Nobuko Saito Cleary has been a bridge builder for most of her 50 years in the United States. The longtime Los Altos Hills resident has spread the culture of her native Japan to local institutions such as Hidden Villa, the Los Altos History Museum and the Community School of Music and Arts, and has produced documentaries that carry messages of empathy and understanding.

Saito Cleary’s work has not gone unnoticed. In 2018, the Japan Society of Northern California honored her with a Golden Award for her work. The Japanese government commended her in 2015 for her dedication to maintaining good relations with the U.S. Hidden Villa recognized her work this month – Asian Pacific American Heritage Month – for creating the annual Japanese Cultural Day at the preserve. The May event, featuring Japanese music, dance, art and food, is suspended this year due to the pandemic.

Hidden Villa representatives said Saito Cleary was inspired by the “generous spirit” of founders Josephine and Frank Duveneck, who decried the internment of Japanese civilians during World War II. She served on the Hidden Villa Board of Trustees and founded the cultural day in 2015.

Saito Cleary continues her passionate diplomacy to this day. She “virtually” returned to her alma mater, Northeastern University, Thursday to participate in the university’s Asian American Center panel discussion on “Paper Lanterns.” The 2016 film, which lists Saito Cleary as producer, chronicles the quest of historian and atomic bomb survivor Shigeaki Mori to find the identities of 12 American military prisoners of war who perished among 140,000 when the atom bomb devastated Hiroshima in 1945. Mori tracked down the families of the missing POWs to notify them and provide closure.

Like the film’s message, it is important to Saito Cleary to promote understanding and empathy across both American and Japanese cultures.

She recalled her first time in America as an English major at Northeastern in the late 1960s. Her parents didn’t want her to leave Japan.

“My dad told me, ‘If you go to America without our blessing, I want you to promise me to make sure you’ll build a bridge between America and Japan, and then someday you will learn English and give a talk at the United Nations,’” Saito Cleary said.

In 2018, Saito Cleary fulfilled her father’s promise, presenting a discussion on “Paper Lanterns” at the UN.

“That was my highlight of my life,” she said. “I believe (“Paper Lanterns”) shows how one man’s moral belief in the humanity of all people can result in so many good things. We learn that healing and friendship among different cultures and people can be established. We recognize that horrors of war must be avoided, as people all want the same things: love, family and peaceful existence.”

Bridging the cultural gap

The UN appearance is among a string of high-profile achievements for Saito Cleary during her decades-long quest to bridge the cultural gap. She started in the business world, creating Cross Cultural Communications in 1985 to help high-tech companies like Applied Materials succeed in doing business with Japan. Jim Morgan was Applied Materials CEO at the time.

“Jim was in Japan 34 times while working for Applied Materials and admires Nobuko’s efforts via her consulting company to increase and improve trade between the U.S. and Japan,” said Jim’s wife, Becky Morgan, a former state senator. “With trade and friendship, there are good political relations, and we believe Nobuko has been a significant factor in improved relations. Her friendships with ambassadors and consulate generals of the two countries enhance communications.”

Saito Cleary’s involvement is both local and international, and varied. She has contributed to several programs at the history museum and provided her own oral history.

She has played a major role in the success of the Community School of Music and Arts in Mountain View. As chairperson of Japanese programs at the school, she’s brought talented Japanese artists to perform there, including those with special needs. She helped organize a “Friendship Concert” in 2014 at Tateuchi Hall, featuring performers with autism.

Inspired by a desire to create better understanding and acceptance of those with special needs, Saito Cleary co-produced her second film, “Challenged,” starring the Japanese drum group Zuiho Taiko, which comprises intellectually challenged musicians. The film won an award at the Silicon Valley Asian Pacific Film Festival in 2020 in the international division.

“I have been working with these people since 2012 to have the opportunity to witness a more inclusive society,” she said. “In Japanese culture, if there is something wrong, you don’t speak up – they hide it. Parents didn’t want to show autistic kids. When we brought them to America, their expression changed, they were so happy and active. (Being here) gave them confidence.”

Prolific fundraiser

Recognizing that Japanese people are at high risk of contracting glaucoma, Saito Cleary has been heavily involved in raising funds for the San Francisco-based Glaucoma Research Foundation. Over 10 years, she helped raise $5.6 million. She’s also contributed to the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation.

Supporting Saito Cleary in her efforts has been her husband of 28 years, Gary Cleary, an entrepreneur and scientist in drug delivery systems and polymer technologies. She said Gary has always encouraged her to follow her dreams and try new things, as well as offering financial support to her causes.

“To me, it is very enjoyable to help the community,” Saito Cleary said, “and then I learn from them what they think about my culture or my country, and that gives me a new direction or new idea.”

Her efforts have clearly paid off.

“Nobuko is generous with her time and resources on behalf of several nonprofits and her friends,” Morgan said, calling her “a smart, talented and committed member of our community.”