Tokyo-born Shigeru Nakamura, the current Japanese Ambassador to Malaysia, may be a proud countryman at heart, but it was a different country entirely that shaped the person he has become.
During his high school years in the mid 60s, young Nakamura was an exchange student in the US. Like many students, he spent every vacation exploring the surrounding areas, venturing to cities such as New York and trawling through the national parks in California. It these trips that introduced him to two interests that would last him a lifetime: a love of nature and a fascination with world politics.
“We visited the UN Assembly,” he remembers, “and watched some of the debates. I didn’t really understand what was going on, but I was fascinated by it.” He studied law at university in Japan and then joined the Foreign
Service immediately thereafter because, as he explains, “it was an exciting time to be a diplomat. The world was changing fast and I didn’t want to just be a witness; I wanted to be part of it.”
He has certainly got his wish. In one the more memorable postings in his career so far, Nakamura spent two years beginning in early 2000 working as the Ambassador in Charge of Reconstruction Assistance to Iraq, an experience he describes with characteristic calmness as “interesting.” Perhaps this role was sedate for a man who was posted to Pakistan in the 80s, just as the Soviet-Afghan war was about to start, with his wife and three young sons in tow. “The biggest challenge,” he admits, “is when the family find it hard to adjust to a new way of life. Once we have settled, any place can be very enjoyable.”
Family has always been a big part of his life, and Malaysia is the first posting without at least one of the children along for the ride. None of the four – now all adults themselves – have followed their father’s career footsteps, though Nakamura shows little surprise.
“In the 70s, Japan was just emerging onto the world stage,” he recalls, “and everything was changing; it was a wonderful thing to be a part of it.” As the world has become more global, he continues, the specific role of an ambassador has become difficult to define: “Everyone is an ambassador these days,” Nakamura jokes, “and there are no clear divisions in the world like there were during the Cold War. The threats we face now go beyond borders: environmental issues, terrorism; the world is not how it used to be.”
This is no complaint. Japan’s place in the world is blossoming, and Nakamura’s posting in Malaysia has been an added delight thanks to the many close ties that already bind the two nations.
“The Imperial families of our countries are very close,” he explains, while no knowledge of foreign affairs is needed to realise that Japan is very present in Malaysia in the fashion on the streets, the food in the restaurants, and the pop music or anime seen on TV.
In more concrete terms, all manner of Japanese products – Toshiba, Honda, Suzuki, and Panasonic to name just a few – are made here, while Japan was the top investor in Malaysia in 2011, coming in as the third-largest trading partner in the same year. These businesses and the Japanese communities they spawn give Nakamura a perfect opportunity for exploring more of his new home, and despite only arriving in KL in May 2011, he has already visited 11 of the 13 states.
“My wife and I love to travel,” he says, “and Malaysia is a great hub for the region.” While Nakamura is already acquainted with most of Southeast Asia, his wife is eager to explore and the two of them take advantage of their location as often as they can. “We are off to Vietnam at the weekend,” he tells me. “Just a short trip, but my wife wants to go.”
The two met in the early 70s in Japan, just prior to Nakamura heading to Oxford University to complete his Masters, so she was thrown into the life of travelling straight away. “Oh she loves it,” he tells me, laughing. “I am thinking of retiring in Japan when the time comes, but she may want to stay here!”
They have both been enchanted by the unique, multicultural nature of Malaysia, but Nakamura has been especially thrilled to have an opportunity to indulge the passion for nature that took root all those years ago in California. “I went over to Borneo when my son visited,” he explains, “and it was just fantastic.” He is grateful to have some greenery to admire after a posting in Saudi Arabia, another place he describes demurely as “interesting.”
While the duration or location of a diplomat’s posting can never be controlled, Nakamura would be keen to stay in this thriving region for a few more years to come.
“Southeast Asia is transforming,” he says with a smile, “and I am very happy to be a part of it.” It seemsthat fervour for being in the heart of the action, ignited all those years ago in the US, lives on.
Source: The Expat September 2012
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