Table Speech

Notes on Our Way of Life 2015

April 22, 2015

Mr. Ichiriki Yamamoto

 Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once stated during her election campaign that “human resources lie in family, not in society.” At that time, the UK was referred to as an “aged super power” and it was often said that there was not much for Japan to learn from the UK. As I observe the current situation in Japan, I can’t agree more with what she believed in. Today, many youngsters who receive no discipline at home get their own way in the society. In the mid-1960s when I started working at a travel agency after graduating from high school, I had so many strict seniors who gave me stern but wise advice and taught me discipline. They had all lived through wartimes, joining hands to fight for life with a hope for a better future. I received their precious words with respect and gratitude.

 The other day, I came across a TV program that featured the biographies of former Prime Ministers, Shigeru Yoshida and Hayato Ikeda. Hayato Ikeda once stated “if you cannot afford eating rice, fill your stomach with barley” in a long speech he made. Unfortunately, the media paraphrased his words to “poor people should eat barley” and spread the wrong message. Later Mr. Ikeda’s younger daughter revealed in an interview that her family was also eating barley as a matter of course. I was impressed to know those who had the ambition to steer the nation were giving serious thought to the future course of Japan, ready to risk their lives. We owe what we are today to those dedicated leaders.

 Today in Japan, we witness an increasing number of youngsters who are not disciplined. This morning I took the subway to come here and bumped into so many people who paid no attention to others as they indulged themselves in mobile phones wherever they were and whatever they did. Japanese people have come to avoid involvement with others and act egocentrically even in public areas. Some say it is because Japan has become globalized. But I find this argument groundless because I stay in Manhattan for two months each year on business and observe all New Yorkers pay careful attention to others and the surroundings for their own safety. Globalization means you interact and integrate among people from different cultural backgrounds and traditions.

 I believe the message of Mrs. Thatcher boils down to the fact that family is the minimum unit to teach discipline. If a child is trained to act sensibly, he/she will be able to adapt smoothly to social situations as an active member of society, by keeping an appropriate distance from others. Mrs. Thatcher’s words have made me skeptical about how far the policymakers in Japan today share her sentiment.

 Let me tell my personal story that dates back to my junior high school days that tells how deeply indebted I am to Rotary. I came to Tokyo in 1962 at age 14 and stayed at a newsagent’s shop to work as a paperboy for 4 years until I graduated from an industrial high school in Setagaya Ward. I recall my first winter in Tokyo was challenging as I come from Kouchi Prefecture where the winter is relatively mild. I sometimes had to deliver papers in freezing rain or snow in Tokyo. The truck came to the shop around 4:00am and dropped the newspapers which we sorted out and delivered. Among my list of destinations was the Ashihara family in Shibuya Ward. I usually reached their place between 5:30am and 6:00am. That Christmas morning, I delivered the newspaper to their mailbox as usual and was surprised to find Mr. Ashihara coming out of the front door. “Happy Christmas” he said and handed me a Christmas present in a blue wrapping paper of Matsuya Department Store in Ginza. I was so excited to receive a present from a stranger for the first time, which was a handkerchief with a Greeting Card of Rotary Club. Back then I was not familiar with Rotary, but I received the present from Mr. Ashihara each year.

 My story doesn’t stop here. After I won the Naoki Prize (Japanese literary award) I was asked to give lectures and I recalled this heart-warming story from my past. I realized Mr. Ashihara was waiting behind the front door in that cold December morning just to give a present to a newspaper boy, without asking anything in return. I felt much obliged to Mr. Ashihara and shared this story when I was invited to speak at a Rotary Club in Roppongi. To my great surprise, one of the Rotarians happened to know Mr. Yoshinobu Ashihara and I could meet him in person after so many years. Mr. Ashihara turned out to be a world-famous architect with many prominent projects, including the Sony Building. All of these generous people have made me what I am today.

 “Human resources lie in family.” Back in the 1960s, people knew how to be grateful to society without being taught. Majority of people kept an appropriate distance from others and were considerate, that once made Japan a safe country.

 Japan is a marvelous country with gentle-hearted people. As I look back on the path I have walked, I am deeply impressed by how spiritually rich, generous and compassionate Japanese people are.

 As I close my speech, let me call upon you to teach a few lessons to the young who will shape the future of Japan. Please lend a helping hand to nurture the younger generation who I believe will lead Japan to a more affluent society in a decade or so.