As I was waiting in D/FW early this morning, steeling myself for another thirteen-hour transit of the Pacific, I wondered just how many times I have been to Japan. A check of my passport revealed that this would be my eighth trip since 2003. Some quick counting on my fingers produced the figure of six visits prior to 2003, though my middle-aged memory makes that total less than completely trustworthy. Altogether, then, it seems that I have now been to Japan on at least fourteen occasions. My longest time there was in 1991 to 1992, when I was doing dissertation research in Tokyo; the shortest was a harried two-day whirlwind for a conference in Kyoto about three years ago, when I believe I spent as many hours en route as on the ground in Japan.

My first visit was when I was ten years old. Japan and I have both changed a lot since 1973. I recall meeting my Japanese grandmother (for the only time) and seeing the horizontal stains on the walls of her farmhouse, an archive of high water marks from a century of typhoons and floods in rural Mie Prefecture. I remember sniffing at a lot of unusual foods, but subsisting mainly on sandwiches and Fanta orange soda. I know I spent a lot of time (with my mother in tow) sweeping though department stores for Godzilla toys and hoping (fruitlessly, of course) that the King of the Monsters might just rear up out of Tokyo Bay when I happened to be in town.

Only many years later did I come to recognize that my first visit to Japan came at a significant historical moment. Japan in the summer of 1973 was riding the crest of a twenty-year-long economic boom, a surge of industrial growth unprecedented in world history in its scale and its duration. Within two short generations, Japan was transformed from an impoverished and war-ravaged wasteland into one of the world’s richest, best educated, and most innovative nations. The changes were so fast and so profound that many observers in the West, who never expected an “oriental” society to rival the powers of Europe and North America, spoke disbelievingly of a Japanese economic “miracle.”

There was, inevitably, a down-side to Japan’s dramatic postwar growth spurt. By the early 1970s, pollution in Japan was acute: traffic policemen in Tokyo were issued respirators because of the noxious air in the city. Japanese workers labored long hours and lived in cramped quarters; Japanese women had few career options and a very circumscribed place in public life. And Japan was highly dependent on imported raw materials, especially oil, to feed its growing industrial machine, a fact that became only too painfully obvious with the coming of the OPEC oil embargo in the fall of 1973.

There are many parallels between the Japan of thirty years ago – booming, optimistic, churning out the exports, choked with smog, a source of wonderment (as well as worry) for the world – and the China so much on everyone’s minds today. The past three decades, however, have brought Japan both highs and lows: I was there to see the heady heights of the “Bubble Economy” in the 1980s and to witness the dispiriting depths of the “Great Recession” of the 1990s.

Delegation.jpg On all of my recent trips to Japan, I have been struck by how economic woes, political instability, and social change (especially the rapid aging of the population) have sapped the country of the vitality, optimism, and ambition that were so much in evidence back in 1973. Japan has seemed an oddly muted place to me in recent years, enlivened a bit by the riotous creativity of its popular culture, but otherwise somewhat enervated, resigned to just getting by, lacking those sparks of vision and daring and swagger that fire places like China or South Korea or Dallas. Japan these days, I often tell people, reminds me a bit of Nebraska.

Although I have been to Japan many times, I am thrilled to be going back on this trip with the JALD group. I am eager to gain a different perspective on Japan today. I look forward to meeting with Japan’s political, economic, and educational leaders and discussing where Japan has been and where it can aspire to go. Above all, I want to explore how Japan and the United States can work better together, to discover what role Japanese Americans can play in this process, and to imagine how Japan’s future might be brighter than its recent past.

(In photo: The 2011 Japanese American Leadership Delegation visited the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles for orientation in January.)