Having lived and worked in the United States for over 30 years, Mitsukuni Baba is doing what he loves best — facilitating relations between his native Japan and his adopted homeland. As executive director of the Japan America Society of Chicago (JASC), Baba plays an integral role in introducing Japan to the people of Chicago in terms of business, politics, education and culture.
One of 38 such societies across the U.S., JASC was established in 1930 by locals who were eager to find out more about Japan and develop a relationship with its people. JASC celebrates its 90th anniversary this year.
As a young boy growing up in post-World War II Tokyo, the television was one of Baba’s earliest windows on the world.
“When I was a kid, not everyone had a TV yet. Just a few households in my area did. We would be invited to go over once or twice a week to watch TV as a treat, and I loved American shows,” he recalls. He especially enjoyed the TV series “Rawhide,” which featured a young Clint Eastwood in one of his first starring roles.
Fast forward to 1970, when Baba decided to pursue a graduate business degree in the U.S. In direct contrast to the Westerns he had loved as a child, he ended up at the University of Maine in the northeast of the U.S.
“My college professor advised me to go to a place where there were few Japanese. There were actually just two other foreign students beside me — one from India, and one from Canada,” he says with a chuckle, adding that he is still firm friends with both men today.
Following graduation from his U.S. college, Baba put his English skills to good use back in Tokyo when he started working for General Electric Japan in 1973. However, his language skills were not the only thing he had gained from his time in Maine.
Not long after arriving in the U.S., he had met, Noreen, his wife-to-be. “She was still a freshman and just 18. The arrangement was that she would finish her four-year college degree and then come to Japan so we could get married,” says Baba.
Time and distance proved no obstacle for the young couple and Noreen arrived in Japan in 1974 for their wedding. Assured by her fiancee that she “wouldn’t need” a wedding gown in Japan, the young bride didn’t bring one with her. Baba admits that he might have been misguided about that particular piece of advice, as upon her arrival, Noreen found she did need a dress — and her wedding day was the following week.
Fortunately, Baba’s mother, aunt and some neighbors pitched in to speedily create a dress for the bride-to-be. In fact, Mitsukuni and Noreen’s oldest daughter wore the same dress at her wedding.
The couple settled down to married life in Baba’s hometown of Hachioji, welcoming three daughters along the way. At the beginning of 1989, however, Baba switched jobs to work for TDK Corporation and was soon offered a position in Chicago. While it might seem that his American wife and bicultural children would have been delighted to move to the U.S., Baba says this was not the case at first.
“We were settled in Hachioji, had built a house and Noreen had integrated well into the community,” he says. “And while our daughters understood English, they didn’t really speak it that much.”
According to Baba, sports played a key role in helping the girls develop confidence after they moved to Chicago in the summer of 1989.
“I loved sports growing up and so I got them involved with community sports in Japan — swimming, volleyball, kendo,” he says. “When we came to the U.S., I put them all into swimming school. Eventually all three went on to play water polo at high school and they competed at top levels in the sport.”
Although the family had initially expected to stay in Chicago for three to five years, time passed by, but they stayed put. “Eventually it simply became home,” Baba says.
Baba’s career continued to flourish but his enthusiasm eventually waned after having to oversee wide-scale corporate layoffs. “It was the hardest time,” he recalls. “While I had enjoyed corporate life, I had to move on.”
He subsequently took early retirement in 2003 and then took over a small recruiting company after its owner decided to return to Japan. Baba worked with Japanese companies seeking bilingual employees in the U.S., enjoying the freedom of being self-employed and the new opportunities that opened up.
“For many years, I’d wanted to get involved with some kind of nonprofit (organization), especially in terms of U.S.-Japan relations. A friend told me that JASC were looking for an executive director,” he says of his current role at JASC, which he joined in 2008.
Baba is proud to be involved with JASC in its 90th anniversary year. While the organization receives sponsorship from local businesses, he points out that it is not a group solely for businesspeople, but aims to include all sectors of society. With help from his two staff members, Baba oversees around 45 events a year to promote Japanese-American relationships in Chicago, including lectures and cultural activities.
“We have something called the Young Professionals Committee, who arrange Japan-themed pop-up events, such as outings to ramen shops. These are opportunities (that are) popular with the younger generation and provide an important chance to network,” he says. “Sake tasting is one of the most popular events. We always have more than 200 people attending.”
JASC also endeavors to support Japanese-language learners, with some 250 to 300 adults attending its courses annually. Teens studying Japanese also compete to represent their high school at an event known as the Illinois Japan Bowl.
“We’ve seen that grow from 43 students six years ago to 250 this time,” Baba says enthusiastically. “We send the winners to the national event and have had some reach top-five placings.”
At JASC, Baba is definitely in his element.
“I love this job!” he exclaims. “Of course there are some headaches, but I’ve met so many interesting people and I love the diversity.”
Now that he is in his 70s and with four young grandchildren in the Chicago area, does he ever think of slowing down?
“Not yet,” he says with a laugh and firm shake of his head. “I’m going to keep going for a bit longer.”