Tadashi Yamamoto, pioneer of international exchange, dies at 76

April 16, 2012

Tadashi Yamamoto, a pioneer in promoting private-sector international exchange, especially between Japan and the United States, since the 1960s, died of gallbladder cancer on April 15. He was 76.

Yamamoto was president of the Japan Center for International Exchange.

In 1967, he organized the Shimoda Conference, a forum for policy dialogue between Japanese and U.S. leaders, which became synonymous with private-sector Japan-U.S. exchange.

The conference, held until the 1990s, brought together political and business leaders as well as scholars and journalists.

Among the U.S. participants in the initial Shimoda Conference was Donald Rumsfeld, then representative for Illinois, who later became secretary of defense.

Yamamoto, who founded the Japan Center for International Exchange in 1970, remained in touch with Rumsfeld.

In 1975, Rumsfeld, chief of staff to President Gerald Ford, met Saburo Eda (1907-1977), vice chairman of the Japan Socialist Party, at the White House.

It was through Yamamoto that the meeting came about.

It was an extraordinary event because the opposition party was adamantly opposed to the Japan-U.S. security alliance.

Yamamoto established other forums for private-sector overseas exchanges, such as the U.S.-Japan Parliamentary Exchange Program, the Trilateral Commission and the Korea-Japan Forum. In doing so, he helped to bridge people in a wide variety of areas.

He was decorated by the governments of Britain, Australia and Japan.

Yamamoto was committed to establishing civil society in Japan. He never relied on the government or left things in the hands of government officials. Not surprisingly, he was shunned by the government.

"Individuals (should) start (things) instead of waiting for words from authority," Yamamoto told The Asahi Shimbun last autumn. "What is important is each and every one of us."

In recent years, he directed his energies to supporting nongovernmental organizations.

Yamamoto, born to a Catholic family, originally intended to become a priest and studied at Sophia University in Tokyo. But his experience as a student in the United States from 1958 to 1962 apparently led to a change of heart.

The United States was caught up in social change. Martin Luther King led the civil rights movement, and John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1961.

After he returned from the United States, Yamamoto involved himself in overseas exchange under Tokusaburo Kosaka (1916-1996), president of Shin-Etsu Chemical Co. who later became a Lower House member.

When asked about the ideal image of Japan, Yamamoto said: "A country that does not rely on military power, but is internationally trusted, and proactively performs what can be done using a cross-sector network of people."

He also emphasized "human security," saying it should be Japan's greatest inherent strength.

Yamamoto was bitter about the dismal state of politics. But he had not given up, saying Japan, as well as himself, had much more to accomplish. He described himself as "probably an optimist."

Yukio Matsuyama, former director of The Asahi Shimbun’s editorial board who knew Yamamoto for many years, said, "The giant star has fallen."

"Yamamoto did more for international exchange than anyone else did, both in name and reality, having had nothing to start with," Matsuyama said. "He was liked by everyone (he came into contact with)."

Gerald Curtis, a professor of political science at Columbia University, said Yamamoto never had doubts, even in tough times, about his own philosophy that exchanges between democracies should be first conducted by the private sector.

Curtis, who knew Yamamoto for more than 40 years, said Yamamoto's interest expanded from the United States to Europe, South Korea and China as the international landscape changed over the years.

He said Yamamoto also worked on health issues in Africa in recent years.

Curtis credited Yamamoto with the fact that many foreigners have nurtured friendships with Japanese in a variety of areas.

Koichi Kato, former secretary-general of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, said Yamamoto helped many Japanese politicians, including former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, open their eyes to diplomatic issues.

Kato said Yamamoto was lamenting over the lack of political direction when he visited him in hospital in early April.

Kato quoted Yamamoto as saying, "I want to promote exchanges between Japanese and U.S. politicians, but I cannot because Japanese politics has wasted away. I am embarrassed."

Kato said, "The scope of exchanges has further narrowed now that Yamamoto passed away."

Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba said Yamamoto was a tough act to follow, calling his death a great loss to Japan's diplomacy.

Genba, who went to the United States and Australia on Yamamoto's programs, described him as a "pioneer of Japan's nongovernmental organizations."

Genba, noting that NGOs in Japan are effectively run by individuals, said they have managed to secure funds thanks to Yamamoto's personal appeal. He said it is important for the government to nurture NGOs in such areas as diplomacy and national security.

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Tadashi Yamamoto (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Tadashi Yamamoto (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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  • Tadashi Yamamoto (Asahi Shimbun file photo)
  • The second Shimoda Conference in 1969 (Provided by the Japan Center for International Exchange)

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