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Spotlight on Commerce: Sharon Yanagi, Chief of Staff, Bureau of Industry and Security

Photo of Sharon Yanagi, Chief of Staff, Bureau of Security and Industry

Ed. note: This post is part of the Spotlight on Commerce series highlighting members of the Department of Commerce and their contributions to an Economy Built to Last.

Guest blog post by Ms. Sharon Yanagi, Chief of Staff, Bureau of Security and Industry

For over three years, I have served as the Chief of Staff at the Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS), the U.S. Commerce Department agency charged with administering the nation’s dual use export control system. In that capacity, I advise the Bureau Under Secretary on a range of policy, management and operations issues. I work closely with BIS leaders on Congressional and industry outreach and education designed to build support for the Bureau’s overarching policy initiative, the Export Control Reform Initiative. It is a major update of the U.S. export control system which will enhance both our national security and our economic competitiveness.  

In 2010, I was recruited back to BIS, having served there as Congressional and Public Affairs Director during the Clinton administration. At that time, we also tried to reform the U.S. export control system, which has not been comprehensively updated since the end of the Cold War. As Congressional director, I was part of a team that spent two years and hundreds of hours working to reauthorize our legislative authority–and in 1994, we failed. It’s not often that you fail to attain a major goal and are given the chance to try again. That is why I’m very grateful for the opportunity to work toward this important and long overdue policy goal in this administration.

I was raised in Honolulu, the grandchild and great grandchild of Japanese immigrants who came to work in the Hawaiian sugar plantations at the turn of the 20th century.  My maternal grandfather was the accountant for a plantation on the island of Kauai; my paternal grandfather worked at a bank on Maui. My parents, the first generation in their families to go to college, were extremely focused on our education as a means to expand opportunities. They made tremendous personal sacrifices to give my siblings and me the best education. Money was tight growing up. My mother sewed most of our clothes, and my parents never took a vacation, instead working long hours to make ends meet. These sacrifices were made so we could attend Punahou, an elite private school in Hawaii, a school my grandparents never dreamed we could enter. Students there received a first-rate education; more important, we were educated about all the possibilities open to us. We were regularly told that we would be the leaders of the future, in business, education and politics. This seems particularly appropriate when I think about one of the new kids entering my fifth grade class, a boy named Barry Obama, who grew up to become our 44th president.    

My parents raised us with an appreciation for public service. I was only 14 years old when I worked on my first political campaign, the Hawaii Senate campaign for Spark Matsunaga, a World War II hero who served with the famed all-Japanese American 100th battalion in Europe. After graduate school, I headed to Washington, where I worked for Julian Dixon, a Member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Los Angeles. I was in the House gallery during the historic vote on legislation apologizing and granting reparations to the 120,000 Japanese Americans who were interned during World War II, and was part of a California delegation staff group that worked to secure first-year appropriated funding to provide redress for the internees. Virtually every day, I walk into the Commerce building thankful for being given the opportunity to serve because, even after many years spent working in Washington, I remain a true believer in the power of government to make positive and sometimes profound differences in people’s lives.

The first time I went to the White House was in May 1993, for an event hosted by President Clinton to commemorate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. I remember having a lump in my throat as I walked across the street from the Commerce Department. Hundreds had come from across the United States to celebrate the contributions Asian Pacific Americans have made to our country. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Japanese American reparations bill being signed into law. During Asian Pacific American Heritage Month this year and every year, I remember and acknowledge that my generation stands on the shoulders of those before us whose blood and toil helped build and defend this country, giving me opportunities they could never have.

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