Today in Casablanca a Japanese soccer team is playing for the Third Hassan International Cup. The match will be televised worldwide.

At the time of Yokohama Expo in 1989, Ayako Aoki was in charge of the Moroccan booth there, and dreamed of uniting Casablanca and Yokohama in a sister-city relationship. “Morocco was exotic and mysterious to the Japanese people,” she said. “Morocco was remote, a land of hot sun, desert and camels, veiled women and bearded men. I followed the aspiration of the Moroccan National Tourist Office to make travel a bridge between Morocco and Japan.” Director of the Moroccan National Tourist Office in Japan, Aoki is still hoping for the realization of a sister-city program.

Aoki was born in Taiwan to a peripatetic family. She attended four primary schools in Japan, then her parents settled upon a Tokyo Catholic missionary school for her junior and senior high school education. She earned her degree in commerce from Takushoku University. “I was interested in marketing, probably because my father was in industry,” she said. Traveling in her childhood and strict attention in classes account for her fluency in English.

She rose to the opportunities that the Tokyo Olympic Games of 1964 offered, and became secretary to the head of the Malaysian delegation. In her next big chance, she served as social secretary to the ambassadors from Nepal, Kuwait and Morocco. She filled these multiple capacities for nearly 20 years. At the time of the Osaka Expo, though, she was invited by the ambassador of Kuwait to be assistant commissioner general in the Kuwaiti pavilion. She said, “I really didn’t know what to do in such an important job, but I had a lot of help that enabled me to organize.” She adds that in her career she has always been surrounded by nice people.

In 1987 Aoki as director opened the first Moroccan National Tourist Office in Asia. “The late King Hassan II decided to establish MNTO to promote bilateral relationships,” she said. ‘When I was appointed, I had no professional background in tourism.” She was alone in setting up the office, which she has made into a busy one. “Morocco was not known at all in Japan, beyond the movie ‘Casablanca,’ ” she said. “I had already traveled to Morocco, and think it is a wonderful country. It is extremely west, and we in Japan are extremely east. I see my place as being in-between.”

She had a major part to play, one year after her appointment, in helping make arrangements for an official visit to Japan by the crown prince of Morocco. That became the first of several exchanges between the royal family of Morocco and the Imperial family of Japan. Aoki also instituted interchange programs for interest groups and tourists. “Morocco began to become known in Japan as a safe, peaceful and stable kingdom,” she said. “It has many attractive places, its prices are reasonable and its shopping, especially in the souks, unusual and exciting. It has a blend of cultures, a variation in climate and different landscapes. You can drive for a few hours from the beach to the mountains, and enjoy swimming and skiing on the same day.”

Aoki’s office and two Japanese corporate sponsors collaborated to open in April the Heart to Heart Plaza near Erfoud, Morocco. Caravan Voyages, a Japanese-owned tour operator in Casablanca, offered the space, and Pigeon Quality of Life Corp., a subsidiary of a baby-goods maker, lent its support in a program for planting dates and olives. “This is a program aiming at eco-tourism, the preservation of the environment and international friendship. Volunteers are invited to help with the planting. After four years, the dates and olives will be harvested for the good of the local children,” Aoki said. “Artist Masako Hasegawa, who donated her painting ‘Waiting People’ to Morocco through the Japan Morocco Exchange Association, planted dates at the Heart to Heart Plaza.” Aoki is adviser to this association.

Aoki describes Morocco as “a country with young energy.” She said: “More than 60 percent of the population is under 25. We are hoping within this year to organize the Morocco Culture Club for the younger generation, and to have more exchanges for young people. And I am still keenly interested in having a sister-city relationship between Casablanca, Marrakesh, Fez or Meknes and a city in Japan.”