William Tsutsui in Japan

Dedman College Dean William M. Tsutsui is blogging about his experiences in Japan after the tsunami and earthquake that shook the country Friday, March 11, 2011. An expert on Japan’s economic history, Tsutsui returned Sunday, March 13, from visiting the country as a member of the Japanese American Leadership Delegation.

The trip back home

Sunday was my last day in Japan. I was up early to make another try at Narita Airport. I was happy to find that the highway had reopened and traffic was light. We made it in just 45 minutes, quicker than I have ever done it before. There were plenty of people sleeping on the floor of the terminal, but everything was calm, orderly, and oddly normal.

About an hour before my flight was scheduled to leave, a significant aftershock rumbled through the building. The wall of windows in the departure hall looking out on the runways shook violently. Some people gingerly backed away from the vibrating glass, but most people were just transfixed. I recall a sharp (but fleeting) moment of dread that this latest tremor might shut down the airport and delay my departure even further. I didn’t need to worry: Japanese construction held firm again and my flight took off only slightly behind schedule. To my surprise, the plane was far from full.

The trip back, through Chicago to Dallas, was completely uneventful. My feelings were mixed, though, when I finally set foot back in Texas. I was relieved to be home, eager to see my wife (and cat), and ready to get back to my real job as an educator, scholar, and administrator. But I also felt a certain guilt that I could just pack up, hop on a plane, and sleep in a safe, unshaking bed when so many in Japan had no option but to endure ongoing aftershocks, rising deprivation, and the threat of a nuclear catastrophe. The feelings of helplessness and frustration seem particularly acute in a digital age, when you can see so much and yet do so little. Like many people, I felt the same way on 9/11 and again during Hurricane Katrina.

It is hard to imagine, at least at this point, how the crisis in Japan is going to develop over the coming hours and days. We would all like to see the happiest possible ending, where the radiation levels fall, more survivors are found, and the process of recovery can begin. One can’t help but worry, however, that the disaster has not played itself out and that what lies ahead might be even more catastrophic than what has occurred so far. I have been thinking a great deal about my relatives and friends in Japan, as well as the many people I met on my recent trip. I have also been wondering about the nation and the culture I have known and studied and loved through so much of my life. Will that Japan, the Japan before 2:46 p.m. on March 11, 2011, come through this crisis intact?

It can be difficult to see silver linings at a time like this, or to find even the slightest hints of hope in a landscape of destruction, suffering, and uncertainty. In a discussion board on an obscure website, however, I found a story that reminded me that there can be unexpected flashes of beauty even in the world’s darkest moments. The story was from a man who lives in a cabin, deep in the mountains of Tochigi Prefecture, north of Tokyo. When the earthquake struck on Friday, he ran out his front door. Rather than seeing skyscrapers swaying, as I did in the city, he saw the stands of mature cedars all around him heaving and rocking as the hillsides moved. The violence of the motion, he reported, shook the bright yellow pollen from the trees, creating vast golden clouds that drifted through the forest and up into the clear spring sky. He was reminded of traditional Japanese screen-paintings, where stylized clouds of gold leaf float over lush landscapes and bustling street scenes.

Today, when watching yet again all the terrible, engrossing footage of tsunami waves and shattered communities, explosions in Fukushima and somber press conferences in Tokyo, I have sometimes closed my eyes and tried to imagine those golden clouds of pollen floating on the mountain air. For just an instant, at least, the hurt and worry and horror subside, and I can revel in the Japan that was and will, I hope and pray, continue to be.

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Fostering entrepreneurship and innovation

One of the major topics of discussion on our trip to Japan was entrepreneurship. Japan’s economy has been in a seemingly endless funk for the past two decades, and many voices have suggested that the best way for the nation to break out of its general economic lethargy is to stimulate entrepreneurs and the process of innovation.

Japan today is not a particularly entrepreneurial place. The economy is dominated by large corporations, the hand of government in industrial and financial affairs is heavy, and the education system is geared more to producing conformist company men (and women) than to encouraging enterprising free thinkers. The well-respected Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, for example, consistently ranks Japan among the least entrepreneurial nations on earth. A tongue-in-cheek article in The New York Times once hypothesized that the dearth of garages in the crowded Japanese islands gave would-be entrepreneurs no place to tinker with new inventions.

Many argue that there are deep cultural elements behind Japan’s anemic entrepreneurialism. Japan, some say, is a collective culture, where emphasis on the group overwhelms the kind of muscular individualism necessary for entrepreneurial success. The old Japanese saying “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down” is regularly trotted out to provide evidence for this interpretation. Others stress the profound risk-aversion of Japanese society. Japan, it is often said, is the most highly insured nation on the planet, and no responsible mother would want her son to pass up a safe office job at a major corporation for a roll-of-the-dice career in innovation and entrepreneurship.

There are also structural issues conditioning the environment for entrepreneurialism in Japan. The tax and legal systems do not encourage entrepreneurial daring. Venture capital is scarce in Japan: some say it is because all the money has surged into hyper-entrepreneurial China; others argue that the stunted culture of innovation and risk-taking in Japan simply scares away the investors. When you ask Japanese business leaders and academics about entrepreneurship education, now increasingly common even at the K-12 level in the United States, all that one gets in return are blank stares.

Arguing nature versus nurture as the cause of Japan’s pallid entrepreneur spirit doesn’t end up being very productive, however. One certainty is that Japan has historically been a pretty darned entrepreneurial place. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many of the firms that now constitute Japan’s gold-plated corporate establishment were founded by go-for-broke home-grown entrepreneurs: the Mitsubishi empire, Toyota, and most of Japan’s banks began as textbook cases of vigorous, creative entrepreneurship. Even in the mid-20th century, when Japan’s hierarchical corporate economy began to gel, entrepreneurs were plentiful and many achieved outstanding success: Honda Soichiro turned a small engine shop into one of the world’s dominant car makers; Matsushita Konosuke’s drive and daring built Panasonic; and Morita Akio and Ibuka Masaru made Sony (started in a run-down shed in 1946) a household name worldwide. There have been success stories even in recent years, when the Japanese economic establishment has seemed the most fossilized: Son Masayoshi’s SoftBank and Mikitani Hiroshi’s Rakuten are just two prominent examples.

There are certainly glimmers of hope today for Japanese entrepreneurialism. Efforts from the grassroots to create incubators and networks of innovation on the local or regional level are beginning to show some results. Some large mainstream companies have been trying to loosen up and encourage “intrapreneurship,” entrepreneurial initiatives within established firms, as a growth strategy. And there are a series of new collaborations between the United States and Japan around entrepreneurship and innovation now under way, including a recent joint workshop on the topic at Stanford University and a promising partnership between Hawaii and Okinawa around green energy. Much of the pressure for these new cooperative endeavors comes from John Roos, the American ambassador to Japan and a former Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Roos and his wife, Susie, were both passionate on the topic of entrepreneurship in Japan when we met with them this week at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo.

What makes me optimistic about Japanese entrepreneurship is not the new initiatives and partnerships under way, or even the success stories of enterprising and innovative young risk-takers. Instead, what assures me that Japan has the spark and the spirit to break new ground entrepreneurially is the incredible creativity and energy of Japanese popular culture. That the hyperactive minds and imaginations of the creators of anime and manga, video games and cult movies have flourished in straight-laced, hammer-down-that-nail Japan is evidence aplenty that there is the vision and capacity for entrepreneurship on a grand scale in the nation today. When this creative, constructive, free-wheeling style reaches its full potential, Japan’s economy may be a force to reckon with once again.

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Trans-Pacific relations and Japanese politics

Over the past 48 hours, I have had to remind myself more than once that the purpose of my trip to Japan went beyond providing firsthand witness to a dramatic, unexpected, and horrifying natural disaster. The members of the Japanese American Leadership Delegation – 13 of us from across the nation and our stalwart leader Irene Hirano Inouye – came to Japan to meet Japanese business and political leaders, to deepen our knowledge of pressing issues in U.S.-Japanese relations, and to find a collective voice as Japanese Americans.

We did accomplish all of these things, at least before events turned our attention in a different direction. It seems a bit odd at this point, with the scale of the human disaster in Japan only now becoming fully apparent, to return to questions of trans-Pacific relations, which seem so trifling and narrow in comparison. Yet thinking about these matters of policy is not only therapeutic, carrying my mind to the time before the earth shook, but also true to the purpose of the JALD and of this series of short reflections from Japan.

In the moments after the earthquake hit, and before we realized the extent of the devastation, one member of the delegation joked that the 2011 JALD would be known as the trip of the “two shocks.” Japan’s people and media love to speak of “shocks”: the Oil Crisis of the early 1970s is known in Japan as the “oil shock”; Washington’s opening of diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China and the floating of the dollar versus the yen are known collectively as the “Nixon shocks”; and the recent Wall Street financial debacle is widely referred to here as the “Lehman shock.”

One of the “two shocks” for our delegation, of course, was physical – the sharp collision of geologic plates off the east coast of Japan – and the other was political.

As soon as we arrived in Japan, news of scandal in the ruling Democratic Party of Japan was brewing. The charismatic Foreign Minister, Maehara Seiji, revealed that he had accepted a series of campaign donations from a foreign national, which is illegal under Japanese law. The details of the payments made it seem like a tempest in a teapot: The donations added up to only a couple thousand dollars over several years, and the donor was an elderly Korean woman, long a resident of Japan, who used a Japanese name and ran a barbeque restaurant in Kyoto patronized by Maehara and his family.

The whole crisis reeked of the partisan politics and culture of political scandal that have paralyzed the Japanese establishment for decades, and especially since the collapse of Japan’s “Bubble Economy” in the early 1990s. Maehara, it turned out, would be the latest victim of the mud-slinging in Japan’s dysfunctional political world: deciding to cut and run rather than endangering his future prospects by fighting to the bitter end, Maehara announced his resignation on Sunday.

All this hit pretty close to home for the delegation, since our trip was sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and we were scheduled to meet Maehara in Tokyo on Thursday. Maehara had proved himself, even in his short term in office, to be very committed to building relations between Japan and the United States, and we all had looked forward to a candid and meaningful conversation with him. We resigned ourselves to a meeting with some flunkie at the Ministry at the end of the week.

As it turned out, the wheels of politics continued to move quickly. By Thursday, Matsumoto Takeaki, a deputy in the MOFA, was appointed as the new Foreign Minister and the meeting with our delegation was confirmed. The fact that we had the opportunity to talk with him on his first full day on the job made our visit quite unexpectedly special. It was doubly so for me, since I was on deck to serve as the spokesman for the group, greeting the Foreign Minister, posing the first questions, and steering the conversation.

Our visit with Matsumoto was short, and we did not have the chance to dig deeply into issues, but it was a revealing encounter. As one might expect from someone fresh to a new position of tremendous responsibility, the Foreign Minister was very deliberate and guarded in his comments. He talked with us about the important roles that could be played by Japanese Americans, about the centrality of the U.S.-Japan alliance in the security of Northeast Asia (an unpredictable neighborhood, with North Korea and China in the mix), and about some of his personal priorities moving forward. His answer to a question about free trade negotiations among Pacific Rim nations revealed that he had not yet developed canned responses, and also that he was being extremely circumspect in all he was saying, even in a closed-door meeting.

We left the Ministry very impressed by Matsumoto personally – he is from a long political lineage and is a descendant of Ito Hirobumi, the father of Japan’s 1889 constitution and a political giant of historic proportions – but not terribly certain about what his appointment would mean for the future of U.S.-Japanese relations.

Up until the earthquake on Friday afternoon, we all wondered whether another political shock was in store. The rumblings were rife in the media that the prime minister, Kan Naoto, was going to be the next head to fall. Kan was under attack not just for the Maehara scandal, but also for gridlock over the passage of a new national budget and wafting odors of a new political scandal of his own. We joked that we might be shaking hands with another first-day-on-the-job rookie when we turned up at the prime minister’s office for our scheduled meeting late in the day on Friday. Of course, the disaster that day made our meeting impossible. It also most likely cemented Kan’s job, at least for the time being: a change in leadership at this moment of extreme national crisis seems unthinkable, although appraisals of the government’s response to the earthquake will almost certainly determine Kan’s longer-term fate.

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Images of catastrophe

Today was the day I was supposed to leave Japan. Emphasis on “supposed.”

traffic.jpg It dawned as an absolutely gorgeous day here. I walked around about 6 a.m. and found the streets predictably quiet. The top of Tokyo Tower does appear to have a bit of a kink to it, but nothing terribly obvious. At 7:30, I headed out to Narita airport with Gary Moriwaki, a fellow member of the delegation and a New York lawyer, who was also trying to get home today. The gridlock in the central city had cleared by about 4, so the car carrying us moved relatively quickly until we neared the edge of town. The expressways remained closed this morning, apparently to allow relief vehicles a clear shot at them, as Narita lies in the same general direction from Tokyo as the quake- and tsunami-affected areas of Tohoku. So we had to travel on smaller, local streets to make our way to the relatively distant airport.

In photo: Heavy traffic Saturday morning on a secondary road, headed to Narita airport.

The eastern side of Tokyo, toward suburban Chiba Prefecture, is sliced through with numerous rivers and drainage channels, meaning there are lots of bridges to traverse. It turns out that a few of these bridges were knocked out of action by the earthquake and the others were absolutely clogged with cars and trucks, many presumably headed to Narita and some, I would expect, to the area of the greatest damage and human need. We crawled and stuttered through neighborhoods and over ribbons of water; diesel exhaust expelled all other smells; our progress was excruciatingly slow, and every effort to flank or outrun the surging sea of vehicles was met with frustration. After two hours, we had made it only about a dozen kilometers, with 60 or more left to go.

The vistas from the car were revealing. As in Tokyo, there was no physical damage to be seen for most of the trip. We did pass a small section of tarmac in Chiba that had buckled during the quake and was steadily seeping water from a broken pipe; at least one worker was on site, but he only seemed to be surveying the damage with a kind of forlorn resignation. There were a few people on the streets – bicyclists, a family or two, a man out walking the dog – but the shopping districts and housing blocks we passed by seemed unusually depopulated. There were delivery trucks about, but the scenes lacked the usual bustle of Tokyo on a bright Saturday morning.

Beyond the snarled traffic, it was clear that not all was happy less than 24 hours after the quake. Worries about the nuclear reactors of Fukushima Prefecture were running through the media, local and international. Stocking in convenience stores was unusually light, with few of the musubi (rice balls) and bento (boxed lunches) that are usually there in such profusion on the shelves. A number of shops and restaurants appeared to be closed all day. Even in the center of Tokyo it was said that restaurants were empty and fashionable shops stood almost deserted. And friends reported that all over the Kanto region of eastern Japan the quake had scattered books and files on the floors of offices and that in many homes once precious collections (especially of china) were no more and kitchens were akimbo.

The trip out to Narita ended up taking over five hours, and when we arrived at the airport we found most flights posted as “uncertain.” The airport was only moderately crowded, and most people were remarkably patient, considering that relatively few flights were actually making it out. It was finally announced about 3 that both Gary’s and my flights were cancelled. So back we headed into the city to spend the night before trying again to get out on Sunday. The return trip was still long (3 hours or so) but was scenic and peaceful as we wound through the semi-rural outer suburbs of Chiba and the dense, lively neighborhoods of the old shitamachi of Tokyo. From the remove of the back seat of a taxi cab, all looked reassuringly normal.

The compromised nuclear reactors along the Pacific Coast, uncomfortably close to tens of millions of people, are a huge concern. Yet they have received relatively little attention on Japanese government television (NHK) this evening, only about as much as buckled highways and closed airports. Human interest stories are just beginning now to appear on TV. It’s a little hard to tell just how much urgency is being put into relief and recovery efforts: one of the major lessons of the 1995 Hanshin (Kobe) earthquake was that the government, which was widely criticized at the time, needed to be much speedier and more aggressive in responding to a natural disaster. I certainly hope that the response has been sufficient this time around, but I have to wonder if the sheer scale of this disaster has undermined the good intentions and thorough plans of the Japanese authorities.

The video footage of the tsunami hitting Iwate and Miyagi Prefectures is certainly going to be the abiding imagery of this catastrophe. I was particularly struck by one aerial shot that showed a dark, angry, roiling wave of water, thick with cars and homes and soil and (I fear) humanity, sweeping across a flat landscape and swallowing farms and fields into its churning blackness. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the climax of the classic 1985 animated film Akira, when the title character, mutated by government experimentation and adolescent hormones, finds his body swelling out of control and consuming everything that gets in its way. As grotesque, terrifying, and unforgettable as that cinematic scene is, it cannot compare to those horrible, compelling, and heartbreakingly real images coming out of Tohoku today.

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After the earthquake: The scene in Tokyo

It’s a little after 2 in the morning here in Tokyo, so it’s been just short of 12 hours since the earthquake hit. The day started like any other on this trip: busy and productive, with loads of meetings and a full schedule. We began the morning with a very enjoyable discussion with the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, John Roos, and moved on to a briefing with a former Japanese foreign minister and a luncheon with American corporate executives working in Tokyo.

We pulled up in front of the New Otani Hotel, a local landmark not far from the Imperial Palace and the Diet Building (where the Japanese parliament meets), at 2:45 in the afternoon. The door to the bus had just opened when a bit of swaying motion became apparent. We looked outside and noticed people running out of the hotel: just a few at first, and then a whole stream. The swaying gave way to shaking and became more and more intense. Looking upward, we could see the front facade of the hotel, and especially an awning over the entrance, vibrating. The skyscrapers all around us were swaying noticeably. A window-washing crew on a low-rise was clearly being buffeted by the quake: Their rig was swinging back and forth and knocking against the building. After what seemed like a very long time, the shaking finally died down.

I’ve lived in Japan and traveled here often, so earthquakes are nothing new to me. But this quake and the first aftershock, which was very substantial in its own right, were far beyond anything I’d ever felt before. What was amazing was how calm the Japanese were about everything: All the people who had come running out of the hotel composed themselves and headed back in; the meeting we had scheduled with representatives of a business federation went ahead as planned (though it was briefly disrupted when we had to evacuate the building for that big aftershock). Little did we know how terrible the damage caused by the tsunami was in northeastern Japan and how the quake had begun to disrupt life in Tokyo.

Train service was knocked out immediately, and all the expressways around Tokyo (which generally are elevated) were closed down to check their structural integrity. Cell phone service became very spotty. Elevators in many buildings were out of service. There was no visible damage to the city (I didn’t see a single broken window or brick that had fallen to the street), but news reports say that the very top of Tokyo Tower is bent from whipping in the quake. I was also struck by the sight of hundreds of bicycles and motorcycles, which are parked along many streets here and especially in front of train stations, knocked to the ground by the shaking.

Traffic in the center of the city started to snarl soon after the quake. The streets really began to fill up after 5 p.m., when office workers left their desks and found themselves stranded: Commutes of 90 minutes or more are not uncommon here, so literally hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people were left without any good options for getting home. Lines at restaurants were long, and everywhere you could see people watching reports of the quake on their cell phones and on TVs in restaurants and hotel lobbies. The government has set up shelters in schools and universities, Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, where people can wait it out (perhaps all night) until the trains start running again. Even now, the streets are in absolute gridlock and the sirens are almost constant.

Two things stand out about this experience to me. The first is the excellence of Japanese engineering and architecture. You read a lot about the quality of construction practices and the design of high-rises in this country that so often falls victim to earthquakes. But until you see 50-story buildings violently swaying and shaking, but not breaking, cracking, or collapsing, you can’t really appreciate just how exceptional Japanese techniques are. The contrast to Haiti could not be more striking, of course. I also have to wonder how San Francisco or Los Angeles would have stood up to an earthquake of this magnitude. I hope we never have to find out.

The other observation that sticks in my mind is just how calm, disciplined, and organized the Japanese people are. Life went on in the usual orderly way, even after the horrifying images of the tsunami on the northeastern coast began to spread. The dense crowds on the street were as polite and composed as they always are, even though most of the people faced a very long walk home or a night in a shelter. Amazingly enough, although the roads in central Tokyo have been absolutely clogged for the past 11 hours, I have heard car horns at most three or four times. One can’t help but be impressed by the resilience and strength of Japanese society and the incredible patience of the Japanese people.

Because of the quake, the delegation never made it to meet with the Prime Minister (we were scheduled to see him at the end of the day), and we did not have the kind of festive send-off we had been planning on. We were quite shaken by the day’s events, but were glad that we all came out of things unhurt. We were thankful to have cell phones so we could keep abreast of the news and stay in touch with our friends and families. And our thoughts were with the people of northeastern Japan, who suffered the brunt of this disaster.

The Tohoku region (as the northern part of Japan’s main island is called) has long been remote and agricultural, a place far removed from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo and Osaka. Sendai, which was hit very hard by the tsunami, is the area’s largest metropolitan center and, significantly for us at SMU, is a sister city of Dallas. There is going to be a lot of healing and rebuilding to do in Sendai, and I hope that those of us on the Hilltop, who have only been able to watch this catastrophe from afar, can take on an active role in the coming process of recovery.

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Available for interviews from Tokyo

William Tsutsui on FOX 4 News in the aftermath of the Japan earthquake and tsunami March 11, 2011Update from SMU News: SMU Dedman College Dean William M. Tsutsui is available to speak from Tokyo about the massive earthquake that has hit there. Call SMU News at 214-768-7650.

• The New York Times: Devastation as Tsunami Crashes Into Japan and The Lede: Updates and Video of the Quake and Tsunami
FOX 4 News video: SMU Dean Tsutsui Caught In Japan Quake
• The Dallas Morning News: SMU dean: Tokyo’s skyscrapers swayed ‘like trees in the breeze’

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In Godzilla’s footsteps

Otaku are Japan’s obsessive fans, people who focus in on an area of interest (usually related to popular culture) and pursue it with unusual passion and single-minded determination. There are manga and anime otaku, train otaku, otaku who follow pop idols, otaku fascinated by military hardware. In Japan, otaku has come to take on a rather pejorative meaning (no good mother would really want her son to become such a fanatic), but in America the fans of Japanese pop culture have embraced the term. Every weekend, somewhere in the United States, rabid otaku dress up like their favorite characters from comics, cartoons, or video games, they gather at conventions on college campuses or in airport hotels, and they create elaborate networks of fandom in both real and virtual spaces.

I am a little loath to consider myself an otaku, though honestly I guess I really am one. My object of obsession is, of course, Japanese monster movies and that most celebrated of giant radioactive reptiles, Godzilla. I will not explain my passion for Godzilla here, nor will I elaborate at any length on why the Godzilla films are such a revealing cinematic window on Japanese culture and history. As I say to many folks who ask about such things, “Buy the book!” My 2004 volume Godzilla on My Mind – part memoir, part scholarly study, part hymn of praise to Japanese creature features – will tell you more about Godzilla (and my almost-lifelong affection for the monster) than you ever wanted to know.

Over the past couple days, the otaku moments have come thick and fast for me. In Osaka, we visited a local history museum that looked down on the city’s (reconstructed) sixteenth-century castle. While most tourists are probably reminded of samurai warriors and Kurosawa movies by the majestic castle keep, I couldn’t help but think of the 1955 feature Gojira no gyakushu, the second film in the franchise, released in the United States as Godzilla Raids Again. In one of the most memorable scenes of this not terribly memorable film (churned out only months after the original Gojira and the last of the series to be made in black and white), Godzilla wrestles to the death with Angilas, a kind of giant radioactive armadillo, in and around Osaka castle.

Today we arrived in Tokyo, and it turns out that our hotel is right in the shadow of Tokyo Tower, a 1000-foot-tall, orange and white knock-off of the Eiffel Tower. Completed in 1958, Tokyo Tower was a symbol of postwar Japan’s resurgence and the defining feature on the capital city’s budding skyline. Memorably, Uri Geller once used the structure as a relay point for the psychic waves he projected, bending silverware and repairing broken wristwatches all over the city. Of course, Tokyo Tower was also a staple of Godzilla movies, as it was a landmark (not unlike the Empire State Building) that no self-respecting monster could resist. In the endearing 1961 film Mothra, the huge larval creature decides to spin its cocoon on the side of Tokyo Tower before hatching into what surely is one of world cinema’s most memorable giant insects.

I could go on along these lines at some length, since I sometimes cease to think of Tokyo as a living, working metropolis and see it more as a sprawling montage of different backdrops from the various Godzilla features. The swanky Ginza district is where the monster rampaged in the original 1954 Gojira; the Diet Building, home to Japan’s parliament, was where King Kong once held court; and Tokyo Station, a marvelous, exuberant red-brick pile soon to celebrate its centennial, was where the gigantic one-eyed starfish creatures in the cheesy 1956 masterpiece Warning from Space wiggled their appendages threateningly. I have to admit that, like giant monsters, I find myself curiously drawn to the sights of Tokyo.

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The impact of education abroad

Monday was down to business for the delegation. The main event was a public symposium in Osaka, sponsored by the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership, which focused on educational exchanges between the United States and Japan.

Study abroad is a surprisingly hot topic in Japan right now: the number of Japanese students venturing abroad has been declining, and the drop in those headed to America has been particularly precipitous (down over 15 percent last year). Many educational, business, and political leaders here are concerned about this apparent turning inward by Japanese youth at the very time that global competency and international awareness seem more important than ever before.

The forces keeping Japanese students at home are, needless to say, various and complex. Financial concerns are one factor, especially as tuition and fees at American universities have been rising. Hiring practices at Japanese corporations are another impediment, as the time demands of the job-search process and the recruiting priorities of employers have made students nervous about studying abroad. A few voices suggest that Japan’s younger generation is to blame and that a lack of youthful spirit and initiative is behind the rising educational isolationism. All signs seem to indicate, however, that the source of the problem is primarily economic and structural, not generational.

I was one of three speakers from the delegation at the symposium, and my comments were focused on exchange activities in higher education. The good news is that American students are studying in Japan in unprecedented numbers and that enrollments in Japanese language at U.S. universities are at an all-time high. Although interest in China and India has been swelling across the country, Japanese popular culture (from manga and Hello Kitty to Ichiro and sushi) has continued to be a magnet for American youth. A recent survey of American high school students revealed that 9.1 percent wanted to study Japanese more than any other language; a slim 6.1 percent were interested in picking up Mandarin Chinese.

The not-so-good news about American study abroad in Japan is that even though the trend of participation is upward, the overall numbers are still low: only a handful more than 5,700 U.S. undergraduates and graduate students earned academic credit in Japan last year; by way of comparison, the total going to Great Britain came to over 31,000.

Dramatically increasing the flow to Japan is going to be challenging: the cost of studying in Japan can be high (especially with the strong yen and the weak dollar) and American students are as concerned with job-hunting and employability as their Japanese counterparts. But as someone who personally found study abroad a life-changing experience, I think that we in the educational community need to do as much as we can to make international travel and education abroad appealing and accessible to all American college students.

One of the real treats at the symposium was the reception afterward. I was thrilled and surprised to discover many friends of SMU in Osaka. Kwansei Gakuin University, a private institution in the nearby city of Nishinomiya, is a longtime partner of SMU, and several faculty and alums from Kangaku (as the school is colloquially known) turned out for my talk.

SMU%20in%201980.jpg I was particularly pleased to meet Hase Naoya, Murata Emiko, and Nanchi Nobuaki. All are graduates of Kangaku: Hase now works there as a professor of English; Murata teaches at an affiliated high school; and Nanchi is an executive at a regional bank. They are all Mustangs, too, having studied English language in summer programs at SMU a full 30 years ago. They brought an album of old photographs, capturing a wonderful moment of Japanese-American interchange on the Hilltop. It was inspiring to hear them all talk about the impact that just a short time at SMU had on their lives and describe the abiding, deep affection they all feel for the university and for Dallas. I can’t imagine more compelling examples of the lifelong benefits of study abroad (or more enthusiastic supporters of SMU) than Hase, Murata, and Nanchi.

(In photo: A group of students from Kwansei Gakuin University at SMU in 1980.)

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A rich and deep history

Kyoto.jpg The first day of our trip was spent in Kyoto, in western Japan. Kyoto is usually described as “Japan’s ancient capital,” as it was the site of imperial government from the eighth century until the late 1900s. As a fan of Japanese popular culture, I prefer to think of Kyoto as the location of the headquarters of Nintendo, the imaginative corporation that has brought us Super Mario, Pokemon, and the Wii. Kyoto is also one of Japan’s leading college towns: it is home to more than 25 universities and almost 20 percent of its 1.4 million residents are post-secondary students.

Kyoto1.jpg Our time in Kyoto was dedicated mainly to cultural events: visiting Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, enjoying the plum trees, which have just started to bloom here, and walking down some of the crowded shopping arcades in the central city. We spent the morning with a kyogen master. Kyogen is a 700-year-old theatrical form, comic, exaggerated, and stylized, and about as appealing to the average Westerner (or young Japanese person, for that matter) as a root canal. With the thoughtful explanations of the master, however, even as uncultured an American as myself was wrapped up in the techniques, expressiveness, and real artistry of this thoroughly Japanese theater. In the late afternoon we enjoyed a tour of a sake brewery in Kyoto’s historic Fushimi district. Seeing the process of making this traditional Japanese liquor was fascinating, and none of us seemed to mind a sake tasting session at the end of a long day.

Kyoto4.jpg One cannot help but be struck, especially here in Kyoto, by the richness and depth of Japanese history and the impact that the long legacies of the past continue to have on life today. The kyogen master we met is in the fourteenth generation of his family’s school. The sake brewery we toured, Kitagawa Honke, was established almost 300 years ago, and its president is also a fourteenth-generation leader of the family business. There are said to be 100,000 Japanese companies over 100 years old, including Nintendo, which was founded in the late nineteenth century as a playing card manufacturer. The oldest business currently operating in Japan was established all of 1,100 years ago and has pursued the same line of work over its eleven centuries, painstakingly handcrafting Buddhist temple structures. SMU, just coming up on its centennial, and even the state of Texas, a scant 175 years on from independence, are babies by comparison. The Japanese can be forgiven, I think, for talking reverently about ancient customs, time-hallowed traditions, and the weight of history on contemporary life.

(Photos courtesy of the Japanese American Leadership Delegation on Facebook.)

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Return to Japan

As I was waiting in D/FW early this morning, steeling myself for another thirteen-hour transit of the Pacific, I wondered just how many times I have been to Japan. A check of my passport revealed that this would be my eighth trip since 2003. Some quick counting on my fingers produced the figure of six visits prior to 2003, though my middle-aged memory makes that total less than completely trustworthy. Altogether, then, it seems that I have now been to Japan on at least fourteen occasions. My longest time there was in 1991 to 1992, when I was doing dissertation research in Tokyo; the shortest was a harried two-day whirlwind for a conference in Kyoto about three years ago, when I believe I spent as many hours en route as on the ground in Japan.

My first visit was when I was ten years old. Japan and I have both changed a lot since 1973. I recall meeting my Japanese grandmother (for the only time) and seeing the horizontal stains on the walls of her farmhouse, an archive of high water marks from a century of typhoons and floods in rural Mie Prefecture. I remember sniffing at a lot of unusual foods, but subsisting mainly on sandwiches and Fanta orange soda. I know I spent a lot of time (with my mother in tow) sweeping though department stores for Godzilla toys and hoping (fruitlessly, of course) that the King of the Monsters might just rear up out of Tokyo Bay when I happened to be in town.

Only many years later did I come to recognize that my first visit to Japan came at a significant historical moment. Japan in the summer of 1973 was riding the crest of a twenty-year-long economic boom, a surge of industrial growth unprecedented in world history in its scale and its duration. Within two short generations, Japan was transformed from an impoverished and war-ravaged wasteland into one of the world’s richest, best educated, and most innovative nations. The changes were so fast and so profound that many observers in the West, who never expected an “oriental” society to rival the powers of Europe and North America, spoke disbelievingly of a Japanese economic “miracle.”

There was, inevitably, a down-side to Japan’s dramatic postwar growth spurt. By the early 1970s, pollution in Japan was acute: traffic policemen in Tokyo were issued respirators because of the noxious air in the city. Japanese workers labored long hours and lived in cramped quarters; Japanese women had few career options and a very circumscribed place in public life. And Japan was highly dependent on imported raw materials, especially oil, to feed its growing industrial machine, a fact that became only too painfully obvious with the coming of the OPEC oil embargo in the fall of 1973.

There are many parallels between the Japan of thirty years ago – booming, optimistic, churning out the exports, choked with smog, a source of wonderment (as well as worry) for the world – and the China so much on everyone’s minds today. The past three decades, however, have brought Japan both highs and lows: I was there to see the heady heights of the “Bubble Economy” in the 1980s and to witness the dispiriting depths of the “Great Recession” of the 1990s.

Delegation.jpg On all of my recent trips to Japan, I have been struck by how economic woes, political instability, and social change (especially the rapid aging of the population) have sapped the country of the vitality, optimism, and ambition that were so much in evidence back in 1973. Japan has seemed an oddly muted place to me in recent years, enlivened a bit by the riotous creativity of its popular culture, but otherwise somewhat enervated, resigned to just getting by, lacking those sparks of vision and daring and swagger that fire places like China or South Korea or Dallas. Japan these days, I often tell people, reminds me a bit of Nebraska.

Although I have been to Japan many times, I am thrilled to be going back on this trip with the JALD group. I am eager to gain a different perspective on Japan today. I look forward to meeting with Japan’s political, economic, and educational leaders and discussing where Japan has been and where it can aspire to go. Above all, I want to explore how Japan and the United States can work better together, to discover what role Japanese Americans can play in this process, and to imagine how Japan’s future might be brighter than its recent past.

(In photo: The 2011 Japanese American Leadership Delegation visited the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles for orientation in January.)

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