"Japan stands as one possible bridge between East and West and is endowed with an historic opportunity to mediate the tensions which currently exist between East and West, rich and poor, white and colored peoples of the world.
Japan knows the horror of war and has suffered as no other nation under the cloud of nuclear disaster. Certainly Japan can stand strong for a world of peace. Japan has also known poverty and yet, has evidenced amazing economic growth. Japan has known racial humiliation, but even now the seeds of racial discord exists within her borders…
I look forward to a visit to your beautiful country and hope that my schedule will soon permit me to bring a word of greeting to you from the people of good will and brotherhood in the United States."
Martin Luther King, Jr.
December 13, 1967
At the end of his life, it wasn’t nuclear membership invitations, or the hope of visiting friends from the past that persuaded Martin Luther King Jr to put a visit to Japan on his schedule in 1968. It was, in fact, a letter from Nippon TV then-producer Yasuo Yamanaka. Back then the television station was formally called the Nippon Television Network Corporation, or NTV. Starting in 1954, it stands as one of the first television stations in Japan, and Yamanaka, in charge of the documentary division, wanted King to appear on a program, preferably in January or February of 1968.
This may have been the red carpet King was looking for. No doubt King would have been paid by NTV for his guest appearance, and at the same time been able to send out his message of peace and nonviolence to an entire nation on a popular and respected television station.
Yamanaka, however, didn’t want to leave this invitation to chance. After all, there was a very strong possibility King had never heard of NTV, or of Yamanaka. Without any kind of familiarity, the invitation may as well have come from outer space. Perhaps the NTV producer sensed this, and on December 4th, 1967, Yamanaka sent out a Western Union telegram to folk singer and activist Pete Seeger, who had recently been on Yamanaka’s “interview program” in October of 1967. Yamanaka knew that Seeger was connected to King through Seeger’s rendition of “We Shall Overcome,” a protest song that had become a constant throughout the civil rights movement. “(I’d) appreciate if you kindly recommend Dr. King to accept invitation of our program STOP. He knows other details. STOP. Want to have King here Janu(a)ry or February (1968). Best Regards.”
Besides the connection of the “We Shall Overcome” song, Seeger’s wife, Toshi, had a Japanese father who’d lived in Shikoku but chose exile after his own father “translated Marx into Japanese.” During that period of Japanese law, sons had the option of taking on the punishments of their father. As a result, Toshi’s father left Japan. So even though Toshi was half-Japanese, she had been raised mainly in America. Still, the idea of Japan was always with her, and Toshi was, according to Pete, the “brains in the family”, meaning she was the reason for his commercial success.
Pete and Toshi Seeger were also closely connected to King due to their involvement in the protest in Selma, Alabama, where they bravely marched and sang with King and others toward Montgomery in 1965.
Pete Seeger’s letter (along with an additional telegram) would have arrived in the hands of King’s secretary, Dora McDonald, on Dec 5, and he was quick to support Yamanaka’s idea: “Dear Dr King…I am writing to recommend (Yamanaka) as an alert and honest man, and the program as one through which to talk to the Japanese people…"
Seeger went on, understanding that King would need clarification on how he, an English speaker, could speak and not have his message lost on confused ears.
"They have extraordinarily expert simultaneous translators thru earphones, so that you and the interviewer can talk naturally. Your words are translated with subtitles on the screen, so the viewer hears you in English, but reads your words in Japanese."
McDonald shared the correspondence with King over the phone. If they’d been on the fence before about visiting Japan, Seeger’s considerate letter helped seal the deal. But McDonald wrote back to Seeger on Dec 6 and stated that it would be impossible for King to visit Japan in January or February of 1968.
"We have been talking with the Nippon TV representatives regarding the possibility…and this is something that he would like to do…Dr King would consider this invitation for the Summer of 1968 or in January or February of 1969. If Mr Yamanaka is still interested, you might suggest this possibility to him."
McDonald added a playful jab to Seeger: “We have not seen you in a long time. Dr King was pleased to hear from you again.”
The next time NTV contacted King was in a letter dated March 13, and received on March 18, a mere 17 days before King's assassination on April 4, 1968. In the letter, Yamanaka directly addresses McDonald, telling her that “Pete Seeger kindly forwarded to us your letter of December 6, 1967 and we appreciate both of you for that.”
The letter goes on to state that they would prefer if “Dr King could find some way to come to Japan during the period from June to August . NTV is planning to produce a series of special programs during (this time), and it is our sincere desire to have him as an honorable guest of this program.”
Tragically, King sitting in a chair on a Japanese program with translator headphones on, in his standard suit and tie, kanji appearing on the low part of the screen, is only an image that almost happened. We are left instead to imagine the possibilities. Would he have called for unity among the nuclear-free organizations in Japan, or brought further attention to the war orphan dilemma he wrote about in his letter, or would he have asked Japan to stand together with American anti-war demonstrators and demand a withdrawal from Vietnam? We’ll never know.
The memory of Martin Luther King Jr’s life and commitment to nonviolence, however, remained in the Japanese consciousness, through book translations, the former mayor of Hiroshima, Tadatoshi Akiba, and future visits to Japan by his wife, Coretta Scott King, who first traveled here in 1986 to speak at Seinan Gakuin University, and then again in 1996 for an international women's conference.
On the other side, in 1990, Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu visited Martin Luther King Jr's grave in Atlanta. Kaifu expressed through an intermediary at the time that “he greatly admired Dr King. It’s only natural he would come [to pay his respects]…Japan is committed to human rights at the time." Four years later, in June of 1994, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko bowed in front of Dr King's grave.
Although he never had a chance to visit the country, it's clear that Dr King and a majority of Japanese people had a mutual respect for one another. Call it a long-distance relationship that was never given a face-to-face moment.
Patrick Parr’s (www.patrickparr.com) forthcoming book is titled "The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age" (Chicago Review Press, April 2018). His work has appeared in The Japan Times, Kyoto Journal and History Today, among others. The King Center Digital Archives helped with this research: http://www.thekingcenter.org/archive/list?body_value=Japan© Japan Today