On Friday, May 25, I took a few train stops over to the Imperial Hotel of Tokyo. As one of just a few Fulbright professors to Japan, I was invited as a guest of the Japan-US Educational Commission that oversees the Fulbright international exchange program. 2012 marks the 60th anniversary of this esteemed program. I did not know that my evening would be a lifetime memory. More on that later.
The Fulbright Program has been a major part of my cultural identity since the mid-1980s when I set out on a year’s stay to the Federal Republic of Germany. (If you know nothing or very little about the program, please check out JUSEC.) I had never even heard of the program until I had a meeting with the director of off-campus housing at Clemson University in South Carolina. He wore two coordinator hats: one for housing and one for the Fulbright program. As we talked about my off-campus housing options, he mentioned if I ever thought about applying for a Fulbright. I asked, “What’s a Fulbright?” Well I think I’m quite up on the program now. I wrote a doctoral dissertation on “Fulbright Scholars as Cultural Mediators,” so I’d say that I’ve come a long way since my Clemson Tiger days. Which leads me back to Friday night.
As the guests walked into the Peacock Room of the Imperial Hotel, I looked to my left and saw a stage for the large contingent of media in attendance. I thought to myself, they sure do love the Fulbright Program here in Japan. But alas, there was more to the media’s interest. I heard an announcement in Japanese and then saw people form two lines in waiting. This was not a crowd lined up to do a Soul Train dance number. An English-speaking attendee turned to me and solved the mystery: the emperor and empress were on their way. Of course, that meant that we were about to see Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko. I was ripe with anticipation. We waited a few more minutes. We were told no pictures but I noted a few stealthy iPhones at hand. And then the doors were slowly opened to reveal the royal couple. We applauded as they made their way very royal-like (to be expected) between the two lines of gleeful admirers. Whatever you think about royalty and imperial government, I wasn’t thinking such lofty thoughts. Here I am a political science and international relations major and all I could feel were goosebumps. I recalled my first visit to Japan in 1993 when, as a participant in a Japanese government program called International Youth Village, we got to attend a reception featuring Prince and Princess Akishino. (I later found out that Prince Akishino is a Beatles fan. His hairdo is at times a bit Beatles-like.)
I realize that our celebration of 60 years of Fulbright was truly a night to remember. I am so thankful to have a Fulbright grant to teach undergraduate students at Sophia University in Tokyo. As part of the festivities, I also met Ambassador John Roos and shared my recent experiences giving embassy-sponsored talks on “The Lady Gaga Effect.” He actually put me on the spot and asked, “What is the Lady Gaga effect?” I told him, “You should know. Weren’t you are her Tokyo concert?” (We both were, but on separate nights.)
I also spent time with someone I’ve know for twenty years, Harriet Mayor Fulbright, a true champion of her husband J. William Fulbright’s vision for the program. Harriet has worked tirelessly on behalf of the senator and his commitment to mutual understanding between individuals from all nations. I reminded Harriet of my foot-in-mouth experience when I called her shortly after Senator Fulbright’s passing at age 89 in 1995. I called their Washington residence, thinking that an assistant would answer and I could just give my condolences. To my surprise, Harriet took the call directly. I told her how sorry I was and offered to say a few words about what the Fulbright program has meant to me at the senator’s upcoming state funeral at Washington’s National Cathedral. She, in all her gracious dignity, didn’t miss a beat. She said, “Nancy, that is so kind of you to offer. President Clinton is giving the eulogy.” Indeed he did, and that was the first and only time I met an American president at the reception that followed.
Here is the picture from Fulbright’s state funeral at which Bill Clinton, and not Nancy Snow, gave the eulogy.
Now back to our gathering at the Imperial Hotel.
Toward the end of the gathering and long after the emperor and empress had left, an embassy friend said, “Do you realize that you get to experience things here in Japan that many Japanese may never experience?” I do realize my privileges. And with privilege comes a duty to serve. I hope that I can fulfill my goal of being a positive representative for the United States in Japan and both a teacher and learner with my Japanese students.
P.S. I was able to tell Empress Michiko that I’m a Fulbright professor at Sophia University. I’m sure she won’t forget that!