BY TALEEN BABAYAN
BURBANK—The camaraderie between the Armenians and Japanese, that dates back centuries and has withstood respective injustices, was highlighted during the momentous event, “Legacy of Diana Apcar, A Great Humanitarian and the Mother of the Armenian Nation.” The event was held on Tuesday, September 17 at the Western Diocese, in an evening dedicated to the Armenian-Japanese friendship in the presence of elected officials on a local, county, and state level. The standing-room-only audience was inspired by the cultural fusion and historic ties during a presentation sponsored by the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church and the Consulate General of Japan in Los Angeles, supported by the Little Tokyo Service Center, the Japanese American National Museum, and the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center.
In his remarks, Western Primate Archbishop Hovnan Derderian reflected on Apcar’s symbolic life and her humanitarian aid during a perilous chapter in Armenian history, as she provided emotional care and financial assistance for Armenian Genocide survivors who found refuge in Japan.
“She touched the hearts of many Armenians – especially the orphans – by facilitating their relocation in Japan,” said Archbishop Derderian, acknowledging the “immense assistance and help” graced upon her by the Japanese.
Archbishop Derderian referred to the evening as a “milestone in the life of the Western Diocese” that will further develop the friendship of the Armenian and Japanese people, while commenting on the “foresight of Apcar who played a powerful role in finding haven for orphans who fled the Armenian Genocide.”
“We extend our gratitude to the Consul General of Japan because you have immense respect for a nation that refuses to die,” said Archbishop Derderian. “We will forever be grateful to you for recognizing the Armenian Genocide and every step we take reflects the pain of our people, while maintaining our strong commitment to be peace-loving and justice-promoting advocates.”
The Honorable Akira Muto, Consul General of Japan in Los Angeles, reflected on the “significant friendship” between the Armenian and Japanese communities that continued on well after the Armenian Genocide. During the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II, Armenian-American farmers in Fresno aided Japanese families and protected their properties. This special friendship continues into the 21st century as humanitarian Dr. Akira Ishiyama, through the Armenian International Medical Fund, has provided over 120 children and young adults with cochlear implant surgeries in Armenia as part of his mission work since 2004.
Representing the Japanese American Cultural Community Center, Daren Mooko, Interim President and CEO, stated that Apcar is seen as a “heroic figure who took decisive action as a means of survival.”
“As Japanese Americans, we are drawn to and respect Diana Apcar’s legacy, because through our own collective history we have a shared spirit of struggle and resistance to injustice that runs deep,” said Mooko. “Apcar serves as a guiding light for our work today.”
The event’s main presentation, by Dr. Meline Mesropyan, shed more light on Apcar’s life, legacy and humanitarian work in Japan, where she spent almost 50 years of her life dedicating herself to relief initiatives.
Born in 1859, in Rangoon, Burma, she moved to Calcutta a year later and married Apcar Apcar. Together they moved to Japan in 1891, as her husband founded businesses in the cities of Yokohama, Kobe and Nagoya. Following his untimely death, she took care of their three children and the family business all by herself, while still finding the time to publish books and articles. A turning point in history radically changed her writing style, according to Dr. Mesropyan – a graduate of Tohoku University in Japan – who said that Apcar began to focus on politics as a result of the Adana massacres of 1909.
“Diana Apcar was a minority of women who actively spoke out about politics,” said Dr. Mesropyan, who was born and raised in Yerevan, Armenia and earned her bachelor’s degree in Japanese linguistics. “She had a passionate writing style that was filled with strength and emotion.”
Soon, Apcar dedicated her efforts to aiding the Armenians in Turkey, and made it a mission to publish her writing for the Armenian cause and send the critical information in circulars to different organizations around the world.
“Between 1915 and the late 1920s, about 1,500 Armenian refugees managed to reach Japan where they found Ms. Apcar’s enormous support,” said Dr. Mesropyan, who spent the last six years as a Master’s and Ph.D. student researching the life and work of Diana Apcar. “Diana took them under her wing and, through her crucial assistance, they were able to go on to the U.S. and other final destinations.”
Refugees were granted special entry that Apcar arranged, signing a Guarantee Paper to take on their expenses, accommodations and transportation, assuring the Japanese government that she was responsible for the actions of the refugees.
“Diana’s relief work changed lives and she became a bridge between the Japanese government and the refugees,” said Dr. Mesropyan, noting that Apcar gave them financial support, through her own resources and by procuring funds from the Near East Relief and Armenian National Committee of America, among other non-profits. “Not only was she a woman making her political voice heard, but her determination and strength in the face of numerous challenges, which came from her Christian belief, is truly awe-inspiring.”
Apcar’s work did not go unnoticed, and the young Armenian Republic in 1918 recognized her 11 years of activism and in 1920 appointed her as Honorary Counsel to Japan.
The great-granddaughter of Apcar, Mimi Malayan, viewed a trailer of a documentary she released last year on the humanitarian’s life, titled “Stateless Diplomat,” which won the Armin T. Wegner Humanitarian Award (Arpa International Film Festival, 2019), Best Biographical Film (New Hope Film Festival, July 2019), and Audience Choice for Best Documentary (Pomegranate Film Festival, November 2018).
“I knew of Diana Apcar but didn’t realize the scope of her work until I began my research into the documentary,” said Malayan. “The film tries to invade pivotal moments in Diana’s life, her awakening to the Armenian cause, her spiritual vision, activism and her endless humanitarian work.”
A special presentation of the Armenian khachkar (cross-stone) was unveiled by Archbishop Derderian as a token of gratitude to the Japanese for honoring such a distinguished figure in Armenian history, and to celebrate the friendship of the Armenian and Japanese communities.
Musical performances were provided by Heavenly Chants, a harp and flute duo of Salpy and Sossy Kerkonian, and the Japanese Festival Sounds. A question and answer session with Dr. Mesropyan and Malayan followed, and a reception concluded the evening.
“As an Armenian-America fan of Japan, and also a diplomat, this was a very special evening for me,” reflected Ambassador Nina Hachigian, Deputy Mayor of International Affairs in Los Angeles. “I imagine that the pioneer Diana Apcar would have felt right at home amidst the Taiko drumming and the Armenian musical duet, the sushi and the mezza, the Japanese Senator and the local Armenian community.”
In a post-event interview, Judge Adrienne Krikorian, Chairman of the Western Diocese Diocesan Council, noted that the event was “particularly meaningful” and that Apcar “is and should be a role model for Armenian women in the Diaspora and Armenia.”
“She was a woman whose strength and determination deserves wider recognition throughout the Diaspora,” said Krikorian. “I am so proud that the Western Diocese and our Primate have the vision to embrace our sister communities, particularly where we share such a valuable legacy.”
Krikorian expressed her gratitude for those who collaborated to make the event a success and to the Japanese community for embracing Apcar.
“Her humanitarian work and the legacy she has left behind should never be forgotten,” said Krikorian, who is the co-founder and Chairman of House of Hope-Mer Hooys, Inc., a residential educational center in Armenia for girls from disadvantaged social backgrounds. Based on her impressions from the event, Krikorian intends to teach the young girls in residence there about Apcar.
“It was that very type of education that prompted Dr. Mesrobyan, as a young student in Armenia, to pursue her research on Diana Apcar, and I hope it will motivate our girls to be brave enough to do the same about other Armenian women heroes.”
Master of Ceremonies Edvin Minassian, Esq., elaborated on the historic links in crucial times between the Armenian and Japanese that will continue to flourish.
“My expectations of an affirmation of genuine bonds between the Armenians and Japanese were surpassed in the warm atmosphere as two ancient cultures exchanged their stories,” said Minassian. “Our cultural and national ties have been forged under dire circumstances but were furthered cemented by those who participated in a memorable, jovial and unprecedented event at the Diocese, under the leadership of Archbishop Derderian and Consul General of Japan Muto.”
“The consulate is very grateful to His Eminence Archbishop Derderian and the Western Diocese for co-organizing the event, which was a spirited celebration of friendship between the Armenian and Japanese communities,” said Consul Shigeru Kikuma of the Consul for Policy and Partnerships. “We appreciate the positive response from the community and were particularly moved by the presentation of the special khachtkar dedicated to this friendship.”
“The beautiful country of Japan is known as the land of the rising sun,” concluded Archbishop Derderian. “The Armenian Genocide filled the Armenians with darkness but the Japanese ensured the sun would rise in our hearts again.”