Diplomatic Connections Articles

Kiyomi Buker - A Social Secretary

"Protocol is creating a moment so special that it will be treasured forever."

Kiyomi Buker began her work at the Embassy of Japan as Senior Assistant to the Social Secretary in 1994, later becoming Special Assistant to the Ambassador and Deputy Social Secretary, and fi nally Social Secretary in her own right in 2000. She has served six Japanese Ambassadors in succession. That makes her one of the most experienced Social Secretaries among the corps of protocol professionals in Washington, D.C. Kiyomi Buker is a vital part of the institutional memory of the Japanese Embassy and its social activities over the last two decades.

Buker-san is herself a cultural diplomat with one foot in her home country of Japan and the other foot fi rmly planted in the United States. She came to Baltimore as a Japanese exchange student, after completing an associate's degree in English at Nanzan University in Nagoya, and enrolled at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland. There she completed a bachelor's degree in political science and international studies.

She met her husband-to-be while she was in college and recalls having to convince her family that she would be all right if she married an American and lived in the United States. Her parents were skeptical until they met her fi ancé and fell in love with him themselves. "I got married right after graduation," Kiyomi Buker recounts, "but I still missed my home in Japan. That longing made me want to do something here in the United States that would be related to Japan."

"I sent a résumé to the Japanese Embassy," Buker recalls. "When I was called for the interview I had no idea of what protocol was, even in Japanese society." Fortunately, she had the best of teachers and mentors in the ambassador's office. "I worked as Senior Assistant to Cathy Fenton, Social Secretary to the Ambassador. She had been the Deputy Social Secretary for Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush before coming to the Japanese Embassy. When George W. Bush was elected President, Cathy Fenton was asked to be White House Social Secretary. I was then asked to take over the duties of Social Secretary to the ambassador."

The collaboration between Buker and Fenton offered superb on-the-job training. "Our desks were right across from each other when I worked as her Senior Assistant," remembers Buker. "I was able to listen to her phone conversations and watch everything she did and how she did it. She taught me everything about Washington. She always took me to events so that I could become acquainted with the people and with the routines of a wide variety of events. I carefully watched everything she did and how she interacted with people. I learned everything from her."

Kiyomi Buker was a star pupil who learned her protocol lessons well. We are privileged to get her insights into the work of protocol within the mission of diplomacy.

Diplomatic Connections: From the point of view of your job and the ambassador's work, how would you define protocol?

Kiyomi Buker: We start from the premise that we do not want to offend people. We want people to feel comfortable with us as the official representatives of Japan but also as persons. In order to accomplish that, we need standards or rules to serve as guidelines. You don't necessarily have to follow the suggested rules because protocol always depends on the situation.

To me, that means that we start by looking at the protocol books and seeking advice from colleagues. If we are not 100 percent certain of the procedures to follow, we will try to get professional colleagues' opinions. Then, we will discuss the issue within the embassy and try to reach a conclusion as to what is appropriate. The ambassador always makes the final decision as to how to proceed.

If you have a good reason and a good explanation of why you are doing what you are doing, then it can be perfectly acceptable to disregard the standard expectations of protocol. That will never be a mistake if you have clearly thought out reasons for doing what you have decided to do. The priority is always to make the meeting or the event pleasant and comfortable so that the atmosphere is conducive to a good outcome.

Diplomatic Connections: Is it fair then to say that the formal expectations of protocol were and are part of establishing the personal relationships that underlie the professional communication between diplomats?

Kiyomi Buker: Exactly. Mutual respect is at the heart of all protocol and it is the essence of diplomacy. People sometimes feel that the formal politeness of diplomatic occasions is "too much," but people enjoy feeling that they have been treated very nicely, with exceptional courtesy. People enjoy the feeling of being special, and they will remember that moment forever.

In Japanese it is called "ichigo, ichie," a phrase that derives from the traditions of Zen Buddhism and the Japanese tea ceremony. Literally translated the term means "one time, one meeting" or "one chance in a lifetime." Philosophically, it refers to the transience of life, events happen only once never to be repeated in exactly the same way. In terms of diplomacy and protocol we might say, "You only get one chance to make a good first impression." The goal of protocol is to facilitate establishing a bond between people in their personal and professional capacities.

We try to create a moment so special that it will be treasured forever. That to me is the essence of traditional protocol that should be respected and kept even if situations require us to adapt those traditions to fit the immediate need.

Diplomatic Connections: Before a major event here at the embassy when you will have many guests, or even perhaps before ambassador and Madame Sasae go out, do you go over the guest list together so that he knows who to anticipate that he's going to meet? Do you strategize about people to whom the ambassador or members of the diplomatic staff want to pay special attention?

Kiyomi Buker: Of course. Sometimes the ambassador is so busy with appointments and meetings or giving speeches or travel, and at the same time we have so many different events, that we may find that we do not have the time to prepare as thoroughly as we might like. That means that I must be even more prepared so that I can assist the ambassador at the reception. Often, he will turn and ask me the identity of a specific person and ask for a thumbnail sketch of their work, that's when it becomes imperative that I and the staff have done our homework. The ambassador expects me to know these people and to prompt his attention to them.

Diplomatic Connections: Could you give us some examples of what might be thought of as "unwritten rules" of protocol? Are there practices that may be unwritten but of which you remain very aware in your role as Social Secretary to the Ambassador?

Kiyomi Buker: The fascinating aspect of it is that protocol is a living thing. It changes with time and circumstance. There are long-standing basic rules, but at the same time there are subtle aspects of those rules that are continually being adjusted.

There are things that once were "no-no's," but now they are accepted. Twenty years ago we never released the guest list before an event. Today releasing a guest list in advance is starting to be a normal practice. In part that is because the favor has become reciprocal. If you don't release your guest list, then another embassy is not likely to extend the same favor to you. It is very helpful to my ambassador and madame to know in advance who will be at the dinner to which they have been invited.

Diplomatic Connections: Are there some events that hold a special place in your memory, events that you look back on as particular successes?

Kiyomi Buker: I do like to organize events from scratch, especially working with the ambassador's wife. Last year Mrs. Sasae honored Katty Kay of BBC, America, and Claire Shipman ABC News Senior Washington Correspondent, who had authored a new book entitled "The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance — What Women Should Know." For that event Mrs. Sasae gave me the liberty to begin the planning for the dialogue presentation, and I came up with our guest list. We invited perhaps 100 people and organized programs. We worked on the menu with the chefs, the chief butler as well as with the florists on appropriate floral designs.

What especially pleased us was that our guests learned something from that event. Those who attended were very happy and the feedback was phenomenal. The vice president's wife, Dr. Jill Biden, made time in her busy schedule to come.

To me a successful event is one where people learn something about Japan, have an enjoyable time and want to return to join us for another event. This was a very successful event.

Diplomatic Connections: Was this event part of Prime Minister Abe's initiative to advance the role of women in the workplace and to strengthen women's rights in Japanese society?

Kiyomi Buker: Yes, the conference was a central part of Prime Minister Abe's "A Society Where Women Shine" initiative. Tokyo encouraged its embassies around the world to undertake special events with a focus on women, especially women emerging into leadership positions. Our Washington event, hosted by the embassy and the Japan Commerce Association of Washington [JACW] coincided with last year's [2014] World Assembly for Women event in Tokyo hosted by Prime Minister Abe.

Mrs. Sasae was a keynote speaker for a town hall-like discussion. Her remarks focused on her experience in the Japanese world of work. She was perfect because — to my knowledge — she's the fi rst wife of a Japanese ambassador to the United States to be a career woman. She has had a professional career as a simultaneous translator that has spanned more than 30 years, and she continues to keep a busy offi cial and work schedule.

Diplomatic Connections: You also worked very closely with an earlier Japanese Ambassador's wife, did you not?

Kiyomi Buker: In addition to my Social Secretary position I also served as translator and personal adviser for one ambassador's wife. In this case the Ambassador's wife did not speak any English, and I ended up being with her all the time. I was able to accompany her to a variety of meetings and events, including a visit to Camp David and the White House as well as several foreign embassies.

Camp David was a really phenomenal experience for me because the general public doesn't get to go there. That type of thing was a unique opportunity for me and deepened my practical diplomatic education. It gave me a whole new perspective on protocol and put me much closer to the actual work of diplomacy than I ever expected to be.

Diplomatic Connections: What advice do you have for someone who thinks they might be interested in a career as a protocol professional?

Kiyomi Buker: Much of the knowledge that I or any other protocol professional has is learned through on-the-job training. The longer you serve in this environment, the better you can serve your ambassador and the stronger an asset you become for the embassy and the country for which you serve. There is simply no substitute for experience.

You have to be a people person, who likes meeting people and learning about them. Other things that might be seen as qualifi cations are a good memory and effi cient organizational skills. Being humble and always grateful is an absolute requirement for this job. It might be a phone call, an email or a note, but you always thank people.

Diplomatic Connections: Thank you very much for taking time to grant us this interview and to help us initiate our series on the work of diplomatic protocol professionals. You remind us how important it is to respect and employ the rules and traditions of protocol. At the same time, you challenge us to recognize that, despite its long history, protocol is a highly adaptable 21st century tool designed to facilitate relationships and to promote candid conversation.

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