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Remembering Yoshiro Ito, the Civilian Who Strengthened Japan-US Security Ties

He was a Hokkaido businessman and postwar pioneer, and from sports to air shows to Japan-US security relations, Yoshiro Ito forged an unforgettable legacy.

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Known as "Mister Ito," Yoshiro Ito was interviewed by this reporter in 2016. (@Sankei by Mika Sugiura)

At the age of 96, Yoshiro Ito bid farewell to this world. He left a legacy as an extraordinary businessman from Hokkaido. With passion, "Mr Ito" fostered private-sector cooperation between Japan and the United States starting from the tumultuous postwar era. 

Farewell Gathering Draws US Navy Admiral and Over 2100 Attendees

The farewell gathering for Yoshiro Ito, attended by 2100 people, was titled "Soku no Tsudoi," or "Gathering Under the Blue Sky." (Provided by Itogumi Group)

He was known for spearheading Japan's bid for the 1972 Sapporo Olympics and his tenure as chairman of the Ski Association of Japan. In both capacities, "Mr Ito" made significant contributions to promoting skiing in Asia. 

Notably, he was the Hokkaido businessman behind the Sapporo Air Show, the largest privately sponsored air show. Formerly known as the Sapporo Aviation Pagent, it would not have been possible without his help. 

As chair of the Itogumi Group, Mr Ito was an expert in construction and engineering. But he was also much more. Beyond playing a pivotal role in securing the bid for the 1972 Sapporo Olympics, he spearheaded the development of Hokkaido's economic sector. 

Itogumi Group honored Mr Ito's towering legacy in a poignant farewell gathering on March 4 in Sapporo City, paying homage to the businessman who built the security bonds between Japan and the US in the private sector. His unwavering dedication earned him the profound trust of the US Navy and Air Force, whose officers fondly called him "Yoshi" or "Mister Ito." 

Truly, he was a great economic figure from Hokkaido.

'A Lifelong Commitment'

Three months after his death on December 5, 2023, Itogumi Group organized a two-part farewell gathering in his memory. Approximately 2100 dignitaries from across the nation attended, representing various sectors including politics and business. 

American and Japanese high-ranking military officials distinguished it from the usual farewell gathering for business leaders. Among those present was retired US Navy four-star Admiral William J Fallon, who headed US Pacific Command from 2005-2007. He was later Commander of the United States Central Command. Rear Admiral Carl Lahti, Commander of the US Naval Forces Japan, and Colonel Michael P Richard, Commander of the 35th Fighter Wing at Misawa Air Base also participated. Mr Dean K Vaughn of the Policy and Plans section of the US Pacific Fleet also joined them. Additionally, high-ranking officials representing Japan's Ground, Naval, and Air Self-Defense Force attended the event.

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In his eulogy, Admiral Fallon described Mr Ito as a "respected and special friend of the US Navy." Moreover, he said: "No one did more than he did to strengthen the Japan-US alliance" and "promote friendship" between the two countries. Admiral Fallon added, "His lifelong commitment to fostering the partnership between our countries is even more crucial today in light of the security challenges we face."

Many attendees were drawn to the exhibition showcasing Ito's achievements and contributions. (Provided by Itogumi Group)

Working as a Houseboy to Get to America 

Yoshiro Ito's relationship with the United States traces back to Japan's defeat in World War II. In the year the war ended, Ito lived through the "Great Tokyo Air Raids." He was enrolled at Waseda University at the time. The boarding house and factory where he worked as part of the student mobilization were consumed in the firebombing. Amidst the scars of war, Ito felt compelled to see the nation that had emerged victorious over Japan.

Seeking a certificate to study abroad, he went to the General Headquarters for the Allied Forces (GHQ). However, his application was declined after an interview because his English proficiency was insufficient. Undeterred, he took up employment as a houseboy in the Occupation Forces' officer quarters and learned English on the job. Having passed his next screening, he boarded a cargo ship for the two-week voyage from Yokohama to the Port of San Francisco. However, lacking a passport, he was detained as a stowaway upon arrival.

Reflecting on his experience, he remarked before his death, "We were under GHQ rule and no one thought a passport was necessary." Nevertheless, even in detention, he found the meals surprisingly delicious. More importantly, he gained a profound understanding of the disparities in national power between Japan and the United States from the experience. 

Following his release, Mr Ito pursued graduate studies at the University of California-Los Angeles and Columbia University. Experiencing both east and west, he traversed the vast North American continent and cultivated an international perspective.

Consulting on Port Calls for Nuclear-Powered Aircraft Carriers

In Sapporo, the Ito residence was located in the heart of the city. After the war, it was requisitioned by GHQ for approximately four years. It would have been no surprise if Ito had harbored ill feelings towards the United States under the circumstances. However, he enjoyed having the US military rely on him for water and supplies when naval vessels docked in Hokkaido. He also had a knack for prioritizing important matters over trivial ones and made decisions from a broad perspective.

Years later, when the US military considered deploying nuclear-powered aircraft carriers to Japan, Mr Ito advised that "George Washington" would leave a favorable impression on the Japanese people. Indeed, that is exactly what happened. Open visitation was a condition of aircraft carrier port calls in historically politically left-leaning Hokkaido. That led to tens of thousands of spectators visiting the aircraft carrier and helped ensure public acceptance. The underlying concept was that the deployment of US aircraft carriers was important for the stability of Asia.

Mr Ito delivers a speech at the establishment of the Hokkaido Seiron Friendship Association in 2016. (@Sankei by Mika Sugiura)

Bonds with Seiron and 'The Sankei Shimbun'

My connection with Mr Ito dates back to when I was The Sankei Shimbun Sapporo bureau chief. In politically progressive Hokkaido, the conservative Sankei Shimbun had few subscribers and low visibility. We launched the Hokkaido Seiron Friendship Association in 2016 to increase awareness of the paper's Seiron opinion column. Mr Ito graciously served as representative director of the association, alongside Mr Keigo Iwata, chairman of the Sapporo Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Together they provided invaluable support.

I always looked forward to our meetings. Among other things, Mr Ito shared anecdotes from his time as a stowaway and studying abroad in the United States. He had deep connections with the Pentagon, and he would recount instances of secret consultations during Operation Desert Storm and the Gulf War. In one story, for example, he was secretly asked to help transport tanks on civilian cargo ships. He related many tales that couldn't be shared publicly. 

A Passion for Aviation and Skiing

Mr Ito was a true aviation enthusiast. He served as both vice-president and chairman of the Hokkaido Aeronautic Association. The organization was established in 1964 to foster a deeper understanding and appreciation of aviation in Hokkaido. Under his guidance, it organized the highly-regarded Sapporo Air Pageant (Sapporo Air Show). The largest privately sponsored event of its kind, it captivated audiences biannually until the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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Sapporo Okadama Airport, where the air show took place, was a shared facility for the Ground Self-Defense Force and civilian operations. Mr Ito personally liaised with the US military to arrange the participation of aircraft ranging from fighter jets to civilian planes. Featuring the US military, Japan Ground, Maritime, and Air Self-Defense Force, Japan Coast Guard, and civilian aircraft, the air show would not have been possible without his involvement.

On one newspaper assignment, I vividly recall setting up my camera on a building roof at the Okadama Garrison. Indeed, the scale of the air show left an indelible impression, even if you weren't particularly interested in aviation. Meanwhile, although Mr Ito refrained from making political statements, he organized a ground display of the Osprey aircraft amidst the controversy over its deployment in Japan. He maintained full awareness of the international situation and recognized the paramount importance of security in preserving peace.

Ito the businessman was also a professional-level skier. In addition, through his involvement in the bid for the Sapporo Olympics, he forged deep connections with the Imperial Family. Indeed, there were floral tributes in the names of members of the imperial household at his farewell gathering.

Pilot Yoshihide Muroya performs acrobatics above a large number of visitors during the air show "Sapporo Aviation Pageant" at Sapporo Airfield in Sapporo, Hokkaido, August 12, 2018. (@Fumio Oyama)

A Chapter in Hokkaido's History

"Do you know just how big Hokkaido is?"

Mr Ito asked me this every time we met. Hokkaido is approximately twice the size of Kyushu, a comparison that testifies to its sheer expanse. It also makes an oversized contribution to primary industries like agriculture compared to the national average. However, at the same time, it grapples with challenges such as declining births, an aging population, and depopulation. 

In his eulogy, Chairman Iwata remarked that Mr Ito always referred to Hokkaido as "Great Hokkaido," not as merely one of Japan's 47 prefectures. He emphasized that "Mr Ito firmly believed that Hokkaido is a land that contributes significantly to Japan. Here, building new infrastructure is not a waste, but rather serves Japan's greater good."

He lived his life loving Hokkaido, loving Japan, and constantly contemplating what was necessary for world peace.

Strong Security Cooperation at the Civilian Level

Subsequently, the Hokkaido Aeronautic Association announced the closure of the air show on their website the day after Mr Ito's farewell gathering. With some 60 years of history, this event also symbolized the relationship between Mr Ito and the United States.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida visited the United States for talks with President Joe Biden in April. Approximately 80 years after World War II's end, the two leaders reaffirmed the strengthening of Japan-US cooperation and ties. As a civilian, Mr Ito had dedicated the 80 postwar years of his life to building up those ties. 

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His daughter, Mikako, who succeeded him, delivered the concluding remarks at his farewell gathering. "When you see an airplane in the blue sky, remember my father," she said. We must not forget Yoshiro Ito's legacy and the bonds he forged between Japan and the United States. They were made possible because Mr Ito was a Hokkaido businessman and private citizen.

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(Read the story in Japanese.)

Author: Mika Sugiura