Weekly Local Biography

  Katsuhiro Shinohara

The Japanese consul general in Chiang Mai is Katsuhiro Shinohara. While waiting for him, after all the palaver of double locked doors and security personnel (do I really look like a terrorist? Perhaps I should get my hair cut?) I looked at his name and wondered if I could ask him was he Irish, being a “Shin O’Hara”, but decided not to as it would be impertinent. Moments later I met the man himself, who began by telling me that English people used to say he was Irish since his name was O’Hara! From that first moment I could sense that I was going to like this dapper Japanese diplomat.

He was born in Tokyo, the third child to a rice merchant and his wife. He showed proficiency for languages at an early age in public school and studied English. At that time he already knew that he wanted to work overseas, and English was the ‘universal’ language that could help take him there.

Still with that idea in mind, he went to university to study International Relations, and he chose French and German, but before he finished the course he joined the Japanese Foreign Ministry to do their ‘expert’ course in a language and country, choosing Cambodia as his direction.

So he went to Cambodia for two years. He described it as an “interesting time”, especially since there were no university courses there in 1967 to teach Cambodian - in the universities they taught in French! Despite this he learned to read and write Cambodian and was seconded to the Japanese Embassy in Phnom Penh, becoming the youngest attach้ in the diplomatic service. He spent four years in Phnom Penh and enjoyed the overseas experience, but was then recalled to Japan. HQ wanted him in their S.E. Asian Division.

He spent four years back in HQ, but then they wanted a French speaking diplomat for the Japanese Embassy in Paris. With French by this stage being Katsuhiro’s second language he went to Paris for two years, followed by 18 months on the Ivory Coast, looking after the 400 Japanese citizens that were working there.

His next posting was to Thailand, not because of an ability in Thai, but through his Cambodian ‘expert’ classification. It was 1980 and there were many Cambodian refugees flooding into Thailand from the oppressive Pol Pot regime. Katsuhiro became involved in refugee assistance programs through the UN, and even arranging for the acceptance of some refugees directly into Japan. “But it was mainly emergency assistance,” said Katsuhiro. “It was a very sad time.”

After this it was back to Japan, and back to HQ in the S.E. Asian Division for the next six years. Because of his Cambodian experience, he was involved with Japan taking some initiatives in proposing ideas for peace in Thailand’s troubled neighbour.

Finally he was posted to a country where he could use those English language skills that he had originally thought were his passport to the western world. The country was the USA and he was sent to Washington DC for the next three years. “This was my first time in an English speaking country, and I worked in liaison with organizations associated with the Japanese Embassy. It was a very interesting three years,” said Katsuhiro.

It was now 1991 and Cambodia was on the verge of an uneasy peace agreement, so he was transferred back to Cambodia. The embassy had been closed for many years, so Katsuhiro, who was by this stage a councillor, had a very small staff to work with him. However, he enjoyed the experience. “UNTAC was there and we collaborated with them, preparing for the elections and administrative structures.” Again Cambodia was to claim the next three years of his life.

With that country slipping into some concept of ‘normality’, Katsuhiro was recalled to the S.E. Asian Division at HQ. There he was to work for the next seven years working in the area of assistance to S.E. Asian NGO’s and economic cooperation.

With an ambassador now in Cambodia, Katsuhiro returned to assist as the advisor for the ambassador. “Our mission is not to be involved with wars. We like to establish peaceful relations with other countries,” said the consul general. “We seriously work for peace. This is a very strong commitment in our heart.”

Being a Cambodian ‘expert’ in the Japanese diplomatic missions has meant that he will never be far from that country, and he has had so much involvement with Cambodian affairs and history that he would like to remain in the S.E. Asian region. However, the placement is up to the personnel bureau in Japan. “We can ask,” said Katsuhiro, “but the bureau makes the final decision.”

He spent another three years in Cambodia, before his latest transfer - that of coming to Chiang Mai, where he, amongst other duties, looks after 1,500 long-stay Japanese residents here.

He enjoys exercise and plays tennis and the mandatory golf. “But I’m not so skilful. My handicap is 21 but I think it should be more than 30!” He also enjoys classical European music. “What about karaoke?” I asked him, as I personally have always believed that the Japanese gave the world karaoke as some kind of fiendish revenge for long-forgotten past misdeeds. “Oh yes, I like it,” said Katsuhiro and then explained that ‘kara’ means ‘without’ and ‘oke’ means ‘orchestra’. There is also a ‘nama’ (with) ‘oke’ for any karaoke exponents out there reading this!

Chiang Mai is fortunate in having this gregarious career diplomat amongst us, and I am sure that his sphere of influence will extend well beyond just Japanese residents.

I had come to the consulate fittingly in Japanese mass transport - the Chiangmai Mail’s unassuming office Toyota Corolla, but our consul general, being the consummate host that he is, arranged for my return in the Japanese government’s ‘official’ black Lexus, complete with chauffeur. This was far more fitting! Thank you for your time Katsuhiro San, and for the karaoke lesson!