What Would Be Japan’s New Way to Welcome Guests: Upon Resuming People-to-People Interactions

ITO Misako

Have you ever heard of the phrase “coconut wireless”? After more than two years of the COVID-caused suspension of business trips abroad, I finally made my trip to Hawaii earlier this spring.

When I visited Ms. Suzanne (Suzy) Puanani Vares-Lum, the new president of the East-West Center located on the campus of the University of Hawaii, Manoa, she opened her remarks by saying, “I heard about you from the coconut wireless.” Even though Suzy and I had exchanged e-mails in advance, this was our very first meeting in person. I was surprised to hear her say, “I heard about you.” Besides, I had no idea what on earth this “coconut wireless” meant. In Hawaii, is the coconut used somehow as a means of communication?

When I was a child in Japan, we used to play with a string telephone. We prepared two paper cups connected with a string. When I heard the expression “coconut wireless,” I couldn’t help smiling at an image of the good old string telephone. And I pictured two people putting coconut shells to their ears. Although the shells were wireless and not connected with any string, the two people were still able to communicate with each other. It was a very cute image of a tropical paradise. Is this the Hawaiian version of the expression “through the grapevine,” which means acquiring information through word of mouth?

My mind was thus filled with these visuals, but as I kept listening to Suzy, I began to realize that it was a Hawaiian idiom. Positive information obtained through conversations with close and trusted friends is said to have been heard from “the coconut wireless,” while this idiom doesn’t apply to negative information such as gossip of unknown origin. Even though it is called “wireless,” people need to meet in person to engage in this kind of friendly yet useful conversation.

Suzy, a retired Major General of the armed forces, is the first female, native Hawaiian (part Japanese American), to serve as President of the East-West Center since its establishment by the U.S. Congress in 1960. Most probably because of her previous career, she spoke articulately about security issues in the region, enlightening us on the geopolitics surrounding Hawaii even during my brief visit. The on-site visit to the institute was also very rewarding. The hall of the East-West Center was designed by I.M. Pei, a legendary world-renowned Chinese American architect. The hall’s pure white exterior shone in the dazzling sunlight. Through this visit to the center, I sensed the beginning of a bright future in our partnership across the Pacific. The beautiful hall surrounded by a serene Japanese garden strengthened this sense of mine. And I have already begun to look forward to a reunion with Suzy scheduled for this coming October in Tokyo.

Online Activities Are Not Almighty

For those of us whose primary task is to facilitate cultural, educational, and people-to-people exchanges, the global pandemic has been a scourge. It has prevented people from visiting one another, having meals together, and discussing matters at length. They say, “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.” All those things which we used to take for granted were suddenly lost. Just then, what seemed like a “redeemer”, viz online activities arrived on the scene. However, can they be a real substitute? For the past two years or so, we have tried to pretend that in this highly advanced 21st century, we could do most of our work by way of online meetings. Saving long-distance trips, physical strength, time, and money, we have tried to convince ourselves that we would still be able to get our work done.

However, things were not so simple. Sometimes we were left unsatisfied even after hours of online meetings and discussions. Occasionally we felt that, if only had we been allowed to engage in face-to-face discussion, we could have reached a mutual consent that covers finer details or could have settled some disputes quite amicably.

To be sure, meeting one another for the first time in person after online meetings seems a little awkward at first, but such awkwardness will soon evaporate. At the conference I attended in Hawaii, I saw participants from the U.S. mainland as well as those from Asian countries hugging one another, exchanging words, and smiling joyfully with one another at the real reunion. They seized every moment to have face-to-face discussions both within and outside the official meeting time. While everyone consoled themselves with the fact that they were able to cover a certain amount of work during the high time of the pandemic, now they are reaffirming that there is nothing better than working together in person.

Are We Ready to Welcome Back Overseas Visitors? Are We Strategic Enough?

Hawaii is geopolitically vital, too, because of its location in the region. At the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (DKI APCSS), a U.S. Department of Defense training center, I visited my long-time friend, Dr. Lori Forman, who is another embodiment of “the first in such and such.” She is the first non-Japanese Ph.D. with her thesis written in English at Keio University. This institute, DKI APCSS, brings together participants from the U.S. and abroad for one to five weeks of training, where they study security issues in the Asia-Pacific region, share experiences, and foster friendship and trust among themselves. More than 14,000 graduates have been trained there so far, including later presidents, prime ministers, deputy prime ministers, ambassadors, legislators, and other leaders in charge of security issues in their respective countries. Unfortunately, the number of participants from Japan has not been increasing for some time, so I would like to encourage the readers of this essay to consider sending young mid-career officers/executives from Japan.

The non-attribution policy is strictly upheld throughout the course and even after the completion of the program: no information is released about who from which country said what. Lori explained that this constitutes the institute’s mainstay and essential strategy. With its motto, TMI (Transparency, Mutual Respect, Inclusiveness), the Center adheres to its role as a “facilitator,” which it believes to be the key to its success. In this way, even participants from mutually unfriendly countries can get along with each other during the program. She added that the institute, remaining a faithful facilitator throughout, neither urges, persuades, or coerces. They proudly call this stance “Strategic Aloha.”

Having met these two outstanding leaders in Hawaii, I started wondering if Japan might also be able to adopt some powerful motto that would demonstrate to its visitors what Japan values and aims for. Perhaps what impressed me so much about my business trip this time is the very location of Hawaii, or perhaps it is the fact that the two women I met are simply extraordinary. I was moved by their patriotism, love of the local culture of Hawaii, the way they do their jobs, and the way they express themselves in the “Hawaiian” style. The distinguished women seemed to be as flexible as the fresh trade winds that blow across the Hawaiian Islands.

We are not sure yet when this COVID-19 pandemic will be thoroughly over. However, it would not be too early to start thinking ahead now whether we, Japanese, have a clearer image and strategy of how to resume welcoming overseas visitors, when “the new normal” comes to settle down and Japan’s borders open wider. My recent visit to Hawaii convinced me that Japan needs a clear strategy and a charming phrase that would go beyond the overused and obsolete “omotenashi”.

ITO Misako served as Director of JICC, Embassy of Japan in Washington DC, Director of JCC, Embassy of Japan in Singapore, and currently serves as Secretary-General of CULCON in Tokyo.