Home > Articles > 2011 > Building the Next Generation of the US-Japan Partnership

Building the Next Generation of the US-Japan Partnership

Tags: Japanese Studies , Japan-US Alliance , United States , International Affairs , Earthquake-Tsunami

Curtis, Gerald L.

December 12, 2011

ShareThis

Print ThisPrint This

Related ArticlesRelated Articles

Following are the remarks Tokyo Foundation Senior Fellow and Columbia University Professor Gerald Curtis made as guest speaker at the twenty-fifth annual dinner of the Japan-America of Washington, DC, on December 7, 2011. Curtis and former Ambassadors Thomas Foley and William Sherman were awarded the First Marshall Green Award for their contributions to Japan-US relations at that dinner. The citation for the award to Dr. Curtis reads “For your significant and sustained contribution to increasing understanding between Americans and Japanese; as an educator, writer, and commentator on Japanese political affairs and the conduct of our relationship with Japan, you have educated and informed tens of thousands, from senior government leaders to students and academics around the world.”


I am very grateful for and humbled by this wonderful award and honored to be sharing it with Tom Foley and Bill Sherman, men I deeply admire and respect.

I am sorry that Tom cannot be with us this evening. We first met some forty years ago when he was a young congressman and I was starting out as an assistant professor at Columbia.

In those days I was involved in running the US-Japan Parliamentary Exchange Program, which was administered on the US side by Columbia University. Tom was one of the earliest and most enthusiastic participants. I remember the visits to Tokyo with him and other congressmen with great fondness. I first met then Congressman Norm Mineta when he participated in the program in 1975. I am delighted to see him here this evening.

In the early 1970s, when that program began, there was hardly any contact between American and Japanese legislators. It was congressmen like Tom Foley, Norm Mineta, Don Rumsfeld, and senators such as Hugh Scott, Ed Muskie, and William Roth who understood the importance of building relationships with their Japanese counterparts and provided the leadership for this very successful exchange program.

Today we need once again to encourage greater communication among our legislators not just to consider bilateral issues but to discuss how Japan and the United States can best cooperate to mobilize our respective strengths to resolve a host of regional and global issues. I cannot resist adding that we also need to encourage more cooperation among our own congressmen. The situation today is sadly different from the time when I was involved with the parliamentary exchange program and when Democrats and Republicans sought compromise rather than confrontation.

Before we turn our attention to the future it is appropriate that we pause and remind ourselves that the postwar history of US-Japan relations is an extraordinary story of reconciliation and of engagement. Both American and Japanese societies have been enriched by our interaction. Our relationship has contributed to our economic well-being and it has been essential for providing for our national security. And that will continue to be the case in the future.

Before the Second World War there were only a very few Americans with specialized knowledge of Japan. Perhaps the two most renowned academics were Ed Reischauer and Hugh Borton. Hugh Borton was a wonderful man who was instrumental in planning postwar policy toward Japan. He came to Columbia after the war to be director of the East Asian Institute and taught along with several others the first seminar I took on international relations in East Asia.

It was in the early postwar years that Japan studies blossomed in this country. Many men who had studied Japanese in the army and navy Japanese language programs during the war and who served in the US Occupation determined that they would devote their lives to create strong bonds between Japan and America.

All of my professors and mentors at Columbia University were of this generation—Jim Morley, Donald Keene, Herb Passin, and many others. Today there are Japan specialists in every major university and in many smaller colleges as well. Interactions among and joint research by American and Japanese scholars is extensive and mutually rewarding. American scholarship about Japan is of high quality and is so regarded by Japanese scholars. Jim Morley, Bob Scalapino, who recently passed away, and others of that generation were the true pioneers in developing Japan studies in this country. Those of us who followed in their footsteps owe them a great debt of gratitude.

It is important to point out that these developments were made possible because the US government, the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations and other foundations and the Japanese government and companies provided generous financial support.

The first grant I received to study Japanese was a National Defense Education Act fellowship. The NDEA program was inaugurated in 1958. The conviction then that it was a matter of national defense to have young Americans learn the languages of countries that we need to understand better is an idea that we Americans should take to heart again today. The US must do much more to educate our young people about Japan and about other cultures and languages that we know far too little about.

And if I may be permitted to say so, Japan could use a national defense education act of its own. For one thing, it has a national security interest in radically improving the quality of its English language education and encouraging young Japanese to study Korean and Chinese and Urdu and other languages as well.

That the US-Japan relationship rests on a dense network of ties at all levels was evidenced in the American response to the horrendous disaster that struck the Tohoku region on March 11 of this year.

I was in New York at the time. Over the following days, as Americans watched with horror pictures of the devastation on their television screens, there was an outpouring of sympathy and support. What was so striking to me was that for so many Americans this disaster was not something affecting people in some far off country that we know little about but a tragedy that was happening to people with whom we feel a close bond and deep affection.

When I went to Tohoku the following month I met with and was deeply touched by the dedication of American military personnel who were working with the Self-Defense Forces in Operation Tomodachi and American civilian volunteers who were helping to clean up debris and repair houses that were damaged but not destroyed.

The relationship between our countries is far more than a military alliance or a product of economic interdependence. It really does rest on a foundation of mutual respect and goodwill and core common values.

But the relationship needs to be nurtured. We need to train the next generation of Japan specialists. We need to encourage young Americans to seek careers that involve Japan. We need programs to provide opportunities for people in journalism, business, government, and other professions who are not Japan specialists to learn more about Japan. And we need to encourage more Japanese young people to study in the United States.

Japan is the pivot for America’s relations in Asia. We cannot take each other for granted. Our relationship is strong, but if we do not give it constant and steady attention we will miss opportunities to combine our strengths and bring our distinct perspectives to bear on the resolution of critical domestic and regional and global issues.

As Americans we lose a lot by not better understanding why Japan is able to provide universal, high-quality healthcare to its citizens at half the cost in terms of share of GDP that America spends on healthcare. And perhaps even more important, we lose by not better understanding why Japanese live healthier and longer lives than Americans do.

We lose by not learning from Japan about how a society can respond to the incredible disaster of March 11 with the dignity, fortitude, perseverance, and sense of community and mutual help that the victims of the tsunami showed the world.

Let me say a few words about young people. I do not share the pessimism that is so widespread about our young people—that young Americans are not interested in Japan and that young Japanese are becoming more inward looking. I do not believe that either is the case.

It is true that the number of Japanese studying in the US is about half of what it was ten years ago. But what this signifies is more complex than just a declining interest in going abroad.

Part of the reason is the larger Japanese demographic problem. The number of 22 year olds, for example, has declined by 42 percent from 1974 to 2009, 23 percent in just the past twenty years. So part of the reason for fewer students is the decline of the total number of Japanese in the age cohort from which students who study abroad is drawn.

Added to that is that Japanese are studying more in China and Korea and in other English-speaking countries like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Britain.

Finally there is little incentive to study abroad if it does not translate into better job and promotion opportunities back in Japan. Why incur the financial burden of studying overseas if it is not rewarded back home?

I think that young Japanese are less inward looking than previous generations. Many are well aware that globalization means that they themselves need a more global perspective. The burden is on government and business to provide the incentives for them to study and work overseas.

As a professor I have the opportunity to meet lots of Japanese and American young people. They are just like we were when we were young, with dreams and ambitions. The problem is the growing perception among young people in both of our societies that the opportunities to realize those dreams are declining.

The interesting thing about American young people is that so many of them are very much interested in Japan. The Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies in Yokohama, which is supported by a consortium of fourteen US universities and is the preeminent institution for advanced Japanese language training, has for the past few years had its largest enrollments ever. When I attended the IUC in 1964 there were 17 students. This year there are 50. What the IUC lacks is not students but adequate funding.

At Columbia University enrollments in courses dealing with China and in Chinese language classes has skyrocketed but interest in Japan has not declined. We are seeing enrollments in our courses increase.

But this involves a very important change. When I was a student most of us who got interested in Japan had the goal for one reason or another of becoming Japan specialists. Most of my classmates were graduate students like I was. Now most of the American students are undergraduates and many of our graduate students are foreigners. Young Americans at a school like Columbia who got fascinated by Japanese pop culture in high school, or who were astounded by the Japanese response to 3.11 want to learn more about this fascinating country, not necessarily to become Japan specialists but to be cultured, educated human beings.

We do not have many students who yearn to become specialists on the French economy or British politics, but they do want to know more about Europe as part of their general education. That is true also with regard to Japan. There is a great curiosity about and fascination with Japan. That is why so many college students apply to the JET program, graduates of which become lifelong friends of Japan. If Japanese companies provided more opportunities for summer internships, if the Japanese government provided more opportunities for American high school and college students to spend a year in a Japanese school, I am certain there would be a large and enthusiastic response.

Many of our graduate students in courses on Japan are foreign students, especially from countries in Asia. Chinese and Korean students in particular are curious about Japan and about American perspectives on Japan.

Teaching at a university with a large international student body offers an interesting vantage point from which to view Japan’s relations with the rest of the world. Until quite recently few Chinese students at Columbia took my course on Japanese politics, and those who did tended to have strongly negative attitudes about Japan.

But that is not the case today. I have several Chinese students in my classes. They are far more balanced in their views and find a lot about Japan to admire and think that there are many things about Japan that they would like their own country to emulate.

There clearly is a generational change in attitudes among Chinese students. Similar changes became evident among Korean students more than a decade ago. And many of our Japanese students are eager to learn more about Korea and China while they are with us.

This makes me hopeful about the future of relations in East Asia. And it is gratifying that American universities can be the meeting ground for students from countries in East Asia to learn about and form fast friendships with each other.

In the United States we are not turning out enough Japan specialists. Japan is not like Britain or France or Germany. The language is far more difficult for Americans to master. Understanding Japan’s history and culture requires a major investment of time and money. We need to train a core group of Japan specialists in this country and give them the opportunities that my generation had to visit Japan often and interact with their Japanese counterparts. Neither the US government nor the philanthropic or private sector is doing anywhere near enough to meet that need.

Training specialists in the social sciences—economics, political science, sociology, anthropology—is more challenging now that it was when I was a student.

For one thing, despite globalization and our need to have deeper knowledge about foreign countries and regions, the anti-area-studies bias in American academia is stronger now than ever. No one can get tenure at a major university because he or she has great knowledge and insights about Japan. Japan specialists have to master the theories and methodologies that are dominant in their academic disciplines as well as develop expertise about Japan. That means that it takes that much longer to complete a PhD. Funding, therefore, is critical if the US is to continue to have a core group of well-trained Japan specialists. The need is especially critical in economics and sociology, and the only way to fill that need is to provide financial support for language study and for research in Japan.

The other interesting—and in this case entirely welcome—change from years ago is that now many, perhaps most, of our American graduate students have studied Japanese in college and in some cases began Japanese in high school and many have travelled in Japan and other parts of Asia.

Most of our best graduate students want to be regional specialists—just knowing about Japan is not enough. This is a trend that we should encourage.

Nichbei kankei, US-Japan relations, is no longer only or mainly about bilateral relations. It involves how we engage with China, how we coordinate with each other and with South Korea and China to deal with a nuclear-armed North Korea, how we respond to regionalism in East Asia, and so on.

We need Japan specialists who understand the regional and global context within which the US-Japan relationship is situated. A few years ago the heads of the international relations department at Peking University and the law faculty at Keio University and I organized a research project that recruited young American, Chinese, and Japanese scholars who had done research on bilateral relations to write research papers that would force them to think trilaterally. We need to do more in this spirit to make sure that we are training a new generation of Japan specialists who can think trilaterally and multilaterally.

Some important efforts are being made. The Mansfield Foundation and the Pacific Forum CSIS both have created innovative programs targeted at young promising scholars. The US-Japan Foundation sponsors a US-Japan Leadership Program whose goal is to develop networks among the next generation of American and Japanese leaders. But much more needs to be done.

The challenge is not only to train Japan specialists but to provide opportunities for people in other professions to better understand Japan. Programs that have made it possible for journalists to spend time in Japan and that sponsored exchanges between elected public officials at both the national and local levels need to be revitalized and strengthened. I am hopeful that the recently established US-Japan Council will play an important role in organizing support for such programs.

I do not believe that there is any danger of a downward spiral in US-Japan relations. Of course, we face problems that will grow more serious if left unattended. We have to figure out together how to expeditiously close a military base in Okinawa that sits in the middle of a crowded urban area, how to coordinate policies to deal with current and potential regional security threats, and how to promote greater regional and global trade liberalization.

But the relationship is too important to both of us to let any of these problems undermine it. The major cost of not giving the relationship more attention is the lost opportunities that result. As I suggested earlier, we can learn much more from Japan about how to deal with our common problems. We have a mutual interest in pursuing a strategic dialogue and close consultations to respond effectively to the dramatic changes in East Asia, especially China’s emergence as a great power in every dimension of power—economic, political, and military—and the East Asian region’s position at the center of the global economy.

Tom Foley epitomizes the role that politicians and statesmen can play in strengthening our partnership. Bill Sherman is a fine example of the role dedicated diplomats and public servants play. I have been privileged to have been in a position to teach young people about Japan for more than forty years now. I cannot think of a more rewarding career for me to have pursued. Thank you.

top of page