A Life Dedicated to Building Bridges of Friendship

Joe Perez lives a life dedicated to building bridges of friendship.

Joe Perez at the SGI-USA Headquarters in Santa Monica, California. Photo: Debra Williams.

Joe Perez

Living Buddhism: Happy new year, Joe! We understand that you founded a charter airline in 1998 that has served as a crucial bridge of friendship between the U.S. and Cuba for nearly two decades. Among its contributions, your company has transported members of the U.S. Congress to Cuba and helped arrange meetings with Cuban officials. How did you develop the dream to support diplomatic relations between the two countries?

Joe Perez: The power source of my dream is my mentor, Daisaku Ikeda, who taught me, above all, how to fight for peace.

What is your connection to Cuba?

Joe: I was raised there in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, when the country had a few very wealthy people and lots of poor people. My family was the latter. My father worked building railroads, and my mother was a seamstress. They worked day and night to make ends meet to support their three children. By the time I was 19, in 1955, I was ready to move to the United States to receive a good education and have more options in life.

Was it difficult getting into the U.S.?

Joe: In those days, the only way to be accepted into the U.S. was to have lots of money or family in America to sponsor you. I had neither. When I told my father about my dream to go to America, he called me by my nickname, saying, “Pepito, you’re rich in dreams but poor in money.”

Fortunately, my sister had a friend who worked at the U.S. Embassy who told me to come there and say, “I want to enlist in the armed forces of the United States of America.” I did exactly as she said, and several months later, I was a member of the United States Air Force.

And how were you introduced to Buddhism?

Joe and his wife, Junko, in 1959.
Joe and his wife, Junko, in 1959.

Joe: In 1956, I was stationed at Johnson Air Force base in Saitama, Japan, when I met my beautiful wife, Junko. My wife then joined the Soka Gakkai in 1960, which is the year we got married. She would often encourage me to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, but I was too embarrassed. By my late 20s, I had already come to the U.S. on my own, made it through the Air Force and worked my way up the corporate ladder to vice president of a company. I didn’t feel that I needed a religious practice.

What changed?

Joe: Inevitably, my company faced financial setbacks. In the early 1970s, I decided to test the practice, but didn’t want anyone to know. I chanted a few times while flushing the toilet so no one could hear me.

Even in hiding, I started to see results from chanting. I had more ideas and felt more confident about my work situation. In 1972, I finally said to myself: This is ridiculous! I need to chant in front of the Gohonzon. That was the year I officially became an SGI member.

Around the same time, Junko and I moved from Los Angeles to San Antonio with our two children. I worked very hard and became the chief executive officer of a private telephone company. I enjoyed life as a very successful businessman until 1986, when I lost everything—everything but my family and faith.

What happened?

Joe: That year, I accompanied the mayor of San Antonio to Japan to meet with executives of certain Japanese corporations and promote business opportunities for the city. While there, I also created an opportunity for the mayor to meet with SGI President Ikeda. This would prove to be one of the most pivotal moments of my life.

While in Japan, the San Antonio mayor and I met with the president of a Japanese business federation that was composed of elite businessmen. As the mayor was leaving the meeting, he said that he would be meeting with Daisaku Ikeda the next morning. The president of the federation, in a very demanding tone, said, “If you meet Daisaku Ikeda, you can forget our investments in San Antonio!”

That sounds extreme. What did the mayor decide to do?

Joe: We now know that the severe persecution and attacks on President Ikeda were part of a smear campaign orchestrated by corrupt politicians and the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood, whose agenda was to destroy the Soka Gakkai’s growing peoplecentered movement. As history has proven, their plans ultimately failed, but the mayor knew none of this at the time.

Through the darkest times, Sensei’s example to use faith first and take action to change my situation is what sustained me.

Needless to say, I chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo resolutely in my hotel room for the best outcome. After considering his options, the mayor called me the next morning and said courageously: “Joe, a man who was so severely attacked as Mr. Ikeda was last night must be doing something extraordinary for humanity. Let’s go and meet Mr. Ikeda!”

The mayor must have been a man of great principles. What were his impressions of their meeting?

Joe: He was deeply moved by Sensei’s humanity. In fact, the day before their meeting, San Antonio had experienced severe flooding, but the mayor had not heard the news because he was in Japan. When they met, President Ikeda told him: “I’m so sorry to hear of the flooding in your city. I also heard that a boy nearly drowned and was rescued by his neighbors. I was praying for the safety of the people.” This stunned the mayor. He thought, This leader in Japan knows more about my city than I do! They went on to have a heartfelt discussion, as if they were long-lost brothers.

What happened when you returned home to San Antonio?

Joe: The promised backlash followed. The Japanese corporations refused to give contracts to the city of San Antonio, and I was blamed for it. I faced severe repercussions from the business establishment in San Antonio. All my business contracts were soon canceled, and my loans were called in. Even my home and cars were repossessed.

The wrath extended to my wife as well. Junko was the co-founder of the Japan-America Society of San Antonio, but she was asked to resign her position as board member because she was my wife. The only thing I had left was the love of my family, my faith in the Gohonzon and my seeking spirit toward President Ikeda, who had taught me how to live as a dignified human being and servant of humanity.

How did you persevere?

Joe: Through the darkest times, Sensei’s example to use faith first and take action to change my situation is what sustained me. When I received guidance from a senior in faith, he encouraged me to read The Human Revolution. He said that while reading, I should replace Shin’ichi Yamamoto (the pen name of Daisaku Ikeda) with Joe Perez. Studying about the history and the conviction of the founding Soka Gakkai presidents inspired me to deepen my shared vow with Sensei to advance kosen-rufu—a grand undertaking that, because of its goal to empower humanity, is fraught with obstacles. I determined to prove to the world that my mentor is a great man who has benefited humanity in irreplaceable ways, and that we all can—and should— do the same!

What steps did you take to rebuild your career?

Joe: I moved back to Los Angeles in 1990 to look for new work opportunities. For the next year, I lived alone, without my wife and with no money or job in sight. I rented the cheapest apartment I could find in Santa Monica. It was next to a noisy and smelly trash compactor, and I lived off of cheap fast food. Struggling every day, I studied President Ikeda’s guidance again and again. When I wasn’t eating, sleeping or looking for work, I was in front of the Gohonzon chanting desperately for a breakthrough and engaging in local SGI-USA activities.

I finally got the idea to start an advertisement installation company. I would work each night with a crew to install advertisements on buses and buildings around the city. Eventually, Junko and the kids were able to move back in with me.

We heard that just a few years later, you were able to set up meetings with President Ikeda and two notable figures. How did these meetings come about?

Joe: Through a mutual friend, Tony Nicholas (see his interview in the November 13, 2015, World Tribune), I was able to introduce President Ikeda to the mother of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, Rosa Parks. Mrs. Parks was very receptive and excited when I talked to her about the SGI and President Ikeda, and our humanistic pursuit of the people’s happiness. Months after our introduction, in January 1993, Mrs. Parks and Sensei held a heartfelt exchange in Los Angeles. They met again, in May 1994, in Japan, when she traveled there to receive an honorary doctorate at Soka University.

Please tell us about the other encounter.

Joe: In June 1996, because of the relationships I had developed in my home country of Cuba, I was able to make arrangements for President Ikeda to have a dialogue with then-Cuban President Fidel Castro.

President Ikeda later wrote of his decision to meet with Castro: “I am a Buddhist, and as a practitioner of Buddhism, I have no anti-U.S. or anti-Cuban sentiments in my heart. My sole concern is that the people living in these countries become happy. As long as we share the fundamental goal of peace, then I firmly believe that we should seek possibilities for human solidarity with any nation” (September 28, 2001, World Tribune, p. 12).

I’ll never forget how their encounter began: Mr. Castro, who always wore military fatigues, put on a suit and tie to meet Sensei. We were told that this was the second time he had worn a suit as president. Mr. Castro told his staff that he felt he needed to wear a suit to meet Daisaku Ikeda, because he is a “man of peace.” It was deeply profound to have two very different revolutionists—one who led with military force and might, and the other with a pen and dialogue—to meet and discuss humanity’s future.

What a profound encounter. How did this impact your contributions to your home country moving forward?

Joe: I was able to meet with President Ikeda in July 1996, shortly after he returned to Los Angeles from Cuba. At that time, he encouraged me to chant and take action for the happiness of the Cuban people and to become the “bridge of friendship between the United States and Cuba.” I took his words very seriously and made every effort to make them a reality. Eventually, in January 2000, I was able to establish Cuba Travel Services, a charter airline that services flights between Los Angeles and Cuba. It was the first of its kind.


Joe and Junko at their home in Santa Monica, California. Photo: Debra Williams.
Joe and Junko at their home in Santa Monica, California. Photo: Debra Williams.

How has your company fared?

Joe: Since its establishment, my company has transported many members of the U.S. Congress to Cuba, and many of them have been able to pass legislation that paved the way for the restoration of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba. One prime example is President Obama’s lifting of certain travel restrictions for Americans on December 17, 2014. And on July 20, 2015—54 years after severing ties during the Cold War— Cuba and the U.S. officially restored diplomatic relations.

Today, my travel company has 22 weekly flights to six cities in Cuba from Miami, Tampa and New York, and continues to take elected officials to Cuba. We also re-established Los Angeles–Havana flights in December 2015. My daughter, Lisa, is president of the company.

I also own an advertisement service, with advertisements appearing on 2,700 buses in Southern California and in locations nationwide, including the Los Angeles, John Wayne (in Santa Ana, California) and Miami airports. My son, Tony, is now the chief executive officer of this company. I have three other companies of my own, and all of them are doing very well.

Looking back, how do you view the obstacles you endured?

Joe: Today, the greatness of the SGI and Sensei speaks through our worldwide movement, which has expanded to 12 million members in 192 countries and territories. In 2006, Cuba’s Ministry of Justice officially recognized the SGI as a religious organization. And in addition to meeting Rosa Parks and Fidel Castro, Sensei has dialogued with 6,000 world leaders and thinkers for the sake of peace.

Through following Sensei’s encouragement to me to chant for the happiness of the Cuban people and take action, I now live a life that is beyond anything I could have imagined, and I get to share it with my supportive wife, Junko, our children, grandchildren, friends, colleagues and all our fellow SGI members. I owe all these victories to the Gohonzon and Sensei.