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In a ceremony on April 17 at the Roppongi Hills Club, the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ) honored Nobuko Sasae, chair of the Nobuko Forum, and former Japanese Ambassador to the United States Kenichiro Sasae with the ACCJ Persons of the Year Award.

They were selected for their commendable efforts in strengthe­ning the US–Japan bilateral partnership through their work in Washington DC and their continued dedication after returning to Japan. They are the first double recipients since former US Ambassador to Japan John Roos and his wife Susan Roos were presented the award in 2012.

ACCJ Governor Ryan Armstrong began the ceremony by sharing the history of the honor, explaining that the ACCJ Person of the Year Award was launched in 1996 to recognize individuals who have made significant contributions to enhancing the economic relationship between the United States and Japan.

As Japan’s diplomatic voice in Washington DC from 2012 to 2018, the Sasaes played a key role in maintaining a relationship that is critical to the prosperity of both nations.

When asked to take on the post, Mr. Sasae told his superiors that he would not go to the United States if his wife did not accom­pany him. She agreed to make the move, and her pre­sence became a critical part of their success. Mrs. Sasae—an interpreter by profession—founded and moderated the Nobuko Forum while in Washington DC. The goal of the bi-monthly panel discussion, which continues to be held today, is to empower young professional women in the United States and Japan by lifting up the experiences and insights of power­ful women leaders in both countries.

Armstrong’s introduction was following by a video message from ACCJ President Peter M. Jennings, who was regrettably unable to attend due to business engagements.

“Today, we welcome and honor Ambassador and Mrs. Sasae,” he said. “Mrs. Sasae, you have been a champion for the empo­werment of women professionals from both the United States and Japan. Your initiative, leadership, and vision to promote women’s empowerment matches closely with the ACCJ’s values and priorities.

“Ambassador Sasae, your significant contributions and nearly six-year term as Japanese Ambassador to the United States has been absolutely pivotal in helping bring the US and Japanese business communities closer together.”

Mr. Sasae with ACCJ Executive Director Laura Younger (left) and Governor Mari Matthews

Mrs. Sasae then took the podium and expressed gratitude for her experiences in the United States. She highlighted the importance of women’s empowerment and listed three key points for individual growth:

  • Be bold
  • Take action
  • Be your own voice

She said that she is grateful to receive this honor from Americans, because “it was my experience of living in America that changed me and allowed me to move out of my comfort zone. Life only begins at the end of your comfort zone.”

During her stay in Washington DC, Mrs. Sasae founded her signature initiative, the Nobuko Forum. It is a way of fostering discussion on a wide range of topics, such as entrepreneurship, leadership, workplace diversity, and career-building.

Each Nobuko Forum is attended by some 100 distin­guished guests, including prominent Japanese and US professionals, businesswomen, government officials, and civil service leaders.

In Japan, the widening gender gap in business and politics has long been a concern. The Global Gender Gap Report 2018, published by the World Economic Forum, showed that Japan has made slight progress—ranking 110th out of 149 countries (up from 114th the year before)—but there is much work to be done.

Realizing the need to empower women in her home country, Mrs. Sasae extended the Nobuko Forum to Japan. “We need to have a good process of encouraging women to go into po­litics and be leaders,” she said.

Her continuous dedication and contributions to this cause have been pivotal in assisting professional women in areas such as career-building, leadership, workplace diversity, and entrepreneurship.

ACCJ Governors Eriko Asai (left) and Ryan Armstrong (right) flank the 2018 Persons of the Year.

Mr. Sasae’s remarks centered on gender diversity in politics, the strong mutual dependence between the United States and Japan, and the promising future ahead for the bilateral relationship.

During his two-term residence as Japanese Ambassador to the United States, Mr. Sasae spoke frequently at events held by the US business community, actively engaged in economic dialogues, and hosted ACCJ delegations during their annual DC Doorknock visits.

In his acceptance speech, he briefly touched on the bi­lateral trade agreement talks between the United States and Japan, which kicked off the day before. Saying that we must be con­fident of our future, Mr. Sasae noted that the US–Japan partnership has endured for more than 70 years and can overcome any hurdles.

He also warned of the threats advanced technology and weakened democratic institutions may pose, but said he is certain that, together, the United States and Japan can lead the world to a prosperous future. In his post-diplomatic work, Mr. Sasae serves as president of the Japan Institute of International Affairs, a private, non-partisan think tank founded in 1959 to focus on foreign policy and security issues.

Although strong bilateral ties in politics, security, and trade, were at the core of his remarks, a recurring theme was the importance of women leaders.

“I believe this is an award given to joint work [my wife and I] have developed together in Washington DC over five-and-a-half years. If we have women leaders, prime ministers, and presidents, then we will see a different kind of face of Japan–US friendship. I want to live to see that happen.”

Nathalie Muto is a staff writer at Custom Media, publisher of The ACCJ Journal.