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Staff writer

Over the course of his career as one of Japan’s premier private diplomats, Tadashi Yamamoto has seen the focus of his nation’s relationship with the rest of the world shift from cultural exchange to international cooperation.

“Before, it was enough for us to try to develop better cultural understanding among foreigners about Japan,” the president of the Japan Center for International Exchange said in a recent interview in Tokyo. “But then as Japan became larger and more influential, (it) had to articulate its own policy,” Yamamoto said.

Today, the nation can no longer afford to be a bystander in international policymaking, he said. “We didn’t have to do it in our catch-up phase. Now, suddenly, we are thrust into the world unprepared. That’s the challenge.”

Yamamoto himself accepted this challenge in 1970, when he founded JCIE, a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization dedicated to strengthening Japan’s role as an international policymaker.

He has since become a member and Japanese director of the UK-Japan 2000 Group, an association of British and Japanese business, academic and political leaders who meet annually to discuss global policy issues and bilateral cooperation.

Last week, Yamamoto became an honorable commander of the most excellent order of the British Empire for his work in improving dialogue between the U.K. and Japan.

In the past, Yamamoto said, government alone was sufficient to conduct negotiations with other countries. Recently, however, private citizens and independent organizations are playing an increasingly crucial role. “Unless there is strong public support, it has become difficult for the government to shift foreign policy direction,” he said.

Still, most of Japan’s NGOs remain understaffed and underfunded, he added. “One of the biggest flaws of Japanese society is the dearth of independent institutions. Therefore, Japan can be under represented in many international fora,” Yamamoto said.

After graduating from Sophia University, Yamamoto studied in the United States from 1958 to 1962. While abroad, he was “deeply impressed by what we consider the golden age of idealism” and such Americans as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

This idealism has inspired his career as an independent diplomat, including his activities with the UK-Japan 2000 Group, which he said has the “nebulous” goal of facilitating intellectual, policy-oriented dialogue.

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