Yasuke Kataoka sat in his classes in Japan and listened to his professor discuss American politics. His professor, who studied in southern California, was an expert on American political leaders.
“In the classroom, he often talked about Eugene Debs and the Socialist Party and his run for president,” Kataoka said. “He talked about southern Indiana and a utopian community (New Harmony). Now, Indiana is very conservative. At one time, it was utopian minded and socialist because of the unions.”
His interest in American politics led him to Indiana State University, where he intended to study for one year. He graduated with his bachelor’s in political science in 1961 and his master’s in international relations in 1964. He became Indiana State’s first Japanese graduate.
“I am the eldest son of Japanese students,” Kataoka said with a smile on a recent visit to the campus almost 50 years after he left.
While at ISU, he helped establish the sister city relationship between Terre Haute and Tajimi, Japan, even traveling with then Mayor Ralph Tucker to Japan to act as his interpreter. He has since spent his career working on relationships between the two countries.
After graduating from ISU, Kataoka returned to Japan where he attended graduate school and then taught two years at a university. A company then recruited him to handle its international relations. That began 20 years of working for private companies before he played a role in Japanese and American politics as the two countries began negotiating trade differences.
As an aide to Susumu Nikaido, the chief of cabinet in the administration of Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka in the late 1970s and early 80s, Kataoka flew to the U.S. almost every month to attend numerous meetings with U.S. officials.
“Japan and the United States were confronting each other on the issue of trade friction, mainly on Japanese electrical items and cars,” he said. “(Dick) Gephardt (a U.S. Congressman from Missouri) became a key person to curb and limit importation of Japanese products.”
From the negotiations, came the Japanese decision to allow American universities to open branches in Japan as well as programs that allowed Japanese students to study abroad in the U.S. And along the way, the U.S. Congress and the Japanese Diet co-founded the U.S. Foundation for International Economic Policy, which works to promote bilateral trade on education, culture and health care. It also helps small and medium-sized businesses to develop trade in Japan and other East Asian countries. Kataoka now works as acting chairman and executive director of that organization.
“Big corporations don’t need our help,” Kataoka said. “Small and medium-sized companies are the support for regional economies.”
As ISU professors and students have visited Japan, Kataoka has worked as a tour guide to show them around Tokyo. He said international study abroad continues to remain important for students and universities should not only encourage their students to go, but encourage foreign students to come. Companies operate on a global basis and need people who have studied and lived abroad.
“Unless you have an understanding of a country’s culture and traditions, it’s hard to have good relationships,” Kataoka said. “Language is one thing that you have to read between the lines to find what people are really thinking. If you know the history and customs, you can prevent a fiasco.”
Jennifer Sicking, ’11, is the editor of Indiana State University Magazine.