Back to the old haunts
Masao Kunihiro talks about the speech he will deliver tonight at the Mansfield Center while visiting the Oxford Cafe on Sunday evening. Kunihiro, a Japanese politician, arrived in Missoula after speaking at the United Nations and visiting with old friend Mike Mansfield in Washington, D.C. Photo by TIM THOMPSON/Missoulian

Japanese dignitary and friend of Sen. Mansfield visits Missoula, a town he loves

At age 96, Montana's "treasure," former Sen. Mike Mansfield, is doing quite well and is in fine spirits, said the ambassador's longtime friend, Masao Kunihiro, while having a cup of tea at the Oxford Cafe on Sunday.

"I found him in very good shape," said Kunihiro, who visited Mansfield in Washington, D.C., last week. "We talked about our common friends, including my mother."

The Japanese politician, scholar and former television talk show host, referred to as Japan's Dan Rather, is in Missoula to pay respects to the homeland of his friend, and to talk about relations between Japan and the United States at the University of Montana's Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center.

He will also revisit spots he enjoyed in a 1991 visit, including the Ox, area steak houses, and if there's time, a trip to the National Bison Range.

Kunihiro will give a talked titled "What is it that Japan says no to?" at 4 p.m. Tuesday at the Mansfield Center. The title of his talk is a play on the title of the book "The Japan That Says No," written by Tokyo's newly chosen, conservative governor, Shintaro Ishihara.

"He is sort of a maverick," Kunihiro said of the new governor. "He's a bit of an enigma as far as I'm concerned, but he is very well known with a big following. He is known as anti-American and he's already known as anti-Chinese."

Kunihiro said he is here to "relive the good old times," of the years he spent working closely with Mansfield in Japan, and in 1991, when the two met in Missoula for a few days at the annual Mansfield Lecture.

"I try to improve the relationship between our two countries, two countries I am very much in love with," he said.

Kunihiro said he is particularly concerned by the lagging economy in his own country, and concerned too that it will deeply affect the rest of the world.

"The past seven consecutive years Japan's economy has been in very bad shape. It may very well be zero growth," he said. "Unless Japan's economy picks up its momentum, the rest of Asia may be hard hit, particularly southeast Asia. Something must be done, not just for Japan. It is equally important for the rest of Asia."

The current tensions between the United States and China also concern Kunihiro, who believes we live in crucial, tentative times.

"China is very important to Japan," he said. "And China and the U.S. are at loggerheads. The question is for Japan, what could we do to ameliorate the progress to help relations between U.S. and China?"

He said he will watch Tokyo's new governor carefully because the man's alleged prejudices appear to be working towards thickening the tensions rather than soothing them.

As a writer and as a political watchdog, Kunihiro said he frequently thinks about the mediation style of Mike Mansfield.

"My assessment of Mike Mansfield is he is a national treasure, not only for the United States, but for Japan," he said. "He served the public with his distinct understanding, fairness, humanity and compassion."

Kunihiro and Mansfield first met in the 1970s when Mansfield was ambassador to Japan and Kunihiro was an adviser to Japan's prime minister. Renowned for his bilingual abilities, Kunihiro translated into Japanese Mansfield's speech "Our Future Lies in the Pacific." The translation was sold in book format throughout Asia, which also included Kunihiro's essay titled: "Mansfield as I See Him."

Even though Kunihiro corresponds with Mansfield frequently, fate is responsible for their recent meeting and his visit to Missoula, he said.

"My mother died and I received a condolence card from him before my departure to the United States," said Kunihiro, who carried the letter among his personal items. "He had written in long hand, as usual; when he writes a personal letter he always uses his own hand, and the sentiment was so moving and touching, I knew I had to see Mike Mansfield or else I'd miss the opportunity because I so seldom come to the United States."

Between his scheduled talks at the United Nations in New York and at a conference on American-Japanese relations in Utah, Ku

nihiro detoured to Washington, D.C. After his visit with Mansfield, he decided to visit Missoula.

"There's a tranquility here," he said. "Tranquility is the only term I can think of to describe my affinity with Montana … It is a great honor to be friends with Mike Mansfield."

Tuesday - 6/8/99

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