He recalled having taken a flight from London to Dar-es-salaam to take up his post as Japan’s envoy to Tanzania. On that flight, in the first class cabin, he recalls noticing a graying man who was seated slightly in front of him and was immersed in a large book and kept reading during most of the flight.
The only time his fellow passenger would break from his reading would be when he was solving crossword puzzles from a book of crossword puzzles. The ambassador, pushed by his diplomatic instincts was keen to strike a conversation with the passenger, to break the boredom of the lengthy flight to Dar-es-salaam. Initially, he assumed the fellow passenger to be a university professor.
As he pondered how to approach this man, he noticed that, occasionally, someone would emerge from the back of the plane to find out whether the “professor” had any particular need. Maybe he was not a professor, the ambassador thought, but he had to be someone important if every now and then someone came in to check if everything was all right.
He finally gathered enough courage and moved to the seat next to his fellow first class passenger. As one would expect of a diplomat, he had no problem striking a conversation, which went on for several minutes before the probing began.
Ambassador: Are you a politician?
Passenger: I used to be a politician.
Ambassador: And now what do you do?
Passenger: I am a farmer.
Ambassador: A farmer? What crops do you cultivate?
Passenger: Maize and beans.
Ambassador: Are you a commercial farmer?
Ambassador: Do you earn a profit from your farming?
Passenger: Very little.
Ambassador: So why do you continue farming?
Passenger: I do it as a hobby.
The ambassador, who also served as Japanese ambassador to Zimbabwe before moving to Tanzania, then describes how having talked for some time, began to recall having seen the face of the mystery passenger in photographs on some of Zimbabwe’s newspapers. He was still unsure of who this person could be and, more likely than not, he knew enough about diplomacy and first class passenger protocol not to ask too direct questions.
The combination of the frequent appearance of the person from the back of the plane, the responses he was getting, and a lot of thinking convinced the ambassador that he was sitting next to someone important. But who was he? The curiosity was getting on his nerves, so he started asking some investigative questions.
“Have you ever visited Japan?”
“Have you had occasion to meet the Emperor of Japan?”
“Yes, a number of times. In fact, I had dinner with him last year.”
With that last question, the ambassador said, he had confirmed what he wanted to know. He explains that he concluded that the man he first assumed to be a university professor had to be Julius Nyerere. Not every first class passenger anywhere gets to meet the Emperor of Japan. Yet, despite his certainty he did not have the courage to ask. And Mwalimu Nyerere said little more than was necessary to answer the ambassador’s questions.
The next morning, as they were disembarking from the plane Ambassador Sato introduced himself to Mwalimu Nyerere as Japan’s new envoy to Tanzania and asked for an appointment with Mwalimu to deliver a personal message from the Emperor of Japan.
When the Ambassador recounted this incident he said it was the first time he was telling it to Tanzanians. He felt it was just too embarrassing that the Japanese Ambassador should not immediately recognize the first president of Tanzania. During that encounter, Mwalimu Nyerere had retired as president and was chairman of the South Centre.
Ambassador Sato said he intended to recount the incident to members of the press during his last press conference before completing his tour of duty. I have been trying, without success, to contact Ambassador Sato to find out how his last press conference as Japanese Ambassador went.
*First published in the Sunday News on 5th February 2006