The Russian Diplomat

Mid-August 2014. I had now been the U.N. reporter for The Yomiuri Shimbun for well over a year. My reputation at the U.N. had grown in scope – I was now actively asking questions at press conferences that were considered hard and to the point by many diplomats and U.N. officers. From asking about the awareness of U.N. Security Council resolutions regarding North Korea among the import/export community towards the Head of the North Korean Sanctions Committee to pointed questions at Ambassador Sergeyev of Ukraine regarding Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Ukraine’s response – people were noticing.

Standing at the U.N. Security Council Stakeout area reserved for journalists, one day in that August a high-ranking Russian diplomat walked up to me.

“I hear you’re an American born and raised in Japan. I find that very interesting…and I’d like to be your friend. Let’s go out for dinner, on me.”

Around this time French U.N. Ambassador Araud and others notables in the U.N. world began following me on Twitter…the reality hit that members of the Security Council were now paying attention to me.

August 30th – Russia invades Eastern Ukraine. The following Tuesday I have dinner scheduled with that high-ranking Russian diplomat at a Russian restaurant where he insists I have vodka with him. This invite was after an outing to an upscale Japanese restaurant where he let me order whatever I wanted, all on him. He paid in cash.

“Let’s keep this meeting of ours secret. Don’t tell anyone…you seem to have a good grasp of world affairs and I want to hear what you have to say.”

Our conversation on international politics began with the promise of secrecy.

The Russian diplomat began explaining in his opinion Russia always does better “with a strong leader.”

I interrupted: “you’re right, not all societies are fit to be democracies.” He perked up at this comment.

“Even the democracy we have here today, we went through the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Women’s Liberation Movement. You can’t impose democracies from the top.”

We began talking history. I explained to him in my view the U.S. played more of an assisting role in defeating the Axis powers, and the Soviets took on the brunt of the fighting in WWII as reflected in Soviet casualty rates and German casualty rates on the Eastern Front.

We began talking about Cold War dynamics, how the U.S. inherited the British Empire structurally and financially and created an alliance system to contain the Soviets, and due to nuclear deterrence things were relatively stable excluding Korea and Vietnam until Perestroika. I also told him in my view, as the U.S. is a young country compared to Eurasian societies and lacks institutional memory of international politics, this inexperience is reflected in our foreign policy decisions.

The Russian diplomat, who up to now was maintaining a reserved, stoic posture and attitude, widened his arms, leaned in, and with open eyes and an expression of amazement exclaimed “I can’t believe an American is saying this!”

From there we began meeting every two weeks, always at a restaurant some distance from the U.N. He always paid, in cash, bringing an occasional gift such as bottles of expensive whiskey. 

After three months passed, he took our conversation to another level. “I like your ideas of the world. I want to have meaningful conversations about them with you…write me an essay on your ideas of Japan-Chinese relations. Three pages. I’ll read it over and we’ll talk about it in depth.”

Though the Russian diplomat stressed not to tell anyone about our meetings, I had confided to my senior colleague Mizuno-san about our restaurant rendezvous. I brought up this request with him.

“Did you write it?

“No I haven’t, wanted to see what you think.”

“Don’t write it. He’s got an ulterior motive, and it’s not appropriate for a Yomiuri journalist to be writing about that topic for a Russian diplomat anyway.”

Early December, me and the Russian diplomat met at another upscale Japanese restaurant downtown. He brought with him another expensive bottle of whiskey.

Our conversation started on the world, as usual. “So, the Russians were conducting military drills near northern Japan recently…”

Toward the end of the dinner, he says, “so, the three-page pager on Japan-Chinese relations…”

“Nah I didn’t write it! Talked it over with my boss, it’s not appropriate for a Japanese journalist to be writing about that to a Russian diplomat.”

 His expression turned sour. We quietly finished eating, he paid, but did not schedule another time for dinner. His last words were “I told you not to tell anyone, there’s a saying in Russia if you tell one person everyone will hear about it…”

 That was the last time I had dinner with that high-ranking Russian diplomat. We maintained cordial relations at the U.N. onwards. I ran into him and his family at the Museum of Natural History in New York months after I left the U.N. He ran up to me “Matthew Matthew! You remember me?” He seemed happier to see me than me him – I at least had made a good impression.

 I to this day do not know what he wanted from me via that paper. Maybe I don’t want to know.

Democracy or Autocracy: Political Philosophy, International Affairs, and a Japanese Anime

Japanese anime is now internationally mainstream, including In the United States. At one-point anime was watched by only a small “geeky” segment of the population here but is now consumed by many, of all ages. Americans of all types, from jocks and business professionals to military personnel, frequently tell me they watch anime.

Favorites many point to include Dragon Ball, Naruto, and Death Note, among a host of others. You see people with Goku t-shirts in NYC all the time.

One anime no one brings up as their favorite to me, however, is the Legend of the Galactic Heroes.

This is my favorite. I watched my share of anime growing up in Japan. Out of all the ones I watched, this series particularly stands out in my mind.

Based on a science fiction novel series by Yoshiki Tanaka, the anime version debuted in 1988. The final episodes were published in 2000, totaling 110. During my adolescence this show was almost an obsession with me, and it cemented my interest in international affairs and geopolitics.

Americans have never heard of this series for the most part, even the ones who consume anime on a regular basis. Described as a “Space Opera,” it is science fiction. But this is not your typical science fiction.

There are no aliens. Only humans who spread out throughout the galaxy. There is nothing supernatural, like “the Force” in Star Wars. The main characters are not on a galactic adventure, as in Star Trek.

The series is about politics and war. Age-old questions humanity face set hundreds of years in the future.

The series begins over 800 years in the future with humanity having colonized much of the galaxy. However, war as a societal phenomenon continues despite technological progress.

The galaxy is split in two opposing sides: the democratic Free Planet Alliance and the autocratic Galactic Empire have been at perpetual war for over 150 years with no end in sight. You follow two protagonist geopolitical and military geniuses, Yang Wen-li and Reinhard von Lohengramm, who quickly rise up the ranks to fame and power and alter the dynamic of the stalemate. The two become mortal rivals who at a deep level respect one another.

When admirals are not directing battles involving hundreds of thousands of ships and millions of military personnel utilizing cunning strategies reminiscent of my favorite Chinese geopolitical historical fiction The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, political intrigue runs amok as Machiavellian players strive to outmaneuver one other.

The central philosophical question that threads the entire series together is which is superior: a corrupt democracy, or an efficient autocracy.

Which is one reason I believe this series never took off in the States. Democracy is an unquestioned ideal in America. Many here would not favor a show that does not put on a pedestal what Americans consider a political system that represents an universal ideal and an answer to much of the world’s political problems (as seen in the Democratic Peace theory taught in American universities that declares democracies are hesitant to engage in armed conflict with other democracies). 

Many Americas would also consider this series boring. There are entire episodes where only two, three key characters are in conversation with no movement or action, only the animated discussion of ideas. Americans are used to Marvel Comic type shows where strong individuals are in perpetual action. Many would probably rather not watch 30 minutes of political philosophy being discussed as an entire episode.

But this is why I love this series. Intelligence, teamwork, strategy, and talent are valued. Rash actions by individuals not so much. The series, despite being a science fiction anime, is steeped in realism. Millions die in battle, and in the galaxy only the fittest--the most cunning--can survive.

This series reflects our current world. Russia and China, dominant autocracies, have allied and are making formidable gains throughout the world, from Ukraine and Syria to throughout Eurasia and Latin America. The Mueller Report confirms that Russia did indeed conduct a “a social media campaign designed to provoke and amplify political and social discord in the United States…[that] by early 2016 favored candidate Trump and disparaged candidate Clinton,” taking advantage of our democratic process for political gain. As of the writing of this blog the Trump administration seems outmaneuvered by Iran (more of a theocracy than an autocracy, but still the government wields rigid control) in the Persian Gulf, though to be fair events have yet to be played through to the end. President Obama faced challenges by a Republican-dominated Congress that tied his hands in both domestic and foreign policies. Putin and Xi face no such hurdles as autocratic leaders.

A remake of the Legend of the Galactic Heroes was released last year for those interested. Though developers are not going to remake the entire 110 episodes, you will get a flavor of the series by watching the first season rereleased 2018.

I do not watch anime anymore. During my free time I read or am engaged in other constructive activities, like writing, networking, or briefing myself with current events and the world’s top minds’ analysis of it. Still, my life and career would have been fundamentally different if it weren’t for the Legend of the Galactic Heroes. I would not have pursued a career in international affairs otherwise. I owe my life to this series.

Beyond Sushi: The Best Japanese Restaurants in NYC

Most Americans have no clue what good Japanese food is.

How would they? Your average Japanese restaurant in the U.S. serves food you don’t even see in Japan: teriyaki chicken and sushi rolls, for example. American inventions. And they’re not great cuisine items either.

People frequently ask me about sushi in Japan. Like I spent my entire childhood eating nothing but sushi. That’s like saying Americans eat nothing but steak, or the French subsist on croissants.

There’s a whole ocean of Japanese food that goes beyond sushi, much of which is unavailable at your typical Japanese restaurant in the United States. Japanese style hamburger-steaks, gyu-don (beef over rice), and sōmen noodles are popular everyday meals.  There’s a whole world of pickles, from radish to alliums. Dishes also include okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake made with cabbage, usually eaten for lunch/dinner), sukiyaki (beef hotpot cooked with sugar), and hayashi rice (Western-style stew and rice with red wine and tomato sauce).

For those who live in or are visiting NYC – fear not! This bicultural International Relations Consultant is here to recommend you some of my favorite Japanese restaurants in the city. These establishments not only serve good food, but they’re authentic, frequented by many from the Japanese community in NYC and beyond.


Riki – Izakaya Style Restaurant

Riki is an Izakaya, or a Japanese tapas restaurant, located on 45th St. between 3rd and Lex. I frequented this establishment when I was the U.N. reporter for The Yomiuri Shimbun – I would take my journalist colleagues and diplomat sources here for an authentic Japanese culinary experience.

Izakaya are a common style of restaurant in Japan. The idea is you go with a group, order a few beers (or sake and shochu, Japanese-style vodka) with an assortment of small plate meals. Riki’s menu is…long. Multiple pages, with a long list of selections on every page. You would have to visit Riki multiple times before you tried every item, and they’re always switching it up. They have everything from okonomiyaki to goya-chample (an Okinawan style fry dish with tofu and the vegetable goya) to an assortment of skewers, noodles, and stir-fry dishes, all exceptional and authentic. My favorites there include tako-wasa (raw octopus pieces marinated with wasabi), goya-chample, and buta-bara (pork belly skewers), among many others.

Riki is frequently packed so I recommend getting a reservation.

And yes, they have excellent sushi, if you must! Prices are affordable here also.


Misoya – Ramen

You can’t talk food in Japan without talking ramen, Chinese noodles Japanese style. Misoya is excellent at, you guessed it, miso broth ramen. Located on 129 2nd Ave, and a favorite haunt of mine. My good Japanese friend Taka swears by this place, and I agree: it’s one of the best ramen shops in the city.

Ramen is the working person’s dish in Japan – you eat it on the run during lunch, for example. Drinking with your colleagues is a big part of life in Japan, and if you go out all night with your work buddies for beers and songs at karaoke, you usually end up stopping by a ramen place around 4:00 am (then you hit the office!). 

No need for a reservation here, and ramen you could enjoy alone or with a group. Try their chicken karaage (deep-fried chicken Japanese style) and other assortment of small dishes available here – all great to eat.


Hakubai – Kaiseki Cuisine

For those who want to splurge on high class Japanese food, this is your spot. Located in the basement of Kitano Hotel on 66 Park Ave, in terms of quality, Hakubai offers the best Japanese food I’ve had in NYC. Prices here are higher than the first two restaurants I introduced – and for good reason. Expect to spend at least $100 minimum per person for their multicourse meals, but more likely it will be $150-$200.

Hakubai serves Kaiseki Ryori, or Japanese haute cuisine. This establishment lives up to the highest expectations.

And it’s not just the food – it’s the experience. Kaiseki Ryori is about the ambiance and superb service, Japan style.  The décor matches the elegance of the cuisine, and both are carefully chosen to reflect the season. Hakubai will allow you to savor an authentic culinary cultural experience far removed from the ordinary.

Reservation recommended, and their dress code is “elegant casual.”

There are other notable Japanese restaurants in NYC – feel free to contact me for further recommendations!

The Future of Japan

“Despite Rising Economic Confidence, Japanese See Best Days Behind Them and Say Children Face a Bleak Future.”


So goes the headline of a November 12, 2018 PEW Research Center report on the Japanese population’s feelings of their future. Gloom and doom, indeed.


I had a conversation with Dan Suzuki recently, a portfolio strategist at Richard Bernstein Advisors LLC. Dan is a senior member of the RBA Investment Committee and is responsible for portfolio strategy, asset allocation, investment management and marketing to major wirehouses and other financial professionals. He also happens to be a former classmate of mine from Osaka International School.


He seems to agree with the sentiment expressed in the PEW report. Dan made the following points as reasons for the overall pessimistic outlook on Japan’s future:


  • As immigration continues, crime in Japan will increase. Japan has one of the lowest crime rates in the world – it is inevitable that as populations from countries with higher crime rates immigrate to Japan, this will have an impact.


  • The near homogeneous population is what makes Japan unique, but that will cease to be the same.



  • Dan personally is trying to convince his mother to spend her retirement years out of Japan.


It’s true there are several structural challenges that Japan faces, a significant one being its decline in population. Less talent, less growth, and also an increasing number of the up and coming generation must take on careers supporting the elderly, who are among the longest living in the world, diverting income and energy from domestic investment.


Dan makes some good points. In response to Dan’s points, I say the following:


  • Dan may be right when he predicts an increase in Japan’s crime rate. However, Japan has not always been the crimeless utopia that many in the world think it is. In fact, it has experienced anarchy on multiple occasions for prolonged periods. Japan has experienced and dealt with crime and turmoil in the past and is capable of handling any potential rise in crime.



  • Yes, Japan’s economic dominance will most likely recede, but so will America’s. No society historically has perpetually maintained dominance, militarily or economic. Japan is no exception. That does not mean Japan will no longer be significant on the world stage.


  • If Dan wishes his mother near him for personal reasons, that’s fine, but if he wants her to leave due to his fear of Japan’s future, that is not a valid reason.


What about this declining population?


Japan is experiencing the “’Herbivore’ or ‘Grass Eating’ Male” phenomenon, as generally described in that country. For example, Japanese young people are not dating as much in recent years.


Population decline is also the saga of industrialization and the modern day market economy, not just Japan. Korea, Russia, and even China face a declining population, as children go from necessity of survival to a luxury, coupled with advances in birth control technology, which is available ever more cheaply and abundantly.


Japan isn’t the only country facing this dilemma then: changes in demographics and immigration have socio-economic, geopolitical, and cultural implications for Japan and a plethora of other countries, from Germany, Great Britain, and also the United States.


Japan is an island country with a robust history of isolationism and strict immigration control, while other countries have already experienced much immigration. Japan will, as Dan predicts, change as its population declines, economic dominance continues to recede, and immigrants from the developing world go on to take low skilled work in Japan.


But I do not write Japan off. In spite of Dan’s points and the survey of the Japanese public’s sentiment. Here are the reasons I believe the Japanese can look forward to their future:


  • Japan is one of the most well-educated societies on the planet maintaining a competitive edge in technological and scientific research.


  • Cultures change, and there are no guarantees that current trends are permanent. For example, if Prime Minister Abe continues on his path of remilitarizing Japan, that will have an impact on Japan’s culture.


  • Japan’s economic ranking may shift some in the coming years, but will retain its ability to have a global impact and take on leadership roles, as it is doing now with initiatives like the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership which replaced the old TPP after the US withdrawal under President Trump.


  • Japan is not the only country with domestic structural problems that have macroeconomic consequences for the nation at whole. The world is in flux, especially as the effects of climate change continue to become worse. Many of the challenges Japan faces are global in nature, shared by the international community at large, not just Japan. Japan has the capacity to be taking on a leadership role globally as the world faces 21st century challenges.


  • Women are rising in influence in Japan to a degree unparalleled in its history because of both choice and necessity. Women in Japan up to now have been an untapped talent source. This development will be sure to have a constructive impact on Japan’s society and economy.


  • Japan tends to be reluctant to change, but when change is presented, they adopt it efficiently. This has happened on a number of occasions: the Meiji Restoration of 1868 and the resulting fundamental shifts in Japan’s social structure; Japan, one of the few uncolonized countries left on the planet, was effectively competing with rival Imperial powers in the early 20th century; the adaptation to the social engineering initiated by Douglas MacArthur after the Second World War; corporate Japan effectively coordinating business policy with the long term planning of the Japanese Federal Government, among others.


Japan has been consistently underestimated by the West ever since it opened its ports to the outside world in 1853, but it has proved the international community wrong multiple times. The Japanese public and the international community should keep this in mind and realize that no country ever remains the same. Japan has experienced rapid change before, it is currently experiencing change, and it will continue to do so. That is also true for the world at large. The Japanese have what it takes to make this inevitable change work for them constructively.

Japan and the Trade War

“China’s ripping us off. Japan’s ripping us off. Mexico’s ripping us off. Canada’s ripping us off. The whole world is ripping us off. There’s nobody that’s not ripping us off.” – President Donald J. Trump, at a 2018 campaign fund raiser.


In the face of the escalating trade war initiated by President Trump against China, Japan is pursuing a strategy of building bilateral trade relationships to mitigate harmful effects of this war on the Japanese economy. As he has done with China, the EU, and now, the United States: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed on September 27, 2018, after years of hesitation, to enter into a bilateral trade agreement with America.


Kiuchi Takahide, the executive economist at the Nomura Research Institute, in his September 20, 2018 article reports that “focusing on the impact of the trade war on Japanese industry, it is anticipated that its auto industry will take the biggest hit.” As the US economy takes a hit from the trade war, he argues, Japan’s auto industry, due to its “heavy reliance on exports to the U.S. market…would mean a tremendous loss for the future prospects of the Japanese economy.” In addition, facing the threat of possible tariffs to Japan’s key industrial export, it seems Abe relented.


Japanese business leaders are worried about the progression of the U.S.-China trade war. Nikkan Kogyo Shimbun on September 28th, 2018 reported that 76% of business leaders in a survey feared the trade war will have a negative impact on Japan’s industries, especially on “iron, steel, fabrics, automobiles, and electronics.”


In response, Japanese manufacturers, according to an article published in Nippon Keizai Shimbun on September 22nd, 2018, are shifting their manufacturing bases and area of imports with a “long term perspective” in mind. Firms such as Honda, Mitsui, Sumitomo, Marubeni, and Uniqlo, among many others, are moving operations to places like Thailand, Vietnam, and Brazil from both China and the U.S.


Japan is building relations with other countries. Along with the free trade agreement Japan signed with the EU on July 17th, 2018 covering almost a third of the world’s economy, it seems the Abe administration, emboldened by a recent electoral victory, is warming up politically to China and other countries as well.


In an interview with Sankei Shimbun on September 2nd, 2018, Prime Minister Abe stated that relations between Japan and China have “completely returned to a normal trajectory.” As the trade war progresses, Japan is considering taking part in a China-backed free trade deal that would incorporate 16-nations, 10 Asean members, as well as China, Australia, India, New Zealand and South Korea, covering about half the world’s population and a third of its GDP. It is reported Japan is “proactive” to this proposal. On September 22nd there were calls for a free trade deal between China, Japan, and South Korea.


Thus we see that Japan is not sitting idly by as the destructive effects of the U.S.-China trade war continue to manifest themselves. As seen in the examples above, Japan under Abe is indeed proactive: signing or initiating negotiations of free trade deals with global players while shifting its business operations to other parts of the world under a long-term perspective. Japan is making bilateral trade agreements, and has decided to pursue such an agreement with the U.S. In addition, it has taken robust foreign policy initiatives such as the Trans Pacific Partnership plus 11 and the strengthening of ties with India.


U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres describes the current global reality as an “increasingly chaotic world order.” Japan is getting ready to take on this new world order with full force.

History is Written by Victors

At a recent networking event I attended, an executive of an investment firm challenged me on history. He insisted the Japanese are out to “rewrite history from what actually happened.”

What came to my mind was: how do you know what happened? Were you there?

None of us were. History is elusive: you take evidence from the past and reconstruct a narrative, which changes over time. Even in America, new books constantly being published on the American Revolution, Civil War, and Feminist and Minority Right movements are ever challenging the narrative of the status quo.

The Japanese are no different. Yes, they are out to challenge the historical narrative in their favor. Why? Because, as occupiers, Americans had significant influence in how their history and post-war narrative were written.

We wrote Japanese history.

The constitution. War guilt through class A war crime trials. Pacifism.

There is a recent movie where Tommy Lee Jones plays General MacArthur overseeing the American occupation of Japan, with a focus on the question of the Emperor’s Role in the decision of Japan to attack Pearl Harbor. The movie ends without a definitive conclusion, and the movie incorporates the Japanese perspective. Which shows there is a shift in the narrative even on the American side: we are willing to contemplate the Japanese view.

As a US-Japan Relations professional, there are many hot button topics that I will be forced to address eventually. The Rape of Nanking. Comfort Women. Pearl Harbor. The Atomic Bombs. The US occupation. The 9th Article in the Japanese Constitution. Okinawa and the US bases. Rape of Japanese civilians by American servicemen. The future of the US-Japan alliance. Japan-Korean Relations. North Korea and Japan’s role in the 6 party talks. Japanese re-militarization. The role of the Self-Defense Force in Japanese Foreign Policy. ODA and Japan’s corporate strategy and its relationship to Japan’s foreign policy: the list goes on and on.

I will address NONE OF THEM here. Someday!

My point is this: history usually is written by victors (though Nietzsche in his The Genealogy of Morals argues the existence of Slave Morality constructed by the weak). As victors and occupiers, the US had a strong say in how history, international norms, laws, and institutions were written and formed post-WWII.

It should not be a surprise to anyone this was done so in American favor.

Does that make them wrong? No.

In an ever-changing international environment, where American power is in decline, we are entering a multipolar world. It is natural the post-war American narrative and global structure will be challenged by various players. Unavoidable.

Does this mean Japan is rewriting history in a way that is a lie? No. It means they are seeking a narrative in their favor. None of us were the decision makers of those horrific events that took place in the 1930s and 1940s. Narratives come and go, and what is adopted has material consequences for societies, governments, and even alliances.

The investment executive who stated Japan is rewriting history is true. It is unavoidable as Japan seeks to assert itself in an international climate abundant with threats and the US seeming less and less reliable. Japan seeks an empowering narrative.

Japanese decision makers know the West could not stop Russia from invading and annexing Crimea from Ukraine. The US-Japan alliance is yet to be tested. Will the US spill American blood if Japan is attacked? We claim so, but words are cheaper than action.

History is not fact. Narratives come and go and reflect interests of power. As a US-Japan Relations professional, it is not my role to say which competing narratives are correct, at least at this juncture in my career. I am aware of these narratives, and further changes will come.

That I can say, with confidence, is inevitable.

Silence, Humor, and Swearing: Modes of Communication

I just wrote a blog piece on the common pitfalls of cultural miscommunication between Americans and Japanese.

Ah. But there’s so much more to this topic. Not just miscommunication, but differences in modes of communication.

I will write on three: silence, humor, and swearing. However, to do this topic justice I would have to write a book.



In Japan, silence is permissible.

Frequently, Japanese TV dramas and movies, when portraying affection between a married couple (especially if they’ve been together for years), the two will sit together in silence.

For hours.

In real life, this is actually common. In Japan, you feel the energy of affection. In the US, you have to verbally express it.

In international marriages this difference in expectations of communication often can become an issue.


Japanese Wife: “I’m home.”

American Husband: “Hi honey! How was your day? Did that appointment at work go well?

Wife: Silently walks into another room without saying a word.

Husband: “Ah…”


A married couple not talking to each other in America would mean their relationship is a bad one. In Japan, not necessairly. They enjoy each other’s company without unnecessary fluff banter.

Also in the US family members will frequently say “I love you” to each other. This would be considered strange in Japan.

When I first came to the United States, I would spend entire conversations without opening my mouth. This bewildered many here. In America you HAVE to talk to make sure the group is maintaining healthy communication.

To this day, sometimes I will sit silently while the American group is actively bantering to build rapport. I have to make an effort to take part, not that I can’t do it, but because unnecessary banter wasn’t required from me as a kid in Japan.

Except there are times in Japan where you banter like there’s no tomorrow. Thus to my next topic:



 Japanese have a sense of humor? Yes!

Americans sometimes think Japanese are stiff, but Japan has a robust history and culture of humor.

Except you don’t always crack jokes.

Humor in America is like water. You serve it at every occasion, and it’s culturally appropriate to drink healthy levels of it.

In Japan, humor is alcohol. If you drink it, in, let’s say, a job interview, you may not get the job. In the US, the employer may actually interpret humor during the interview positively as a sign of confidence and social finesse. Some situations it’s ok to have a little. A parent-teacher conference, for example. A bit of bantering may happen there. And in certain situations, like a drinking party after work, you drink humor in copious amounts and get “drunk.”

Topics of humor are different as well. The US has a robust Judeo-Christian tradition with many socially sensitive vernacular and issues. Comedians, for example, love using these sensitive issues, topics, and words for jokes at comedy clubs in America.

Japanese comedians like to build stories, point out absurdities in situations, and self-mocking jokes are common also.

I’m funny, in the Kansai sense. I sometimes can make people laugh to tears. Kansai is the region of Japan I grew up in.

My humor is influenced by the Kansai culture. During my cultural assimilation process, people did realize I was funny. But, differently. I would get comments like, “You’re a weird guy, but you sure say some funny sh@t sometimes!”

My sharp wit was honed from years of Kansai banter. But how about swearing with this banter?



You don’t really swear in Japan.


This many times boggles the mind of Americans, who bleep swear words on TV that I myself just wrote as “sh@t” above with the “i” missing.

Americans love to, for the most part, swear.

Japan lacks a strict Judeo-Christian culture. Many of the words that are bleeped on TV in America have to do with defecation, sex, incest, and other topics sins to God.

Japanese people just don’t care. These words do not generate the reactions you get in the US. Or in the West, for that matter.

Japan is about tone of voice. You convey dominance, hostility, and aggression by not what you say, but how you say it. A seemly mild mannered Japanese man, if triggered, can turn into an emotional ball of anger and aggression, all conveyed through tonality (and body language).

So, who wants to go to Japan with me, sit stoically without cracking jokes for some time, and then suddenly explode emotionally?

These things can happen in Japan. In the US this would be a sign of someone crazy.

Cultural Miscommunication

In the history of US-Japan relations, what has been the greatest cultural miscommunication?

Good question. Perhaps the United States’ failure to anticipate a well-organized, successful military attack on Pearl Harbor when placing an oil embargo on Japan? Or, maybe the United States not anticipating Japan’s economic rise from the ashes after the war?

That’s history though. There are plenty of controversies that I won’t touch here (were the atomic bombs really the determining factor leading to Japan’s surrender…Wait, no, I’m not writing on this!).

Here are a few problematic areas that come mind:



People in Japan apologize to maintain group and hierarchical harmony. Sometimes a Japanese will apologize even if all parties know he or she was not in the wrong. Americans, on the other had, tend not to apologize even if they are obviously in the wrong: it may be considered unnecessary, many times it’s not expected, and it can even come across as a sign of weakness. As a result, Japanese people will apologize to Americans, not realizing it may be used again them.


Group consensus building versus individualized self-assertion

The Japanese cooperate much more than Americans, who enjoy competition and even rule breaking. In the 80s Japanese companies were many times sued for antitrust when they brought to America their practice of coordination between rival companies, common in Japan, but illegal here.

A Japanese proverb says, “The nail that sticks out will get hammered.” This tradition leads to seemingly stronger societal harmony, but qualities such as leadership and constructive change, valued in the US, are less salient. Differences in expectations of societal and institutional change often can lead to disagreement between Americans and Japanese.

In Japan, you sacrifice yourself to the group. In the US, the group exists to benefit the individual. Americans are far more willing to leave work on time even if things are unfinished, but this could be a career ender in Japan.


Stating the obvious about people and other social values

“You’re fat.” “You’re ugly.” “You’re stupid.” People in Japan say these things bluntly to others. In America, it’s not polite to do so. Americans get offended when they go to Japan and people repeatedly tell them they’re overweight, for example. Likewise, Japanese can get in trouble in the US if they don’t realize such comments are frowned upon here. In Japan, such comments may in fact be a sign of affection.

It’s not just a different concept of politeness. Social norms such as hierarchy, gender relations, and national identity are ingrained into Japan institutionally through language and other means. American society is more flexible: it’s young and consists of immigrants. Japanese culture is over 2000 years old with limited immigration. Cultural momentum is ingrained: change is harder to achieve, let alone initiate.


National Pride

You can’t separate nationalism from international relations and business. Mistrust and resentment precipitating from differences in interpretations of culture and history amplify feelings of nationalism, and fuel the flames of discord.

Patriotism is being proud of your country and the virtues it offers the world. Nationalism is thinking your country is better than all other countries.

Cultural misunderstandings, both at the individual and organizational level, can take on nationalistic tones without an effective mediator.

“What, I can’t believe they did this! We Americans/Japanese would never do such a thing, this is outrageous…”

“I can’t believe they sent us this message. Those Americans/Japanese are sure crazy, how can I work with them…”

I’ve heard comments such as these arising in both cultures. Both behave, think, and act differently, and the inability to understand each other can lead to blame, name-calling, and even ill will if unchecked.

I am a patriot: US citizen born in Japan. I am loyal to both cultures, but not nationalist to either. Having been surrounded by citizens from around the world since early childhood, my worldview is more objective. My mind can often see through the fog generated by the passions of nationalism. Including US-Japan relations.

The potential for cultural misunderstanding will always be there. However, recognizing the sources of these misunderstandings, you also have the prospect of genuine intercultural communication.

Cracking the Concrete Open: Creating Networks from Scratch

Early June 2012, I arrived at JFK airport after having taking a one-way ticket there from Seattle. I had just graduated with my MA in International Policy, not your most practical degree. I had with me only two duffle bags and a suitcase, and my computer.

I knew no one in NYC.

I had neither a job lined up nor a place to live.

Insane? Maybe. Naïve? A little. Crazy? Definitely. Still, I was confident I would pull off an amazing life and career in NYC – I knew I had it in me.

In 10 months, I would land a job as the United Nations reporter for Japan’s largest and most influential newspaper The Yomirui Shimbun while making ends meet taking on temporary jobs wherever I could.

To make this happen, I didn’t hit the pavement – I cracked it open while networking with some of the most influential in the US-Japan Relations world, and beyond.

Why was I confident? I had done it before. In Japan, in Seattle, in Monterey: building powerful, fun, and supporting social networks from scratch in an environment I knew nothing about with no contacts.

I am the Ambassador Between Worlds: networking is my bread and butter. I know how to navigate and build connections from scratch with diverse people and communities, as I’ve been doing it since early childhood. The results of my career up to now speak for themselves.

So how did I do it?

The first thing I did in NYC was to find a place to live that had as many housemates as I could find. I ended up in Bushwick, Brooklyn in a complex with 8-10 housemates, all near my age.

Me: “Yeah I have no job now, but I have savings…”

Manager: “We’ll sign a two month contract then. And you’re from where? Japan?”

The place was phenomenal. Surrounded by students and professionals all in their late 20s to early 30s with a large backyard where we threw awesome parties. I’d like to say I quickly made friends with all of them, but only after I overheard them gossiping:

“What’s this Japan guy?”

“Yeah I bet he made it up!”

I joined them (I was napping in my room) and showed the skeptics my passport with Japanese documents. It wasn’t always smooth sailing, but I made friends with many of them.

I joined professional support organizations.

I joined groups for social support.

And I put myself out there. I began meeting professionals in the US-Japan Relations world, along with UN Ambassadors, top bankers, government employees, and my personal/professional circles quickly increased in number and width. I sent emails. And follow up emails. I leveraged LinkedIn. I attended networking events.

I eventually landed a meeting with Sheila Smith, senior fellow of Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in DC. The meeting went well. She introduced me to David Boling, who at the time was the Vice President of The Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation, a US-Asia Relations foundation founded by former Senator and Ambassador to Japan Mike Mansfield.

A tall man with presence, I met him at the foundation’s office.

“Thank you for meeting me…”

He bluntly blurted “I do what Sheila asks me to do.”

It was just he and I in the office conference room.

After going over my resume, we began talking about the state of law, lawyers, and law schools between the US and Japan. David at one point in his career was a lawyer working at the Capital Hill, which I had picked up on from reading his bio before the meeting.

David: “There is an excess number of lawyers in the US and not enough in Japan.”

Me: “So, the obvious solution here is to ship the excess lawyers in the States to Japan…”

David burst out laughing. He then looked at me and said, “You’re the real deal. I will make some introductions for you today. We don’t have an opening at the moment, but keep in touch. Visit me again next time in DC.”

I began visiting DC at least twice a month, along with my networking I continued with in NYC. I visited David Boling sometime later. I outlined to him my accomplishments since last meeting him.

He was impressed, and offered to write me a recommendation to The Yomiuri Shimbun for their opening of UN reporter. The rest is history.

Why Matthew Edwin

Matthew Edwin International, LLC.

The name I have chosen for this company comes from my full name, Matthew Edwin Carpenter. There is history and meaning packed in my two given names. 

My parents are Asia specialists. My father, Bruce Carpenter, is an expert on Chinese poetry and art history. My mother, Juliet Winters Carpenter, is an internationally recognized literary translator.

I was their first child.  My name is a nod to Matthew Perry and Edwin Reischauer, two men who made signal contributions to Japanese-American relations. Among other associations.

Matthew Perry the naval officer (not the actor) led a fleet to Edo (the old name for Tokyo) in 1853 and forced the Tokugawa government to abandon Japan’s centuries- old policy of isolationism. 

The arrival of Perry and his "black ships" was a wakeup call to people in Japan, especially the youth: if they did not get their act together they would be colonized by the West. China had just lost the Opium Wars and its people were being taken advantage of by colonial oppressors. The result in Japan was a revolutionary movement led by inspired youth, culminating in the Meiji Restoration of 1868 which toppled the Tokugawa government that had been in power for around 300 years.

Edwin Reischauer was a Japan born American like me, born to Presbyterian missionaries stationed in Tokyo in 1910. He led an exemplary career as an academic in Harvard. He originated East Asian Studies in the US and trained the first generation of Asia experts in this country. 

President John F. Kennedy chose him to be the ambassador to Japan, and he served in that capacity from 1961 to 1966. Harvard’s Japanese studies program is named after him.

In short, I’m named after two American giants who were key players in the history of US-Japan relations. That’s a lot to live up to, as I myself pursue a career in US-Japan and international relations.

This is why I have chosen these two names for my company. I have entered a new phase of my career and hope to make a contribution to communication between fundamentally different cultures separated by language, customs, history, even ways of thinking. 

Matthew Perry issued a necessary wakeup call to Japan at a critical juncture, forcing a long-isolated nation to enter the treacherous waters of international relations while surrounded by powerful colonial powers. He opened the gate between Japan and the world.

Reischauer cultivated much needed awareness and dialogue in the US regarding not just Japan but all of Asia. He facilitated better US-Japan relations. In fact, he gave his life for this work: a Japanese man attacked him in Japan, leading to the illness that eventually cost him his life. 

International relations is becoming more and more treacherous again, for Japan and the US, and for all the world. The threat is not only from North Korea; in a globalized world, regional instability has worldwide repercussions. What happens in Syria, Ukraine, Sudan, Latin America, and other areas impact Japan, the US, and the relations between them.

Leaders of Japan and the US know this. There is a reason why one of President Barack Obama’s last acts as sitting president was to visit Hiroshima, the site of the world's first nuclear holocaust. There is a reason why Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Pearl Harbor before Donald Trump’s inauguration. There is a reason why the Trump administration, despite its rhetoric on economic nationalism and isolationism, is maintaining strong ties with Japan. 

I am here to contribute what I can to the process. I will do my best to live up to the proud legacy of the giants Matthew Perry and Edwin Reischauer.