Global Matters: Sayonara, Kawamura-san

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Takuma Kawamura passed away last September in his native Japan, and the ripples of this sad news are now quietly lapping our shores.

For those of us who knew him, his passing leaves an empty place, a kind of hole in the heart, that is proving slow to heal.

Takuma didn’t cut a particularly wide swath, but he touched many of us in a thousand little ways. His death reminds us of how even one life, one quiet voice, can remind us of the ties that bind.

Takuma Kawamura lived in Aomori, the northernmost prefecture on the island of Honshu, Japan. Maine and Aomori became sister states in 1994, a relationship built not only upon our common reverence for nature and our physical “detachment” from larger metropolitan neighbors, but also upon a peculiar historical link.

It happened that in 1889, the Cheseborough, a ship built in Bath, Maine, was wrecked in a typhoon off the coast of the village of Shariki, in Aomori. Risking their own lives, the villagers rowed and even swam furiously out to rescue as many of the sailors as possible.

Most perished, but several were nursed back to health. A small shrine in Shariki marks the spot of the shipwreck and rescue, and in 1994 the citizens of Bath and Shariki signed a sister-city agreement that blossomed into a larger state-to-state relationship linking Maine and Aomori.

One element of the sister-state exchange was Maine’s agreement to host a young person from the Aomori government for the better part of a year. Back in the late 90’s, that person was posted at the Maine International Trade Center, where he worked with staff on various projects to enhance the Maine-Aomori relationship.

Takuma arrived in the summer of 1997, wide-eyed, quiet and unpracticed in English. He left behind the highly stratified and hierarchical world of prefectural government and parachuted, as it were, into the highly informal, egalitarian and idiosyncratic world of Maine, where smiles and conversation with strangers are the norm, and where you call everyone –  even your boss – by his or her first name.

Takuma soon acclimated to our world, however, and began to embrace life in Maine. He relished its beauty and its people, and, as a colleague recently recalled, looked forward to weekends when he would rent a Chevy “Maribu,” insert a cassette tape of his favorite artist (Ronnie Milsap) and drive north from Portland to destinations all over the state.

There were, of course, occasional reminders of cultural differences. A fifteen-hundred dollar, unauthorized charge once appeared on Takama’s credit card statement, and he came to me in a quiet panic. He handed me the statement, and, owing to his lack of comfort with English, I prepared to dial the customer-service number.

“Newman-san, no!”

“What’s the matter, Takuma? We have to get this fixed.”

“Don’t call them!” he said, reaching for the phone.

“Why not?”

“In Japan, the individual must sacrifice for the sake of commerce.”


“Takuma, give me the phone. This is Maine.”

It may not have been the most artful demonstration of the principle, but individuality and a greater freedom from the strictures of hierarchy surely began to agree with Takuma. Over time he relaxed and his easy smile and telltale, shuffling gait warmed all who worked with him on a daily basis. Indeed, as time went on, the only times we saw him tense were when delegations from Aomori – comprised of his superiors – made periodic visits to Maine!

Takuma loved it here. Following his return to Japan he came back to Maine on his honeymoon in 1999 and, in what surely must have been a farewell tour, visited Maine again just last summer, only months before he died of cancer.

What can one say when a friend dies so young? What lessons can we draw from the life of a young man who was, on one level, merely passing through our state and our lives?

Perhaps only this: We touch others every day. Our words and ways become a part of others’ lives without our conscious effort. The kindnesses we bestow, the welcomes we offer, the simple gestures of friendship that we take for granted here in Maine are our most vital and precious export.

I think we can take some solace in the fact that even in the hypercompetitive world of global commerce, what Maine exports in greatest abundance, and what really matters most, can never be quantified, but can surely last a lifetime.

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newman-op.jpgPerry B. Newman is a South Portland resident and president of Atlantica Group, an international business consulting firm based in Portland, with clients in North America, Israel and Europe.