When one thinks of Minnesota, the images of snow, lakes, and random samplings of German and Scandinavian heritage often come up. Japan-US relations might not come to mind unless you look a bit closer. Minnesota has a unique mix of different cultures from its first inhabitants the indigenous tribes of the Great Plains, to the Western settlers from northern Europe, to more recent immigrants from Africa and Asia. In terms of Japan, Minnesota has had a long relationship fostering peace initiatives, including having the longest running Japan-US sister city partnership in the nation. It is with that connection in mind that the Japan- Minnesota Grassroots Forum took place at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities campus on February 2nd, 2019. With the assistance of financial and grant funding from the Sasakwa Peace Foundation USA and US-Japan Exchange & Teaching Program Alumni Association (US JETAA), multiple Japan-related organizations met to discuss the shared goal of increasing US-Japan relations and possible future collaboration efforts.
The Japan Exchange & Teaching Program Alumni Association of Minnesota (JETAAMN), led by President Kate Thersleff, and Rio Saito, the Executive Director of the Japan America Society of Minnesota (JASM) led the program and handled the majority of the preparation work. Over ten different groups from around the state came to share information and begin building collaborative ties with one another. From education and teaching organizations, sister cities commissions, and even social justice groups, each group brought unique perspectives of what US-Japan relations looked in their communities. The networking aspect alone had many participants excited to connect with others in this first- but hopefully not last- meeting opportunity.
Representatives of both Sasakawa USA, Joy Champaloux, and USJETAA, Bahia Simmons- Lane, helped facilitate several group discussions, a panel presentation and brainstorming on topics of forming stronger relationships and areas of collaboration. Challenges such as volunteer engagement, funding models, and resources were discussed during a panel presentation that featured the JETAAMN’s fundraising success, and the St. Paul-Nagasaki Sister City Committee highlighting their signature event, the annual Lantern Lighting Festival in Como Park.
The event was considered a big success by its 45 participants, however much more needs to be done to ensure that the connections made at the forum can continue to build on positive US-Japan relations. Keynote speaker, Elizabeth Brailsford, former JET participant, JETAAMN president, and JASM board member, returned to speak about her position as COO of the World Affairs Council of America and the long history that groups like the ones present do for grassroots diplomacy and soft power building. In her speech, she challenged the groups to continue the current efforts that they are doing in their communities and to take advantage of shared resources to further collaboration.
After the forum, many participants joined the panelists and special guests at a reception at a local Japanese fusion restaurant, Moto-I. Conversations and partnerships continued to be discussed long after the forum officially ended.
Currently a date has not been set for a second forum; however, representatives of the JETAAMN group have been vocal on looking to secure some funding and partner with other groups to expand the scope of any subsequent gathering.
A special note of thanks to Kate Thersleff (JETAAMN) and Rio Saito (JASM) for beginning the conversations for this forum to take place, along with the efforts of Bahia Simmons-Lane, the US JETAA networks, Joy Champaloux, the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA, the University of Minnesota’s Department of Asian Languages and Literates, and countless volunteers that helped make this forum a success.