Most of them can’t speak Japanese, or can’t speak it very well. Some have only been to Japan a few times.

But the tug of cultural roots and a request from the Foreign Ministry brought a dozen third-generation Japanese-American community leaders to Japan on a 10-day visit to improve relations between Japanese-Americans and Japan.

The group seemed to both enjoy and regret the schedule for their short trip, which was jam-packed with some 25 official meetings and tours, with the likes of Foreign Minister Yohei Kono, Prince Takamado, his wife, Princess Hisako, and Osaka Gov. Fusae Ota.

But some said that when they leave today they will take away with them acquaintances, contacts and relationships that will pave the way for future exchanges and better ties.

David “Mas” Masumoto is a Californian farmer and writer who gained fame in the United States for waging a public battle to save a delicious, but poor-selling variety of peach that his family farms near Del Rey.

He said that on this trip, he saw strains on Japanese farms that are similar to those in California, such as a dwindling and aging population, increased competition and “growing concern over concentration of large corporate structures into a historically small village structure.”

“Increased competition is slowly dismantling the village idea, and I see the same happening in Japan,” Masumoto said. “So I think now is the time we could have wonderful dialogues about that.”

Some in the group thought they could contribute ideas toward Japan’s fledgling nonprofit organization movement, which is a powerful force in the U.S.

The group was also expected to take on an informal role in Japan-U.S. relations.

Alan Nishio, an associate vice president at California State University, Long Beach, said Japanese-Americans were a “unique bridge” that “extended beyond business.”

But for Irene Hirano, president of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, America’s only museum dedicated solely to Japanese-Americans, that role is an unavoidable obligation.

“Many of the people we met with were surprised that sansei were interested in U.S.-Japan relations,” she said.

Alluding to the World War II internment camps, Hirano added ruefully, “But Japanese-Americans, in good times and in bad, are caught in the middle of that relationship.”

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