“On Japan and the World”: A CIC Feature Interview with Ms. Takako Ito, Consul-General of Japan in Toronto

As the G20 in Osaka, Japan approaches, the CIC is pleased to present this special feature interview with Ms. Takako Ito, Consul-General of Japan in Toronto.

IJ Spotlight

In partnership with SAGE Publications, one article of key significance from every new issue of International Journal is chosen to be featured in the IJ Spotlight Series. The unabridged version of this article was originally published in Vol. 73 No. 1.

On June 28-29, 2019, the heads of government representing the world’s largest economies will gather in Osaka, Japan, for the annual rotating G20 Summit. They will be accompanied by scores of public and private sector leaders, making this one of the largest global summits Japan has hosted. The major gathering comes at a time of deep uncertainty about the world’s trading system and the role of international and multilateral institutions which have traditionally been entrusted with underwriting security and economic opportunity across borders. Against this background, the CIC is pleased to present this special feature interview with a woman who has represented her country ably for decades, a seasoned diplomat with a deep knowledge of Canada. 

The editorial input of Dr. Alidad Mafinezam, president of the West Asia Council and executive member of CIC’s Toronto Branch, is gratefully acknowledged.   


Roots of Diplomatic Career

My interest in diplomacy as a profession traces its roots to 1979-80, the year I spent as an exchange student from Japan at North Tonawanda High School, which is located in the town of North Tonawanda, NY, about 20 kilometers from Niagara Falls and the Canadian border.

In my youth I had aspired to become a medical doctor and to help people in developing countries, and to do that I needed to gain proficiency in English.  Thus I applied to an exchange program and was accepted, which brought me to North America for the first time.

My stay in North Tonawanda coincided with the ongoing hostage crisis in Iran. In our small community we prayed daily for the American diplomats’ safe return. In school and church our gatherings began with a prayer for them. Our social studies teacher proffered that the job of these diplomats was to serve their country and the cause of justice. This made me realize that there is a career that involves serving a cause greater than one’s self. That was one of the origins of my will to become a diplomat.

That was a tumultuous year since it also coincided with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the beginning of U.S.-Japan trade frictions over autos. But despite my budding interest in diplomacy as a student, I didn’t have much information on Japan’s diplomacy and its foreign policy to share with schoolmates and our community.  This dearth of knowledge made me decide to study the social sciences to aim to join the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA).

Another important reason I applied to MOFA was the opportunities offered to women. When I was a senior university student in Tokyo, seeking employment opportunities, I learned from female graduates of my alma mater that while women’s access to leadership opportunities in the private sector was very limited at that time, acceptance into the Foreign Ministry would allow one to enjoy equal opportunity with men in serving the country.

So I wrote the exam and was accepted, to my own pleasant surprise. I was one of nine women out of 80 diplomats accepted that year.

I had found the exam difficult, especially the parts on economic theory. The day after the exam I started applying for jobs in the private sector and was offered an entry-level position in a famous Japanese multinational. Upon receiving my acceptance from MOFA, however, I declined the company position and the following April I began a career which, over the past three and a half decades, has exposed me to so much of our world’s challenges and opportunities.


The Canada Connection 

The primary language assigned to me by MOFA was English and I started my first year as a foreign  service official at the North American Affairs Division of MOFA in 1985.  As part of this work, I was involved in planning then-Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone’s visit to Canada and the Rt. Hon. Brian Mulroney’s visit to Japan.  After working in Tokyo at the headquarters, MOFA assigned me to two years of foreign language training abroad, during which I was given the opportunity to study in Canada at a university of my choice,  To earn a Master’s degree, I chose to study at the Norman Patterson School of International Affairs (NPSIA) at Carleton University in Ottawa. That was my first deep exposure to Canada and my first chance to live in this country.

After completing my Master’s at Carleton, I was assigned to the Japanese Embassy in Ottawa, and my very first job was to help the Japanese delegation at the G7 Toronto Summit in 1988.

While at the Embassy, my bond to Canada assumed a new dimension when I married a French Canadian man.  We were married on June 23, 1990, which was the day the Rt. Hon. Jean Chretien won the leadership of the Liberal Party, and the Meech Lake Accord was rejected.  Soon after our honeymoon in Stratford, Ontario, I was assigned to escorting a Japanese parliamentary group on their cross-country working visit from Vancouver to Halifax.

In the summer of 1990, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in early August and the ensuing captivity of Japanese citizens in Iraq became central concerns to us. I had to cancel my holidays to deal simultaneously with multiple parts of the Canadian foreign policy bureaucracy to address the crisis, including those working on Middle East issues, Consular matters, and the UN Division, at a time when Canada was a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council.

During this crisis, Japan provided significant financial support for peace building and for the  humanitarian assistance efforts by the international community, amounting to billions of dollars.  However, Japan also felt the need, for the first time, to contribute to the cause of peace by sending its personnel.

Canada was at this time among a handful countries which had accumulated valuable experience and a positive reputation as a leader in peacekeeping under UN command. It was broadly known that the Rt. Hon. Lester Pearson had been instrumental in proposing a UN Peacekeeping force to diffuse to the Suez Canal Crisis of 1956, which had won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957.

At this key juncture, upon instructions from Tokyo, I reached out to a diverse array of Canadian civilian and military experts on UN peacekeeping operations, including senior officials across the government and retired generals, to gather the knowledge that would help enable Japan to pass new legislation, mandating it to send civilian and uniformed personnel to participate in UN peacekeeping operations.

In June, 1992, after extensive deliberations, the Japanese Diet adopted the Law Concerning Cooperation in U.N. Peacekeeping and Other Operations (aka Peacekeeping Law).  Thereafter, substantially benefiting from Canada’s deep knowledge of this area, Japan took a significantly more active role in peacekeeping operations in the international community. Dispatch of more than 600 uniformed officers to the U.N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia, is just one of the examples.

The life of a diplomat involves constantly moving and changing titles in and out of one’s home country.  While I was in MOFA headquarters, my job varied every 2-3 years.  One of the most challenging and interesting jobs was serving as negotiator for economic partnership agreements with Indonesia, Chile, Switzerland, Australia, and India, and for the trilateral Japan-China-Korea Investment Agreements.  For the three years before coming to Toronto as Consul-General in late 2017, I worked as Assistant Press Secretary of MOFA, then as Deputy Chief of Protocol, and concurrently as a  Masters of Ceremony for the Imperial Household Agency.

As a salesperson for Japan, I am tasked with showing how much Japan has to offer Canada: from the latest technology and infrastructure to the culture and education sectors, there is tremendous room for growth in our relations, especially pressing now when it comes to environmental cooperation. We aim boost our two-way trade and investment relations. My mission is to show why and how Japan is a great partner for Canada, sharing the same fundamental values such as democracy, human rights and the rule of law. We are both members of the G7, the G20, the OECD, and are leading members of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) which is a free trade agreement among Canada and 10 countries in the Asia-Pacific region: Australia, Brunei, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

One of the most promising areas for Canada-Japan cooperation is in building transit and energy infrastructure. Japan has one of the most efficient urban and regional rail systems in the world and Japanese companies, with access to credit from banks at a time of negative interest rates, have great potential to become partner with their Canadian counterparts to refurbish Ontario and other provinces’ infrastructure in the decade ahead.


Japan as Convener: Hosting the G20

The G20 is a premier forum for international cooperation, with a membership which accounts for over 80% of the world’s GDP.  The venue of this year’s G20 Summit, Osaka, has been a prosperous commercial hub in Japan and known as a place where the spirit of taking on new challenges has been nurtured.  Japan will lead the discussion on how we can realize global economic growth by promoting free trade and innovation, and achieve economic growth and a reduction of disparities, contributing to the development agenda and other global issues with sustainable development goals at its core. The G20 summit will also promote a free and open, inclusive and sustainable “human-centered”future society.  Here are some of the priority issues which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has outlined.

Promoting free trade, while reforming the WTO:

The G20 Summit will be an opportunity to express our renewed commitment to the free, open and rules-based international order.  It is so timely, based on the recent developments that the CPTPP become effective on December 30, 2018 and so has Japan-EU Economic Partnership Agreement since February 1 this year. Within this context, it is critical to reform the WTO to make it a more effective organization.

Launching the “Osaka Track” for Data Governance:

While personal data and privacy, data embodying intellectual property, national security intelligence etc. must be protected, Japan believes the time is ripe for building a regime on data governance for Data Free Flow with Trust, possibly under the roof of WTO.  We wish to start the “Osaka Track” to discuss data governance worldwide.

Innovation Agenda on the Environment:

Japan will highlight the importance of innovation and how to tackle climate change.  Disruptive innovation, such as Carbon Capture and Utilization (CCU), or innovative technology that enables the use of hydrogen as both a primary source and a carrier of energy are good examples.   Reducing marine plastic debris is of critical importance, and we wish to jump-start worldwide action on this matter.


Japanese Leadership in Natural Disaster Management and Environmental Planning in response to Climate Change

As a long-spread islands nation from north to south and sitting on the “Ring of Fire”, Japan has extensive experience in dealing with natural disasters; earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, typhoons and floods, landslides, snowstorms, droughts, etc.  In our long history of recovering from these disasters, we have accumulated valuable knowledge and have invented various technologies to alleviate these disasters.  We have been eager to share this knowledge with other countries.  Visitors often marvel at Tokyo’s underground water discharge channel, or the skyscrapers with earthquake-resistant structure.  As a leading advocate for disaster prevention and management, Japan has hosted UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction three times, and proposed the World Tsunami Day, which is now observed on November 5.

As an advanced country with scarce energy resources, Japan has been tackling climate changes in various ways.  Our efforts vary from the conservation of energy and reduction of greenhouse gas by utilizing innovative technologies, to introduction of “cool biz” (no ties, no jackets in summer time) and   promotion of further usage of public transportation.  Cooperation with other countries through bilateral and multilateral channels, including Joint Credit Mechanism and Green Climate Fund, are other promising initiatives.


Japan as Bridge Builder

Japan is a country which has scarce natural resources and its economy is dependent on a stable international environment that is free, open and rule-based.  Therefore, it is indispensable for Japan to build trust and cooperative relationship with countries worldwide and the international community.  Under the Abe Administration, Japan has been engaged in diplomatic endeavours that contribute to ensuring the peace, stability and prosperity of the international community, from what we call a “panoramic perspective of the world map” under the policy of “Proactive Contributions to Peace” based on international cooperation.

Japan maintains friendly relations with almost all the countries in the world.  Being a democratic, peace-loving nation with the world’s third largest economic power and cooperating with many developing countries for their economic and social development, Japan is in a unique position to be a bridge builder in the world.  The recent visit by Prime Minister Abe to Iran after receiving the U.S. President Donald Trump as a State Guest in Japan was one of examples of Japan’s efforts for promoting peace and stability in the Middle East.  Japan has been inviting youths from Palestine and Israel for dialogue sessions, and we have hosted the ruling party members and opposition party members of Cambodia to deepen their dialogue.  In our turbulent world, Japan is well positioned to promote international dialogue and development, and increasingly willing to do so.

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Takako Ito is the Consul General of Japan in Toronto. Ms. Ito joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan (MOFA) in 1985. Her overseas postings include Embassies in Canada (1988-1991), Malaysia (2001-2003), Indonesia (2010-2011), the Mission of Japan to the United Nations in NY (1997-2001) and the Mission of Japan to ASEAN as Deputy Chief of Mission (2011-2014).

Editorial Input

Dr. Alidad Mafinezam is the president of the West Asia Council and an executive member of CIC’s Toronto Branch