Spotlight On: 'The Bow Tie Man'


Minister Ken Okaniwa has been Director of the Japan Information and Cultural Centre since December 2008. He will be departing in August to take up a position at the Embassy of Japan in Pretoria, South Africa.


Minister Okaniwa addressing the audience at a reception for entrants of Manga Jiman 2010

How do you feel about leaving London after two and a half years as Director of JICC?
Ever since leaving Merton College Oxford in 1987, I have always wanted to come back to the UK. My job in London has been very different from any other during my 27 year career because my work was always about international issues such as climate change and development, not about culture and the press. There have been many first-time experiences such as being interviewed on prime-time TV, meeting famous actors and actresses and judging a Japanese speech contest. For that event, I really appreciated some coaching from my wife, a Japanese language teacher. London is an international centre for news and artists. I have participated in numerous events and met so many people. With so much on offer in London, time flew not like an arrow but more like a bullet train.

How do you think you have contributed to furthering relations and friendship between the two countries?

The Embassy of Japan does not have a large budget for promoting exchange but we do have a lot of people coming and asking for help. I have tried to be as open as possible and to support the numerous Japan-related activities being promoted by so many people in both Japan and the UK.

I have been fortunate because interest in Japan has been rising in recent years. For example, the number of Japanese language learners has increased by one third in the last three years and the UK boasts the largest number of Japanese learners in Europe. We were able to increase the number of JET participants this year and last year to nearly 200, which is a very big rise from the level of two years ago.


  Minister Okaniwa with Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, Rt. Hon. Jeremy Hunt MP


What have the highlights of your posting been?
There have been some big events during my posting. One was the Japan-UK 150 anniversary in 2008-09. There were 450 events, which culminated with a reception at the British Museum. There was also the Japan Matsuri 2010 at Spitalfields, to which about 50,000 people came. I had the pleasure of being head judge at the karaoke competition, which was a completely novel experience. Most recently, in May, Westminster Abbey had a memorial service to remember those affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake. But in addition to the large events, meeting people genuinely committed to promoting exchange between Japan and the UK has been a very rewarding experience, and I would like to thank all of them for their efforts.


What have the most difficult tasks been?
One of the most difficult tasks was during the week after the Great East Japan Earthquake. We were bombarded with requests for information and for interviews, but it was very difficult dealing with this because the situation on the ground was quickly changing and we found it extremely challenging to keep up with events.


On a lighter note, I have used about 2,400 name cards during my tenure. I have never been good at remembering people's names and faces, but my task was almost impossible because of the huge number of people that I met.


Do you have any unfinished business?
I regret to say that I was not able to attend this year's Llangollen Eisteddfod. This is an international folklore and dancing festival in North Wales. I wanted to attend this year and to try to have a Japanese group participate in it, but I'm afraid I will have to ask my successor to follow up on this. There is also the idea of trying to have some collaboration with music and art schools in and around London on a Japanese theme at the Embassy, which I have not been able to organize.


How has your impression of the UK changed since you were previously here?
When I was at Oxford 25 years ago, I never dreamt that sushi would be lining the counters in Tesco today! London is much more international now, with many different people and it's much more crowded.


Are you looking forward to your next posting?

I'm looking forward to my second posting in Africa. My first was in 1998-99 in Zambia. For the first several months I will be busy dealing with the climate change conference in Durban planned for late November to early December.