Sasakawa USA Blog

This blog features a look at news, events, commentary and media related to Sasakawa USA and the U.S.-Japan relationship.


Kyodo News article by Sasakawa USA Fellow suggests the impact of U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty

New York, New York City, Nyc

Dr. Sayuri Romei, Associate Fellow for Security and Foreign Affairs at Sasakawa USA, discussed the possible implications of the U.S. withdrawal from the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) Treaty in a February 3 Kyodo News article. In “OPINION: Two minutes to midnight: chipping away at global arms control and alliances?” Romei writes that “With the Doomsday Clock at two minutes to midnight for the second year in a row — the last time it was this close to midnight was in 1953 — the Trump administration has embarked upon a very dangerous path.”

In the article, Romei raises concerns about miscommunication with allies and how this decision will undermine talks with Russia for the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty renewal.

Read “OPINION: Two minutes to midnight: chipping away at global arms control and alliances?” on the Kyodo News website.






Chairman’s Message: What Japan’s Third National Defense Program Guidelines Should Have Said

U.S. Marine Sgt. Ignacia Gonzalez translates a safety brief to Japan Ground Self-Defense Force Soldiers of 1st Amphibious Rapid Deployment Regiment, before a swim qualification during Iron Fist Jan. 16, 2019 on U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, CA. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Cutler Brice)

In December of last year, Japan published its third National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG).  These guidelines, written under the supervision of the five-year-old National Security Council Staff, provide guidance for the development of Japan’s defense capability for the next decade.

Earlier this month Sasakawa USA held a conference on these guidelines (a video of the conference is on our website), and the consensus of the Japanese and American expert participants was that the guidelines were a glass both half full and half empty.

Although there are many positive features of the NDPG, they are inadequate in the very important area of achieving joint operations by the Self Defense Force. NDPG documents are always the tip of an iceberg, indicating the presence of much more substance unseen below the water line. However even tips of icebergs indicate overall direction and speed. The 2019 NDPG show a positive direction for Japanese joint capabilities, but the speed is disappointingly slow, much too slow for the security environment that the document itself accurately describes.

Even though they establish security policy for ten years, the guidelines do not set definite deadlines to achieve important joint operational capabilities. By 2029 the Japan Self Defense Forces must be capable of operating in multi-Service task forces under joint doctrine, with interoperable command, control and communications systems, with trained headquarters staffs and operational units skilled in operating with those from other services. The armed forces of many other countries grow weary of American adjurations concerning jointness, and sometimes dismiss them as mindless dogma. On the contrary, joint operations are a means to achieve greater military effectiveness from individual service capabilities when they operate in the same battle space. Integrated joint forces are the only way to combine the firepower of individual army, navy, and air force elements at crucial times and places across the entire battlespace. Forces without joint doctrine, training, communications, and attitude must play the equivalent of a zone defense in football or basketball and can be no stronger against a joint opponent than their weakest sector.

Interestingly, China is not one of those countries that resists the imperative of developing a joint operational capability. It has been making serious strides in transforming the PLA from an Army-dominated defensive force to a Navy and Air Force-led joint force on its eastern, maritime borders. Unless Japan makes the decision to embrace joint operations, it will face an opponent not only with superior resources, but also with superior warfighting doctrine and capability.

There are three specific areas in which the NDPG should have directed the development of joint task forces and operational concepts:

1. Joint air and missile defense

Aircraft and surface-to-air missiles have engagement envelopes of hundreds of miles. The NDPG states that all three of its services will have air and missile defense units:

“GSDF will maintain surface-to-air guided missile units and ballistic missile defense units; MSDF will maintain Aegis-equipped destroyers; ASDF will maintain surface-to-air guided missile units.”

In the tight battlespace around Japan, engagement zones of the aircraft and missile systems of the three different services will all overlap. Yet on the question of how these service units will be integrated into a joint missile and air defense force that can operate from a single common operating picture, that can be directed by a single commander against incoming missiles and aircraft, the document is frustratingly vague:

“SDF will build comprehensive air and missile defense capability comprising these [individual service] assets” and

“SDF will establish a structure with which to conduct integrated operation of various equipment pieces, those for missile defense as well as air defense equipment that each SDF service has separately used.”

What the NDPG should say is something like the following:

“By 2024 the SDF will establish a joint task force to defend Japanese territory from air and missile attacks.”

2. Joint amphibious operations

If there is any military operation that must be joint to be effective, it is an amphibious assault. There must be one commander who controls the naval and air forces to win air and maritime superiority before the landing force can launch, the same commander must direct the amphibious ground force that makes the landing and consolidates the beachhead, and the air and naval fires that support the ground forces once ashore. History is littered with stories of defeats caused by divided command of these complex operations, in which naval, army and air commanders failed to integrate their actions.  Unified command is essential.

Yet the NDPG states:

“GSDF will strengthen its ability to deter and counter threats by taking measures including: persistent steady-state maneuver such as coordinated [emphasis added] activities between ships and Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade and other mobile operating units as well as their various training and exercises.”

What the NDPG should say is:

“By 2024 the SDF will develop joint amphibious assault doctrine and procure necessary equipment to establish a joint operational command for amphibious assaults to recover remote islands that have been captured by an enemy force.”

3. Joint operational commands

The two joint task forces recommended above are tactical commands to deal with specific current threats and contingencies. There is a larger question of joint organization that Japan should have addressed in the 2018 NDPG.

Every advanced, large defense force except Japan has established joint operational commands with the responsibility for planning and training for known contingencies and developing the capability to react to surprise contingencies. All other nations have learned over time that individual service headquarters and even joint headquarters located in the capital cannot maintain the necessary operational focus. These headquarters staffs are consumed by questions of budget, personnel, equipment procurement, and responding to political authorities. While no country has the huge American joint command structure of regional and functional commands, they all (except Japan) assign the responsibility for planning, training, and conducting military operations to a separate staff, operating under the direction of political authorities, generally a ministry of defense. The services, in turn, are responsible for organizing, training, and equipping service units which are then assigned to joint operational commands for training and operations. Yet the NDPG states:

“In order to further promote jointness of GSDF, MSDF and ASDF in all areas, SDF will strengthen the Joint Staff Office’s posture [emphasis added] designed for effective SDF operations and for new domains, thereby enabling swift exercise of SDF’s capabilities. SDF will examine future framework for joint operation [emphasis added].”

This tentative guidance will ensure that Japan continues to rely on cooperation among its service units, rather than welding them into a joint task force that can take full advantage of their capabilities. What the NDPG should have said is:

“By 2024 the SDF will establish a joint operational command reporting to the Minister of Defense through the Chief of Staff, Joint Staff, to plan and exercise for the following contingencies: major disasters such as earthquakes and typhoons, Japan’s military actions in regional conflicts involving Taiwan and the Republic of Korea, and defense of Japan’s remote islands against attack. The joint operational command will be co-located where possible with the U.S. joint command that has responsibility for responding to the same contingencies.”

Press reports indicate that Japan is actually taking action to establish joint capabilities and organizations faster and with greater urgency than the vague language of the National Defense Program Guidelines. Perhaps the NDPG are written in such a tentative manner to avoid political controversy.  However vagueness carries its own risks:  Officers within the self-defense services will continue to resist the establishment of joint commands, with the perceived loss of service prerogatives; the Japanese public will not be prepared for joint operations when the need becomes even more glaringly obvious; most dangerous of all, Japan’s potential enemies will be overconfident that they can take advantage of Japan’s weak joint structure to conduct quick and successful aggression against Japanese territory and interests.  Prime Minister Abe has made historically important steps to improve the effectiveness of Japan’s self-defense forces, but establishing a joint operating structure remains unfinished business.






How will Japan defend itself, if it can’t get its youth to serve?

Tara Copp, Pentagon Bureau Chief for Military Times, was one of eight rising U.S. journalists covering U.S. national security and defense issues who participated in a week-long study trip to Japan in December 2018 as part of the Sasakawa USA Emerging Experts Delegation (SEED) program. Copp published “How will Japan defend itself, if it can’t get its youth to serve?” in the Military Times on January 30, 2019.

How will Japan defend itself, if it can’t get its youth to serve?

With population aging and youth uninterested in military, who will defend Japan?

Tara Copp, Military Times

TOKYO — Takahashi Hideaki is a quick-thinking 31-year-old with fast, fast feet. At Taito Station, a video game mega-arcade in downtown Tokyo, his footwork mastery of “Dance Dance Revolution” draws a crowd. Think “Guitar Hero” on speed.

Hideaki is exactly the type of citizen Japan’s military needs to recruit. Japan’s population as a whole is dropping, but the drop is especially notable among those aged 18 to 32, Japan’s recruitment eligible. That population has fallen from 9 million in 1994 to 5.6 million in 2018, Japan’s defense ministry said. Its Self Defense Forces have missed annual enlisted recruiting goals for a number of years. The average age of the Self Defense Forces is over 35 now.

But it’s not just a numbers problem. As a whole, Japanese youth don’t want to serve.

“For the JMSDF, [Japan Maritime Self Defense Forces] I think it may be the most important issue,” said Capt. Toshiyuki Hirata, JMSDF deputy director of plans and programs.

When asked if he would join, Hideaki shakes his head politely.

“No, I would not,” he says, through questions and answers we run through Google translate.

It’s the same answer a few minutes later with another young Japanese male, one of the arcade employees. It happens again with a young male guitar store employee down the street, and his female sales assistant. They are military age, but they would not serve in Japan’s 220,000-person military.

“The majority of [young people] don’t even think about that,” the guitar store employee said.

Money isn’t really a deciding factor either, he said, although Japan’s military salaries are low, similar to U.S. blue collar wages, and unlike the U.S., military service does not lead to money for college in Japan.

The reasons Japanese youth choose not to enlist are cultural.

“We are so afraid of war. Anything that seems to be related to war,” the guitar store clerk said.

Even the video games at Taito Station are only fantasy-violent. Warrior princesses with big eyes throw potions; robots attack aliens. There is no soldier vs. soldier “Call of Duty.” The closest game the arcade has with Western or war-associated violence is a single booth of AMC’s “The Walking Dead.”

The Taito employee explains why: “There would be too many comments from Korea and Japan customers.”

But Japan needs its young people to change their minds. The Self Defense Forces are undergoing their biggest transformation since World War II. Each shift has largely been driven by China’s increased militarization, but potential threats from North Korea and Russia have prodded Japan as well. While neither China nor Japan signal that conflict is coming, there is a nervousness that Japan is not yet ready.

Maj. Gen. Yoshiki Adachi, Defense and Military Attaché at the Embassy of Japan said if he got a chance to convince Japan’s youth to serve, “I’d focus on the importance of serving the country,” he said. “Our security environment right now is very severe …. maybe you could say this environment is worse than that of the Cold War era.”

“But the problem is … if I talk about these kinds of issues at a high school, most of the students would not really be interested in them,” Adachi said.

Instead, recruiters emphasize the sexier parts of service, getting to drive a tank, or fly a jet. It doesn’t always work, especially for the Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Forces.

“Young sailors hate to stay at sea because it is difficult to connect,” Hirata said. “So it is very difficult to recruit young people.”

So JMSDF is considering adding wi-fi to its ships.

Japan is looking at other options too. Currently six percent of the Self Defense Forces are women; Japan is expanding roles for them, such as serving on submarines. In case numbers don’t improve, Hirata said the military is also thinking about what parts of its SDF could potentially be handled by drones, both above ground and underwater.

And it’s taking steps to slow its own personnel loss. In October it increased the age limit for recruiting from 26 to 32, and it is implementing two modest increases in how long officers must serve before retirement, extending their contracts by one year in 2020, and adding a second extension five years later.

Still, what the military really needs is a way to change the population’s mindset about military service. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe supports revising Article 9 of the country’s constitution to insert language that states ‘the Self Defense Forces are constitutional’ as one way it hopes to support service. The military got its biggest recent boost from its mobilization and response to Japan’s 2011 devastating earthquake and tsunami.

That tsunami response moved the numbers on general perception of the JSDF, the defense ministry said, citing internal polling that showed 90 percent of Japan’s population has a favorable view of the Self Defense Forces.

That number plummets to 24 percent, however, when asked if they would recommend military service to a child or friend.

For Hirata and Japan’s naval defenses, getting past that barrier will be critical to Japan’s future.

“We try to explain the importance of maritime security, because Japan is a maritime nation,” to potential recruits Hirata said. “The defense of Japan, especially at sea, is a very important thing.”






The Art of the Balance: Japan, China and the United States

Catherine Putz, Managing Editor for The Diplomat, was one of eight rising U.S. journalists covering U.S. national security and defense issues who participated in a week-long study trip to Japan in December 2018 as part of the Sasakawa USA Emerging Experts Delegation (SEED) program. Putz published “The Art of the Balance: Japan, China and the United States” in The Diplomat on January 30, 2019. 

The Art of the Balance: Japan, China and the United States
It’s no easy thing to balance a distant ally with a worrisome close neighbor.

By Catherine Putz, The Diplomat

There’s a delicate balance to relations between Japan and China. Economic realities are weighed against security concerns; a desire for maintaining the status quo balanced against long-term worries that China is a future threat and the United States a potentially unreliable ally.

When looking out from Tokyo, the strategic threats and security concerns that rest on the horizon range from the immediate and tangible — North Korea, which in 2017 sent two ballistic missiles flying over Hokkaido into the Pacific — to the inconvenient legacies of an unsigned peace treaty with Russia — an ongoing territorial dispute blocks the path to a peace treaty.

Perennial debates about the sustainability of the American commitment to its Asian allies, exacerbated by U.S. President Donald Trump’s capricious diplomatic style and repeated criticisms of U.S. allies not paying a fair share of defense costs — Japan and South Korea, specifically — only serve to emphasize for Japan the importance of maintaining balance in its regional relations.

But pulling Japanese attention, always, is China.

“Face to face, we are smiling; but under the table… we are kicking each other,” Keitaro Ohno, at the time the parliamentary vice minister of defense for Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, told a group of U.S. journalists in December, summarizing the reality of Japan’s balancing of economic interdependence and security concerns with regard to China.

“China is — and will be — an indispensable economic partner for Japan,” Sheila Smith, a senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in an email to The Diplomat. “Economic interdependence has not gone away; if anything, it has become more important to Tokyo to maintain it.”

China was Japan’s second largest export partner, after the United States, from 2011 up until the end of the 2017 fiscal year in March 2018. According to the Japanese Ministry of Finance in April 2018, Japan’s exports to China soared to $141 billion in FY2017, a 18.3 percent increase over FY2016. Meanwhile, exports to the United States continued to grow, but at a slower pace of 7.5 percent over the previous fiscal year, coming to just over $140 billion.

The news in FY2018 to date, however, hasn’t been good for Japan. For example, in September 2018 Japanese exports fell 1.2 percent over the previous year — the first tumble in export stats since November 2016. As of the end of November 2018, Japanese exports had notched a measly 0.1 percent year-on-year increase.

Trump’s occasional harping on the imbalance in Japan-U.S. trade and threats of tariffs on Japanese-made automobiles have had a chilling effect in part because trade-related threats from the White House have been pursued in ways other comments from Trump have not. From Trump’s announcement, three days after taking office, of U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, to the pursuit of a trade war against China, trade issues are key for the American president.

After two years of dodging bilateral trade talks with the United States, Japan finally agreed in September 2018 to take the Trump administration up on its preferred vehicle for trade relations.

The slowing of the Chinese economy is also of deep concern for Japan.

Although officially announced statistics posit a general slowing of growth to 6.5 percent as of the third quarter of 2018, unofficial accounts paint a much darker outlook. At least one Chinese economist has suggested that the real growth rate in China is zero. The implications of a Chinese decline, let alone a collapse are frightening.

In December, Dr. Akio Takahara, a professor of contemporary Chinese politics at the University of Tokyo, told a group of U.S. journalists that “The [global] interdependence with China has grown to such a level that if China collapses then we will all suffer very, very much,” Takahara said that Japan faces a dilemma, arguably so do China’s other neighbors and the United States.

While Japan doesn’t want to see China become more aggressive, “If China grows, it will grow its military might and do things [with it].” But, he went on, “does that mean we should crush China? I don’t really think so. I think we have to learn how to manage the difficult parts and maintain peace.”

One difficulty is the burden of history. While the Japan of today is a democracy; the Japan that haunt’s China’s (and Korea’s) not-so-distant pasts was a tyrant. In 1910, Japan annexed the Korean Peninsula after helping wrest it from China’s sphere of influence 15 years before. In 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria and by 1937 China and Japan were at war, again. In 1941, with Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, the ongoing conflict in East Asia — in which the United States and Soviet Union had been aiding the Chinese against the Japanese — merged with World War II. The period had no shortage of brutal acts. Across East Asia, historical issues continue to complicate Japan’s contemporary relations whether it’s the comfort women issue when dealing with South Korea, or the ghosts of the Nanjing Massacre haunting relations with China.

Another difficulty is the unavoidable tension between democracy and autocracy. In contemporary terms, democracies like Japan and the United States are concerned that autocracies like China won’t follow a “rules-based order” or are actively seeking to upend that order. In that vein, democracies see their efforts to build communities of cooperation as necessary to sustaining global stability and meeting myriad international challenges; autocracies, however,  view such coalitions with deep suspicion, their central emphasis on democracy a direct challenge.

In comments to a group of U.S. journalists in December, Keitaro Ohno, now the LDP’s acting director of the foreign policy division and deputy chief secretary of the security research committee, characterized Beijing’s 2018 friendliness toward Japan as in part a response to Chinese shock over the aggressiveness of the Trump administration’s pursuit of a trade war.

The Chinese were, he suggested, “shocked and surprised by Trump’s actions” and were subsequently ”very suddenly friendly to us.”

As the trade war accelerated from a threat to reality, with tariffs levied first on foreign-produced solar panels and washing machines, then steel and aluminum, then progressing to directly targeting Chinese goods, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pursued a course of diplomatic engagement with China’s Xi Jinping (while also maintaining a regular schedule to meetings with Trump).

Abe, who rose (back) to power in 2012, tried early on to engender a normalization of relations with China. But as noted in a commentary published by the Japan Times last month by former editor of the Asahi Shimbun, Yoichi Funabashi, meetings following Abe and Xi’s first formal talks on the sidelines of the November 2014 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing (Reuters referred to their handshake there as “awkward”), were brief and according to Chinese media, initiated by the Japanese.

“This time, however, the Chinese took the initiative,” Funabashi wrote “I was told by sources in the know that at a high-level foreign policy meeting in June, government and Communist Party members decided to respond to the dangers posed by the Trump administration by improving relations with China’s neighbors, particularly Japan and India.”

In September, Abe and Xi met on the sidelines of Russia’s Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok and in October Abe traveled to Beijing, billed as the first Japanese prime minister to do so since 2011. This year’s G-20 Summit is scheduled for late June in Osaka. If Xi attends, as diplomatic sources suggest he might, he’d be the first Chinese leader to visit Japan since Hu Jintao in 2008.

“Japanese economic growth now depends on its ties to China. But the strategic tensions are structural, and are not likely to dissipate,” Smith noted.

Ohno, as noted above, commented on China’s relatively friendly attitude toward Japan over the course of 2018. But, he continued in the next breath, “when it comes to the security environment, [Chinese] activity in the South China Sea and the East China Sea are still going on and not changed.

“Face to face, we are smiling; but under the table… we are kicking each other,” he summarized.

The kicking under the table is typified by incursions of Chinese vessels and aircraft into what the Japanese claim as sovereign territory. The territorial dispute between Japan and China regarding the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and the extent of each country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the East China Sea is a closely watched flashpoint between the two.

While in fiscal year 2017, the number of intercepts of People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) aircraft approaching Japanese airspace decreased by 23 percent over the previous fiscal year, 2018 saw an uptick. As Franz-Stefan Gady reported last month the number of intercepts of Chinese military aircraft “increased by approximately 20 percent in the first six months of the current fiscal year” (that is, from April to September 2018).

That said, there’s a rehearsed nature to Chinese incursions and the Japanese response; a careful dance that sets out each side’s claims but at the same time attempts to avoid sudden escalation. In this vein last year, the two sides agreed to set up a security hotline to help defuse any possible maritime confrontations after a decade of negotiations.

“If Beijing continues along its current path, Japan’s future could be increasingly shaped by Chinese decisions. Trying as much as possible to shape those decisions is a priority for Japan, and will be from here on out,” Smith commented.

“Tokyo cannot do it alone; it must seek the help of others who have a similar worry about China’s future trajectory,” Smith said. Japan, she went on, is well placed to help organize regional cooperation. “Whether in trade, development financing, maritime security or mitigating environmental degradation, most of Asia’s future problems demand cooperation among the countries of the region.”

In meeting after meeting with Japanese policymakers, academics, and commentators questions about how the Japanese view Donald Trump and his presidency were lofted by U.S. journalists. More often than not, the questions were diplomatically avoided or answered gently. For Japan, the U.S. alliance is critical — more so given China’s rise — and that fact persists no matter who sits in the White House.

“On the one hand, U.S.-Japan ties have deeper roots to keep our alliance steady and one president (or prime minister for that matter) cannot up end it so easily,” Smith replied when asked how Trump’s transactional style had impacted Japanese strategic considerations. “But the question for Tokyo, I imagine, is whether Trump represents a deeper impulse of the American people.”

The debate about the sustainability of the American commitment to its Asian allies is as old as those alliances, but the Trump presidency has brought new urgency to the conversation. If Washington puts “American First,” where do its alliance commitments figure? For those considering Japan’s strategic outlook, the core concern is not Trump’s bombastic style or even pressure on trade relations, but that he is far from a temporary phenomena.

“Are Americans tired of their global leadership role? Do they no longer want to expend their resources — financial, military, soft power — on shaping a world or a regional order? If this is what the Trump presidency represents, then it does suggest Japan’s postwar formula of dependence on the U.S. for strategic ballast may need rethinking,” Smith said, echoing comments made by several interlocutors in Japan.






True Stories from Japan: A Tale of Two Sister Cities

Kevin Yuan currently works as a Coordinator for International Relations in Taki Town, Mie Prefecture, Japan. He graduated from Georgetown University in May 2018 with a double major in Economics and Japanese, and served as a Communications and Education Intern for Sasakawa USA from January-May 2018. His past experiences in U.S.-Japan relations include participating in the U.S. High School Diplomats program, the National Cherry Blossom Festival’s Goodwill Ambassador Program, the Waseda University Global Leadership Fellows Program, and the U.S. Department of State’s Critical Language Scholarship Program.

 

During my Senior Convocation a mere two days before graduating college, I received an email that kept me up that night. I had accepted a position as a Coordinator for International Relations through the JET Program, and I had been awaiting notice of where in Japan I would spend, at the very least, the next year of my life. The moment the email subject with the words “JET” and “Placement” popped up as a notification on my phone, I tried anxiously to access the message, but was frustrated by the slow 3G speeds within the enclosed gymnasium. Finally, the email loaded and read: Taki-cho, Mie-ken, my placement for JET. Relying on my roommate’s phone, I looked up the location and images of the town. I scrolled through pictures of the typical Japanese countryside, causing new questions to enter my head. Will I feel fulfilled there? Will I really be able to make use of my skills?With these questions in mind, I began to learn more about my position’s specific tasks over the following months. One of them stuck out to me in particular—I’d be participating in a sister cities delegation made up of 20 middle school students and five town chaperones to Camas, Washington, in October, less than two months after my arrival in Taki.

The relationship between Taki, Mie, and Camas, Washington, originated from an industrial link. In 1995, the Sharp Corporation, which operated facilities in both Taki and Camas, sought and succeeded in establishing a connection between the cities. From then on, the sister city relationship blossomed and has continued for longer than I’ve been alive. The 2018 trip marked the 15th delegation of middle school students, and the 21st delegation overall from Taki to Camas, on top of more than a dozen past delegations from Camas to Taki. Although Sharp no longer operates in Camas, the bonds that have been forged thanks to the initial industrial connection have continued to strengthen over the years. During a special 20th anniversary of the sister city relationship in 2015, a delegation from Camas visited Taki, and the mayors of both cities planted a tree outside the town library that continues to grow as a symbol of friendship.

Joining the sister cities trip excited me for two reasons. First, during my time as an intern at Sasakawa USA, I attended a fascinating talk on the topic of U.S.-Japan sister city relations given by Grace Ruch Clegg (whose report on sister cities can be accessed here), and I felt eager to contribute to an international municipal-level exchange. Second, my own interest in U.S.-Japan relations was spurred by an international exchange I participated in when I was still a student. The 2013 U.S. High School Diplomats program allowed me to travel to Japan for the first time and meet Japanese high school students, and motivated me to pursue further studies and opportunities in U.S.-Japan relations. Now, the chance to help organizean international exchange made me excited to see how the trip would impact the students of Taki, many of whom had no prior overseas experience.

With the long history of the sister city relationship in mind, I was inspired to work to further strengthen the ties of friendship between the cities. After coordinating schedules with the Camas Sister City Organization and running language and culture workshops to prepare students for the exchange, I felt a mix of confidence, excitement, and anxiousness as the date of departure drew near. Following a relatively comfortable flight, I stepped out of the airport and spent a few minutes enjoying the brisk autumn Pacific Northwest weather, welcoming the drastic change from the hot and humid summer in Japan. Once we arrived in Camas, the students met and left with their host families. They seemed a bit hesitant and reserved at first, which was a feeling I could empathize with as I had previously lived with two different host families. My host family on this particular exchange took me and a few other chaperones to visit an outdoor farmer’s market before heading to a restaurant to have a large, delicious dish of nachos.

The next few days were exhausting but truly fulfilling, packed with visits to local schools, the city hall, and nearby attractions. I juggled duties of interpreting between Japanese and English, coordinating logistics between both sides as the point of contact for the delegation, and representing Taki, all while enjoying a new side of the United States I hadn’t experienced much of before. Although some parts of the trip were stressful for me (such as a sudden request to interpret a park ranger’s explanation about the geology of the Columbia River into Japanese), I felt that the trip was an overall success, serving as a valuable experience both for the students as a chance to engage with and form friendships with American students, and for me as a professional opportunity to use my skills and contribute to the long-standing sister city relationship.

I saw reflections of my past self in the students throughout the trip, many of whom seemed to be overwhelmed, yet excited and curious to learn as much as they could in a place far from home. I hope the exchange sparked something in them the same way my student exchanges did for me. By the end of the visit, they were hugging and saying farewell to their host families as if they’d known each other for years. Although the exchange itself lasted less than a week, I have faith that the bonds they formed will persist for much longer; some students appeared overjoyed to reunite with Camas residents whom they hosted in Japan over a year prior.

As my attention turns to preparing for welcoming a delegation from Camas to Taki in June, I’m constantly reminded of the significance of person-to-person exchanges for creating a more interconnected world. The Camas-Taki sister city relationship is just one of many across the globe, but I am grateful to be able to contribute to its success and see its positive impact on individuals in both cities.

About True Stories from Japan

True Stories from Japan is an occasional blog on the Sasakawa USA website that features reflective essays about travels to and from Japan. Click here for details on how to submit an article for consideration.