My Trip to Japan

By June Teufel Dreyer
August 23, 2022
In 2014, I was surprised and delighted to receive an invitation to visit Japan for a week. The invitation could not have occurred at a more convenient time, since I happened to have a sabbatical leave and hence was free of classes and other obligations. Concerned that I might be told that the invitation had been issued in error, I quickly accepted.

Each of the honored participants, five of us in total if memory serves, was asked to provide a list of topics we were interested in pursuing and people we would like to talk to. The others, who included a professor at a mid-Western law school, a professor from the Washington area, an official of the Council on World Affairs of a major city, and a corporative executive, were a compatible group, and happily there was considerable overlap in our interests. My major specialty is East Asian defense issues----I was at that point three-quarters finished with a book on Sino-Japanese relations---so most of the appointments I requested were with the Foreign Ministry, the Defense Ministry, and the Coast Guard. I was also interested to learn about the progress of efforts to recover from the devastation of the March 2011 triple disaster of hurricane, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown.
Japan Coast Guard ship on the water
Japan’s coasts are patrolled by its large Coast Guard
The trip was all I hoped for, and much more. We had two highly knowledgeable guides who shepherded us to our appointments and answered our nearly inexhaustible stream of questions with patience and humor. In addition to being able to meet with officials directly involved in planning for the defense of the Senkaku Islands, Coast Guard officials responsible for responding to Chinese incursions, and plans for the training and deployment of Self-Defense Forces units, I was able to visit the Yasukuni Shrine and view the exhibits at the Yūshūkan. I had not known that an Italian architect had designed the original building, on the model of a medieval Italian castle, in 1881. After being badly damaged in the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923, it was rebuilt as it remains today in a style known as Modern Eastern.
Silk being spun on a bank of wooden wheels
Traditional silk manufacturing used large spinning wheels
Cultural affairs were also on the itinerary---the unique beauty of Kyoto temples, a glimpse at silk weavers creating kimono fabrics using centuries-old techniques, and a tea ceremony in a traditional machiya. Two museums were of particular interest to me, the Edo-Tokyo Museum and a railway museum outside Nagoya, since I had not previously realized that either existed.

The latter, which one enters via an escalator to the third floor, has interactive exhibits, dioramas of what life was life during the Tokugawa and Meiji periods, and much more. I was particularly impressed with an exhibit of the irrigation/sewage system of the Tokugawa, at a time when Edo was reputedly the largest city in the world and the streets of European cities tended to be far less sanitary. Also a vivid memory was a photographic exhibition of strollers along the Ginza in the 1930s, then as now a center of high style.
Exterior view of Edo Tokyo Museum
The Edo Tokyo Museum has a unique elevated design
The railway museum was a treat of a different sort---not scale models but the actual cars beginning from Japan’s first railway in 1872 through “bare bones” varieties built to conserve metal in the run-up to World War II to today’s maglev train, the platypus-billed L0 series that is the world’s fastest train. An unexpected bonus was a simulation ride on a not-then-in-service model. Highly recommended for those in a hurry but not advisable for tourists, since Mount Fuji, for example, went by in a blur.

Cuisine was not forgotten. A big fan of kaiseki, I also enjoyed sampling Buddhist vegetarian dishes, the chankonabe favored by sumo wrestlers, and the Osaka specialty, the do-it-yourself okonomiyaki pancake. While in Osaka, I was able to walk by the headquarters of Teijin, the company I worked for as a student many decades ago, and in Kyoto, my old neighborhood near the Kamo River and the botanical garden. To my relief, and in contrast to the constant renewal of building in most major cities, little had changed there: kites still swoop over the river and the glow of lanterns is reflected in the water at dusk.

Nostalgia aside, what I learned from my interviews with officials proved invaluable professionally, and specifically to completing my manuscript, published two years later by Oxford University Press under the title Middle Kingdom and Empire of the Rising Sun. After favorable reviews in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals honored Middle Kingdom with its 2017 award for the best book of the year on Japan. Publication also resulted in my being asked to write the triannual segment on Sino-Japanese relations for Comparative Connections, published by the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum under the auspices of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). As well I formed an ongoing relationship with Sankei Shimbun and Japan Forward.

Both personally and professionally, the trip was one of the most memorable of a lifetime, and I am so grateful for all those who made it possible.
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