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Boyd Matheson: A Japanese teenager named Utah and the sunny side of America

Attendees listen to a speech during the G20 Interfaith Forum in Chiba, Japan, on Saturday, June 8, 2019. Tomohiro Ohsumi, For the Deseret News

Part of my recent trip to Japan for the G20 Interfaith Forum included the wonderful opportunity to meet Yoshiaki Kasuga, associate editor for the foreign news section at the Asahi Shimbun (Morning Sun Newspaper). I went into the meeting expecting a conversation centered in politics, questions around the division of current battles in Washington and the challenges of news organizations in a digital world. I personally love the Land of the Rising Sun, the Japanese people and culture, and hoped I could sneak in a few moments of dialogue to extend my learning from Japan. The lesson, however, emerged from what Yoshiaki called the sunny side of America.

We were sitting in typical Tokyo traffic on our way to a tour of the Asahi news offices. Yoshiaki had peppered me, as I had expected, with a barrage of queries about President Trump, the 2020 election, U.S. Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney, a number of policy issues and why I had come to Tokyo for the G20 Interfaith Forum. I settled into the back-and-forth. His questions were excellent, his understanding deep. I was most impressed.

Then he leaned back, took a deep breath and said that he needed to tell me a story.

I was excited. I thought for sure he would share a principle or philosophy from Japan that would provide new learning for me. I leaned in as he started his story.

Yoshiaki explained that 25 years ago as a young man he had traveled to the United States. He wanted to experience the breadth of the country by driving from Los Angeles to New York. He described how he was driving along in his rental car enjoying the beauties of America when his vehicle suddenly broke down. He said, “My car died just outside of St. George, Utah. Do you know St. George, Utah?” Of course, I said.

He continued the story, describing how within a short time two missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons, as he called them) appeared at the side of the road. Soon they had contacted a friend who towed the car to the garage of a mechanic they knew who was confident he could fix the problem. While the mechanic worked, the missionaries took Yoshiaki to lunch and on a tour of St. George. Once the car was fixed no one would accept any payment of any kind and they sent Yoshiaki on his way.

The experience touched Yoshiaki deeply. He said the people of Utah represent the “sunny side of America.” I of course took some Utah pride in what a small group of our residents had done more than two and half decades ago for a young traveler far from home. I was amazed at how profoundly it had affected him. He told the story with such passion, gratitude and clarity, it was as though the experience had happened just last week. Then Yoshiaki pulled out his cellphone to show me a picture of his 15-year-old son whose name is… Utah (the Japanese phonetic is "Yuta") . Yes, there is a teenager in Tokyo named Utah — honoring the “sunny side of America” place that showed his father what it means to serve, uplift and make a difference. That got me thinking.

An attendee enter a conference room during the G20 Interfaith Forum in Chiba, Japan, on June 8, 2019.
An attendee enter a conference room during the G20 Interfaith Forum in Chiba, Japan, on June 8, 2019.
Tomohiro Ohsumi, For the Deseret News

After spending time in the impressive newsroom at Asahi and being introduced to counterparts and talented journalists in various departments in a global news organization, I hopped back into the taxi to return to my hotel. I reflected on the Morning Sun newspaper, the rising sun of the country of Japan and the sunny side of America in Utah.

Utah — the state — has a host of areas to improve and address. However, Utah is also a place where social capital is valued, amassed and spent in a multitude of ways. Utah is the sunny side of America because, as Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle once wrote for Bloomberg, “Utah is one of the few places where the American dream is still alive and well.”

McArdle has come to see Utah up close, first in her search for the American dream and then in an attempt to understand why Utah was not rallying behind either of the major presidential candidates in 2016. After a few days in the state she came to my office and commented to me, “I feel like I have been walking with Tocqueville.” Social capital earned, amassed and freely spent on refugees, those in poverty and anyone in need of a hand up or a chance to rise left a lasting mark on McArdle. Utah is indeed a laboratory of democracy that is working well, making a difference for many and sharing a little civil society sunshine with the world.

As I wrapped up my time in Japan, I listened to the optimism of former New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, whose sunny outlook is illuminated by his deep belief in people. He reminded political and faith leaders that because progress is possible, it is also imperative. Progress on everything from poverty, equality and education to climate, peace and understanding make it imperative that good people of good will come together and act. He concluded his remarks: “It is human nature to help our fellow human beings.” A lot of sunshine in those remarks.

I am leaving Japan with an elevated view of human potential, an expanded understanding of the capacity of human beings to come together to solve complex problems and a deeper belief in the power and influence of human compassion. All of this can be encapsulated in the influence of the morning sun, the power of the rising sun and the impact of the sunny side of America’s civil society. Seeking solutions across our differences while valuing our diversity will usher in the dawning of a brighter day for humanity. And, I hope all of these principles will continue in the soul of a rising teenager in Tokyo as he carries the name of Utah toward a bright future.