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Japanese envoy saw Canada’s foreign ministry from the inside

By Kristen Shane      

At 32, Ryo Tokunaga has already been posted to India, Uganda.

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One of a diplomat’s goals is to understand the government hosting them. Usually, the most they can do is to gather intelligence from various sources close to government senior leadership. 

But Japanese diplomat Ryo Tokunaga was able to not only get close to the Canadian government, but to learn about it from the inside.

Mr. Tokunaga is now a public relations officer with the Japanese Embassy in Ottawa, but six years ago he was on a four-month exchange working inside Canada’s foreign ministry. His job as a policy adviser for defence and security relations was organized through the Japanese government.

He returned to Canada to take up his current job in August and reconnected with colleagues he had worked with inside the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development in 2008. 

“When I deal with them [DFATD] it’s great because, in the position that I held in [the former Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade], the person who came after me right now is a spokesperson in [DFATD],” he said with a laugh in a November interview. 

But Mr. Tokunaga’s Canadian experience goes far beyond a government exchange—and his near-perfect English (he uses colloquial terms like “nitty-gritty” and “macho”) is a testament to that.

After joining the Japanese foreign ministry about 10 years ago, he worked in a division that dealt with Canada-Japan economic relations. Then from 2007 to 2009 he studied for his master’s degree in business administration at York University’s Schulich School of Business through a Japanese program for diplomats to study overseas for two years. 

In between his Canadian stints, he was posted for two years each in India and Uganda. 

India’s booming economy caught the attention of Tokyo in terms of the business community, he said. His embassy helped businesspeople understand government relations and the infrastructure challenges of entering the Indian market. 

Uganda was another experience completely, as his embassy’s role was more focused on development assistance to the east African country. 


Fond of Facebook

In Canada, he’s taken on yet another skill set, promoting Japan to Canadians. 

“Generally Canadians have a good image of Japan, but it’s so far away in terms of distance,” said Mr. Tokunaga.

He reaches out to locals to get them more familiar with Japan through cultural events and lectures, for instance. He’s a firm believer in engaging people through the tools they use every day, like Facebook. He’s proud of his embassy’s Facebook page “likes” (all 654 of them, as of March 4). 

The page is written in a friendly and informal way. To help promote a Japanese government program that pays the salaries for Canadians to teach English in rural Japan for up to five years, he contacted several of the Japan Exchange and Teaching program participants and posted photos of their Japanese adventures to the embassy Facebook page. One set shows a couple shirtless Canadian men wearing little more than underwear and a thin headband, huddling together on the street eating hot soup with chopsticks after a January dip in the ocean. They were taking part in the Hadaka Matsuri (the aptly named Naked Festival) that happens every January in a small town south of the Miyazaki Prefecture as a kind of New Year’s cleansing exercise, Mr. Tokunaga says.

“That is kind of really a local tradition. And if a JET person doesn’t go to that place, Canadians will never know that there is a tradition like this in Japan,” he said, adding that thousands of Canadians have participated in the program, which has been ongoing since the 1980s.

Working on the program is one of the highlights of his job, he said. Participants return with fresh memories and connect with the embassy to reach alumni. When memories fade and they settle into a Canadian career, “what I enjoy is I try to pull the strings of the faded memory and try to arrange a reception at the ambassador’s residence,” he said. Participants can act as lifelong ambassadors to the country. 

His diverse postings reflect the Japanese foreign ministry organization, he said, in that everybody’s a generalist.

At only 32, he’s gotten to know not only the Canadian and Japanese government processes from the inside, but also Uganda’s government. He helped co-ordinate Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s presence at a Tokyo International Conference on African Development. How the Canadian, Ugandan and Japanese governments move, how papers are processed and decisions are taken is intriguing, he said. 

“You kind of see the historical content,” he said. How governments function is important knowledge, for instance, to help in negotiations, he added. 

Throughout his travels, Mr. Tokunaga has brought along his wife, four-year-old daughter Nanami, and eight-month-old son Takumi. His daughter is enjoying junior kindergarten here, he said. He and his wife met while he was on exchange for about a year in Nebraska in high school and she was in Texas for about a year.

When he’s not at work, he enjoys the outdoors. He’s played tennis since he was young, and has been lucky to have picked up a sport played all around the world. Soon after arriving last summer, he and a partner placed second in the first division for advanced players in an Ottawa Diplomatic Association tennis tournament. He also bikes to work in good weather, and skis.

—with files from Shamsia Quraishi




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