Canadian ambassador brings a lifelong love of Japan to his post

by Tai Kawabata

Joseph Caron, Canada’s ambassador to Japan since 2005, remembers his first day here — a Saturday in late August 1975. He stayed at the Hotel New Otani and visited Ginza, Nihonbashi and Omote-sando.

“I just felt right at home and I thought I liked it here,” he says now.

What he felt that day somewhat foretold his later diplomatic career. Now on his fifth stint in Japan, he has spent 17 years here out of his 36-year career.

In early March, Caron received an honorary doctorate from Meiji Gakuin University for his “contribution to humanity from the standpoint of a diplomat.”

“I’m truly honored. First surprised and then honored,” Caron says.

His first job as a diplomat was serving in Vietnam in 1973 as a Canadian member of the International Commission of Control and Supervision created in the Paris Peace Accords.

“We have active diplomacy and foreign policy related to the issues of peacekeeping, human rights, etc. That’s our legacy and is something we do professionally,” Caron says. “Fortunately my first foreign assignment was peace supervisory operations in Vietnam. So I am not an exception at all.”

Much later, Caron, then ambassador to China, was caught up in a major incident. On the afternoon of Sept. 29, 2004, 44 North Koreans climbed over the wall of his embassy in Beijing, seeking passage to South Korea.

Caron says he had two obligations — the legal obligation under international law related to how to treat people who declare themselves as refugees, and the human obligation to feed and take care of the men, women and children.

It took three months for the situation to be resolved. “But ultimately I think these people achieved what they wished to do,” Caron says. “I think we did the job we had to do well and I think these people benefited from that.”

Caron thinks that Meiji Gakuin University’s honorary doctorate is especially meaningful because the school is enthusiastically internationalist in orientation, including its deep relations with Canada. It boasts strong Canadian studies activities and student exchanges, through Simon Fraser University in particular.

His thoughts go back more than 140 years to James Curtis Hepburn, an American missionary who opened the Hepburn school in Yokohama, from which Meiji Gakuin University developed. He says that the Hepburn-style romaji popularized by the missionary helped him a lot when he first learned Japanese at a U.S. language institute in the port city in 1975.

Caron was born in 1947 to a French-speaking farming family in the predominantly English-speaking province of Ontario. Although his community, including schools and stores, spoke French, English was very much a part of his everyday life.

But interestingly, Caron as a child was exposed to Japan through his aunt, an older sister of his mother, who was teaching English at a school in Fukushima Prefecture as part of a Catholic mission. She frequently sent him letters, picture postcards, photographs and sometimes dolls and other Japanese items.

“So I was always conscious that there was something much beyond my farm and my village. So at a very early age (9), I begged my parents to get me an atlas.”

At the University of Ottawa, he took Chinese classes because it was the only Asian language taught there at the time.

In Ankara, his second posting after Saigon, the direction of his career veered toward Japan. There he proposed marriage to Kumru Aytug, a librarian and receptionist at the Canadian Embassy. “The same week we decided to marry, ‘jinjibu’ (Japanese for the personnel section) in Canada asked me, ‘Do you want to go to Japan?’ ” Caron says.

Of course he accepted the offer.

There were some “interesting coincidences — coincidences I was able to use to my advantage,” Caron says. His fiancee had lived in Japan for five years since her father was ambassador to Japan, is very fond of the nation and already had many friends here, making her a “tremendous support” for Caron.

In his first days in Japan, he faced “two huge challenges.” The first was learning a few Japanese phrases like “Do itashimashite” (“Don’t mention it. You are most welcome”) and “Domo arigato gozaimashita” (“Thank you very much. I much appreciate your help”). The second was “learning to eat sushi.” “I told myself I am going to absorb as much Japan as possible, even physically, and as fast as possible,” he recalls.

Laying down principles he believes are important for a diplomat, Caron says, “I think fundamentally you have to be curious, open-minded and empathetic.

“Each culture has its own richness. You have to go beyond yourself. You have to start with a notion that you are going to be seeking to find different ways of viewing things, not confirmation of yourself and your way of viewing things.”

At the same time, Caron says, “you have to be articulate” because a diplomat has to represent his or her country’s interests.

In terms of advice for Japanese youth, he says, “Learning another language is extremely important.” He is so proficient in Japanese that he often makes speeches in Japanese. But he humbly says, “I’m not a good example. I speak some Japanese. But I at least put forth an effort. It has hugely enriched and transformed my life, allowed me to do a few things in Japan that I could not have done if I did not have that.”

Looking back at his career, Caron says, “Quite frankly, presenting my credentials to the Emperor was the moment I would never forget. It was the start of a confirmation that I had achieved my objective.”

He says that the Canada-Japan relationship, which legally goes back to 1929, is “very matured” and that “we have very few bilateral problems.”

This means that being the Canadian ambassador to Japan is not so much worrying about day-to-day things as preparing for the future so that both nations will benefit as much as possible from their relationship, Caron says.

He lists signing a free-trade agreement, cooperation in agriculture and the food sector, and Japan’s increased role in the area of peacekeeping and peace-building as three important issues.

He hopes that not only the Japanese government, but also the people will have a wider perspective internationally and make contributions.

“I think the more Japan and the Japanese people engage internationally, through business, through academia, through studying abroad, in other words, more than simply tours, more than simply going and coming back with visual images, and the more the Japanese absorb a sense of the rest of the world, the more Japan and the Japanese people can benefit and the more they can contribute.”