Ian De Stains has a place in a decades-old British order of chivalry created by King George V in 1917. Yet after knowing him, this may be hard to believe.
De Stains forwent a trip to Buckingham Palace in 1993 to accept his title as Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) and meet the Queen of England. Since the honor was for his volunteer work in the Tokyo community, he opted to have it here in Japan. De Stains explains: “Because it was for the community, I wanted to have the ceremony here so members of the community could take part.”
A decade and a half later, De Stains continues to do charity work in his Tokyo community that in the past has included raising money to assist children with special needs.
When it comes to disclosing details, he is borderline secretive. “I feel it’s nice that you can do something and people don’t know it’s you. That gives me an additional sense of achievement — doing some good and nobody turns around and says thanks. It’s its own thanks.”
De Stains has been the executive director of the British Chamber of Commerce for 22 of the 33 years he has lived in Japan. He shares his BCCJ office, located in the pleasant neighborhood of Kagurazaka, Shinjuku Ward, with staff who have been there for almost just as long as his post.
Despite a comfortable life now, De Stains experienced his share of adversity since his childhood days back in England. “I came from a simple background. My parents were not particularly educated . . . I disliked my primary school. I had a headmaster who was an odious, dreadful man who used to make fun of my family name because it was a foreign name. I was born in a part of Yorkshire (England) where foreigners had not reached in those days. Other children then of course (thought), ‘The headmaster’s doing it so I can do it as well’ — so I was incredibly bullied.”
For De Stains, finding his way into one of the elite grammar schools in England became a step toward change: “I found that school could actually be fun and could be somewhere that I looked forward to going. The teachers were interesting people. There was the orchestra and the choir and the debating class, and there was rugby and cricket, and suddenly it was an entirely different life.”
This is where De Stains began to come into his own, delving into artistic pursuits, including music, writing and drama. Yet despite his newfound happiness, there were still certain troubles upon coming home to his modest neighborhood. “I used to get mocked by other kids for being a snob in a uniform — I would try to take it off at the local bus stop.”
Eventually the teenage De Stains made it to the world-renowned Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). Despite receiving top-notch evaluations, De Stains came to face another hard reality toward the end of his program.
“Given my physical size, the way that I looked, let’s face it — I’m nobody’s idea of a romantic lead. My teachers sort of said, ‘You’re going to have a really hard time finding work until you’re much older — as a character actor.’ At the time of course, that was devastating to hear.
“So I left drama school in 1968 and I did bits and pieces in the theater. I then did an audition, thinking that (it was) for a television soap opera for a new company called Yorkshire Television. It turned out that I was actually auditioning for the position of the station anchor.”
De Stains got the job and went back to his hometown. Yet the year that he was with Yorkshire Television is one he could easily forget: “I shudder to think what I might have looked like — I must have been just dreadful . . . really awful to live with, a real pain in the neck.”
Despite this period of self-proclaimed egotism and immaturity, somebody was paying attention and saw what they liked.
Just a year into his stint, he received a call from the BBC in Manchester and in 1969, De Stains joined the British news agency as a trainee producer-presenter in radio and television broadcasting. Eventually he was promoted to the London headquarters and in 1976 was called in for an important meeting.
“My boss said, ‘We think it’s time that you did some overseas work — Is there anywhere that you don’t want to go?’ and I said, ‘Yes, I don’t want to go to South Africa.’ In those days, it was apartheid and I could not have lived in that society. I suppose I thought, rather arrogantly, French being my second language, Paris would be quite nice, or maybe Montreal or even French West Africa.”
Soon after, De Stains got the call that would change the direction of his life forever. “They said, ‘You got the job,’ and I said, ‘What job?’ ” he recalls, “and they said, ‘It’s in Tokyo with NHK.’ “
“I had no idea. It was very difficult in the ’70s to find out about Japan. Japan was Mount Fuji and paper houses and cherry blossoms. I left London with trepidation wondering what on Earth it would be like.”
Luckily, De Stains found that, “almost immediately, I liked it — within a few days I felt that there was something for me here.”
Traveling around the country creating international radio and television programs with NHK was a frequent challenge. “I was learning about (Japan) as I was trying to teach other people about it so I would go off to Kamakura (Kanagawa Prefecture) or somewhere and in the space of a day try to understand as much as I could.”
Four years later in 1980, De Stains hit a major crossroads when his contract with NHK was up and it was time for him to return to Britain. He realized he had a major decision to make. “I had had a wonderful time here, met some marvelous people, and fallen in love with the culture. It just made sense for me to stay. I took the risk of saying I’ll resign from the BBC and set myself up independently here.”
From there De Stains found consultancy work to sustain him until joining the BCCJ. He also found a romantic partnership, and growing lifestyle interests, including meditation — all in a country he never expected to stay in more than two years.
Now there is no turning back. De Stains’ love for this country is in reasons small and large: “It’s walking along the river in the morning and a total stranger will say, ‘Ohayougozaimasu’ (good morning). Why does that matter? It does, actually — my primary relationships, friendships, the people I depend on to give me strength are all here. For me to pick up sticks and go back to the U.K., what would I do for that kind of social infrastructure, which is really, really important. It doesn’t matter how much you achieve in your professional life. It’s what are you doing in your community. Are you making a difference? Do you fit in? Are you rewarded by how you’re living?”
In large part, De Stains credits his late father with his present contentment and outlook on life. “It was a joke in my family that my father could never see the bad side in anybody. Even if somebody were known to be a local villain, my father would always find something good to say about him or her. And he always told us as children that wanting more things, wanting better things will never make you happy. You will never find satisfaction like that. It’s always in others, in helping others, in being of service to others. That’s where you’ll find happiness.”
De Stains expresses gratitude to the other “teachers that I have around me,” who, he explains, are “almost everyone that I meet and everyone that I come across — if you have an open mind and an open heart you can learn from almost every situation, even the situations that are less than pleasant at the time.”
“I’m baffled when I hear other foreigners talking about the Japanese being discriminatory. I have never in my life here been subject to anything overtly racist or discriminatory. I have always been treated with an enormous amount of respect and I’m certain people over the years have made enormous allowances for my faux pas or for my mistakes.”
De Stains, who is a firm believer in “life-long learning,” currently has classical guitar and Japanese travel in mind for the future. He has recently authored the book, “Japan: The Business Traveller’s Handbook,” and plans to continue writing, a passion since childhood. As for wearing his royal medal — he tends to leave it at home.