A taste for life: Meet food diplomat Ami Matsuzawa

Ami Matsuzawa

TOKYO —

Ami Matsuzawa is an inquisitive person. This is probably why First Lady Akie Abe wanted to meet her as part of an international group of young women that is helping Japan engage with the world.

This “glocal” (think global, act local) entrepreneur seems to be in eternal motion. She pines for intercultural understanding, pins as community manager for Pinterest Japan, and plans global excursions—both for herself and other Tokyo-based “passengers.”

As director of LunchTrip, Matsuzawa, together with her two cofounders Kyoko Nozaki and Naho Hatakeda, have planned 80 “trips” since the company was set up in 2008. The midday excursions combine a love of taste and travel with global education.

Participants, dubbed passengers for the day, usually number from 30 to 120. They visit a cultural place in Tokyo — often an embassy or world cuisine restaurant—to eat a meal and learn about the critical issues the day’s target country is facing.

The LunchTrip vision is to build an open-minded society, one passenger and tasty bite at a time. Passengers are given background information to review before they take part in these two-and-a-half-hour trips, which feature a presentation by an expert guide followed by a working session (e.g. debate, group work, role play) designed to create an atmosphere of sharing.

In this setting, Matsuzawa believes, passengers are more inclined to feel comfortable expressing their opinions. Since its founding, LunchTrip has expanded to Fukuoka, Osaka, and even overseas.

Cultural Nosedive

Matsuzawa is also an active travel journalist and blogger for various media, including The Huffington Post, Japanese webzine EU Mag, fashion newspaper Senken Shimbun, and her own travel blog: www.fashionflight-ami.blogspot.jp/.

Her writing caught the attention of Pinterest Japan, who hired her as community manager. But her first love remains travel, and putting her curious mind to work.
When we met, the journalist in her couldn’t resist. She asked me the first question: did I use the Tabelog website to find the café where we met?

She had provided three options for our meeting destination: a smoothie café, a place specializing in French toast, or a café just outside the station gate. I chose proximity over indulgence. Over coffee, I felt a bit like I was on my own flight around the world, Ami World, and the ride wasn’t the least bit turbulent.

Matsuzawa came up with the idea for LunchTrip when she was an exchange student during the 2005–2006 academic year at the University of Oregon, which has a strong emphasis on cross-cultural communication and education.

That, combined with Matsuzawa’s teaching degree from Waseda University, makes her an exemplary citizen ambassador. She’s culturally sensitive, open and friendly, and professionally operates as a bridge between Japan and the world. But when she was younger, she was confronted by images she couldn’t reconcile.

In particular, she wanted to know the reasons behind Americans’ response to the 9/11 tragedy.

In high school at the time, she’ll never forget her shock at seeing a newspaper article featuring pictures of her favorite singers such as Britney Spears and The Backstreet Boys, as well as schoolchildren in America, wearing patriotic garb, showing their support for the war on terrorism.

She wondered why Americans tend to support big military campaigns, whereas in Japan, pacifist approaches to peace-keeping are more common.

“As a teenager I had strong feelings for American pop music and movies, but as a Japanese I believed that war was the wrong thing to do.” Her internal conflict between her love for US entertainment and her aversion to war fed her desire to learn more about the American psyche.

She immersed herself fully in US culture. This meant seeking out more US and international friends, and spending less time with other Japanese exchange students. “Almost all my best friends were Americans.”

Her efforts greatly improved her English competence. But every time she went to parties, she was told, “Ami, you aren’t like ‘normal’ Japanese.”

The prevailing stereotype of Japanese students portrayed them sitting alone in the library or associating strictly with other Asians. Matsuzawa was studious but also outgoing and approachable; her social network was multinational and multicultural.
It seemed to her there was an invisible wall keeping people from connecting, and she wanted to break down that wall.

Debunking stereotypes

She decided to host what became very successful sushi hand-rolling parties, for her multinational university friends.

She realized it was not only fun to learn how to make the dish, but cooking could also get people talking about cultural stereotypes, including those post-9/11 images of war and peace.

Sushi is often perceived as a cuisine that Japanese eat daily (like Americans always eat hamburgers), but Matsuzawa explained that it is often served as a way of connecting family or celebrating special occasions.

After her one-year stay in Oregon, she did a short internship with a Silicon Valley start-up, B-Bridge International, established in 2000 by CEO Hiro Masumoto. She was living and working in Santa Clara, California, enjoying the Bay Area lifestyle after having lived in small-town Oregon.

Not too far from her home, a Sikh man wearing a dastar (traditional Sikh turban), lost his life in an alleged hate crime of mistaken identity. He was thought to be Muslim. Matsuzawa then became more determined to promote cross-cultural understanding.

The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism has since acknowledged the LunchTrip idea for encouraging more young people to travel and study abroad. Food, travel, and pinning (via Pinterest) are tools to achieve her real goal: a more peaceful world driven by diverse coexistence.

Dr Nancy Snow is a speaker, university lecturer, and author who has been published in outlets such as The New York Times and The Guardian. She is Pax Mundi Professor of Public Diplomacy at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies.

Custom Media publishes The Journal for the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.

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