio Morita, then chairman of Sony Corp. and vice chairman of Keidanren, Japan's most powerful economic organization, gave his guests from California a little history lesson.

Japanese companies owed their postwar success in the United States, Morita told Gov. Pete Wilson and his wife, to those who preceded them there - the thousands of emigres who became Japanese-Americans, then served as linguistic and cultural translators during the companies' early forays across the Pacific.

When Morita finished his remarks, Wilson turned to Jon Kaji, the state's trade representative, and said, "Well, Jon, I never knew any of this."

For Kaji, whose father helped Toyota establish its first office in Los Angeles in the mid-1950s, Morita's remarks were an unexpected and moving acknowledgment of a little-known piece of the transpacific relationship that has reshaped the U.S. economy from the auto factories of the Midwest to the farmlands of California's fertile Salinas Valley.

But except for Morita and a handful of other Japanese, this awareness is shared by few in Japan - even those whose economic successes were made possible in part by the immigrants who eked out livings in railroad camps, mines and ethnic enclaves.

Even in California, gateway to and from Asia for more than a century, the pivotal role played by immigrants in Japan's overseas expansion remains an almost invisible part of the past.

Indeed, time has not erased the tensions that remain between the communities - the Japanese who left their homeland for the United States and those who were left behind - that are linked by a common heritage yet are frequently at odds because of their divergent experiences.

Although five decades have passed since the countries signed the peace treaty that ended World War II, this summer's bitter auto dispute reminded people of Japanese descent on both sides of the Pacific that $175 billion worth of bilateral trade is no guarantee of harmonious relations.

And Japanese-American leaders in California, many of whose families were sent to internment camps after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, fear that they could suffer once again if relations between the countries deteriorate.

Morita's fund-raising efforts on behalf of Los Angeles' unique Japanese American National Museum represented the most significant step by corporate Japan to ensure that this history will not be forgotten. But hours after that dinner with Wilson in 1993, Morita suffered a stroke and disappeared from the public eye.

Since then, despite Japan's severe economic woes, Keidanren members have fulfilled a pledge to Morita by contributing nearly $7 million toward the museum's expansion. And the 642-member Japanese Business Association of Southern California has donated thousands of dollars to Japanese American groups throughout the region.

To try to keep the story alive, the Japanese American National Museum is co-sponsoring an exhibition that opened last month in Japan including paintings by some of the 120,000 Japanese Americans interned in the war.