The Perspectives Series: Introducing the personal stories of individuals who have lived in Japan and their reflections on life and diversity in this country.

Aaron Smethurst now calls Washington, DC home, but he has spent sixteen years in New Mexico, four years in Germany, and two years in Japan. He is presently the Director of International Intellectual Property Promotion at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Aaron’s hobby is studying new languages, and when work travel takes him to Beijing, Sao Paulo, Geneva, and Tokyo, he always packs his running shoes to collect some kilometers for his “running-souvenir trophy case.”

As a member of the Business delegation to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) Tenth Conference of the Parties (COP-10) in Nagoya, Japan, October 2010

When did you first visit Japan?

The first time I visited Japan was in the summer of 2001 to visit friends I made while at American University, including my girlfriend (and future wife) at the time.

Any particular episode from that visit that stands out in your mind?

One particular episode began even before I set foot in Japan! This involved some misguided kindness that ended up making me late for a meeting with my future father-in-law. I was flying into Narita Airport and on the plane had a basic conversation in my broken Japanese words with my seatmate, an older woman from Japan who spoke little English. She knew that I was supposed to take a bus into the city but was convinced that this would take too long given the traffic in Tokyo. Instead she recommended that I take the Narita Express train into the city. I appreciated her advice and having never been to Tokyo before decided to heed her warnings about the traffic and the optimal path into the city.

When I arrived at Tokyo Station, I had no way of knowing where my father-in-law would be, and the woman took me through the train station searching for the bus end-station. It turned out that my father-in-law had been expecting me on a particular bus and when he didn’t see me on it, didn’t know what to do next. Without a cell phone, I had no way to contact him and no way to find him so he had to patiently wait for me while I searched the station.

That’s quite a first impression!

Two things were remarkable about this experience. The first was that the woman took me through the station and never gave up helping me until we found my father-in-law. She did this despite not knowing me at all when we boarded the plane and despite our inability to communicate well in either Japanese or English. The second is the fact that my father-in-law waited patiently for me to show up late and despite this had no qualms about greeting me with a smiling face and a welcome heart. I was immediately amazed at the lengths the Japanese would go to make someone feel welcome and cared for in their country. The rest of my first trip bore out these experiences as well. I was welcomed into my wife’s family, and my friends worked hard to show me a good time and the flavor of Japan.

To read the full interview, click here.