Beyond funding: Responsible execution of U.S.-Japan exchange programs

Sharon Stirling and Kazuyo Kato

Publications Beyond funding: Responsible execution of U.S.-Japan exchange programs

This essay originally was published on on September 8 , 2016. View that posting here.


101815 SEED 08People-to-people ties build the foundation for greater cooperation between the United States and Japan. Last year, President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Abe Shinzō announced and reconfirmed their commitment to “actively promote people-to-people exchange as a key pillar of our relationship, especially among younger generations,” which they first emphasized in 2014.

On the Japanese side, this endorsement from the two leaders on the value of exchange has generated greater public financing and support for bilateral programs. In fiscal 2015, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs saw a budget increase of ¥50 billion yen compared to the previous year for “strategic external communication” activities to promote improvements in Japan’s diplomacy environment, including by nurturing “Japan hands” around the world.

Of this budget, ¥3 billion was allocated to the Kakehashi Initiative Toward the Future, aimed at fostering people-to-people exchanges with the United States. This initiative includes exchange programs for high school and university students, young professionals and scholars, members of the U.S. Congress, Asian-Americans, teachers of the Japanese language, and members of the arts community, as well as grassroots activities targeting Americans with significant Japan experience such as U.S. military personnel who served in Japan, former POWs, and past participants in JET, the Japan Exchange and Teaching program. Approximately 1,750 students and young professionals from North America, more than 90% of them American, were scheduled to participate in this program to visit Japan this past fiscal year.

The Japanese government deserves credit for supporting bilateral exchange on this scale. However, funding is only one of many challenges in establishing and executing a successful exchange. Even more important is determining how to design a successful program and measure that success.

Below we focus on programs aimed at improving the understanding of Japan and U.S.-Japan relations among American scholars, young professionals, and emerging leaders with strong international interests, with the aim of distilling best practices for responsible execution of people-to-people exchange programs between the United States and Japan.

Defining Objectives

Exchanges are far more impactful when the strategic purpose of the exchange is identified. There is no denying that exchanges in and of themselves—Americans and Japanese interacting, holding dialogues, and becoming more familiar with one another—are valuable. However, given the time and resources required, having a specific objective can change a trip from simply a good experience to one with substantial and tangible outcomes. It may also be useful to differentiate the short-term goals of a program from the long-term goals, which could be achieved decades later, making it challenging to measure their success in the near term.

Given the time and resources required, having a specific objective can change a trip from simply a good experience to one with substantial and tangible outcomes.

Some exchange programs seem driven by paranoia over the seeming lack of the next cadre of “Japan hands”—those destined to maintain the strength of the alliance in the coming decades. That objective misses the point that the alliance is not built solely on goodwill among individuals but also on shared strategic interests. Exchange programs should not aim to nurture experts or fans of Japan. First of all, Japan experts are not created overnight. More importantly, the relationship needs policymakers, scholars, and business leaders—people with expertise in their own spheres first and foremost—who understand Japan as an important partner for solving global problems and a responsible stakeholder in the international rules-based system. The relationship needs not simple fans of Japan, but future American leaders who comprehend Japan’s contributions to the international community and naturally seek to foster deeper policy and business cooperation between the United States and Japan.

Success should not be measured by financing vast numbers of exchanges with the hope of cultivating people with an affinity towards Japan, or with a goal of solely asserting Japanese policy positions on controversial issues like the Senkaku Islands and comfort women. While it is important to clarify facts and Japan’s position on these issues, exchanges should be designed to nurture the next generation of American experts who would want to consult with their Japanese counterparts on a wide range of global issues.

Selection of Participants

Who wouldn’t want to accept a fully funded trip abroad? It’s an attractive opportunity to many, and there will be no shortage of people clamoring for a spot on an exchange program. However, at the outset, organizers will need to set criteria for selecting the participants that are based on the stated objectives of the program. A competitive application process is advisable. Candidates could submit a letter of interest stating not only what they hope to gain from the program, but also how they plan to contribute. Program organizers might also consider requiring participants to author a paper or blog entry, to deliver a post-visit presentation to a peer group, or to brief the organizers following the trip so they can improve their future delegations. Such requirements could measure the applicants’ desire to commit to the program objectives. Participants will also have a wealth of ideas and impressions from the trip, and organizers may want to find beneficial ways to capture those and disseminate them to a larger audience.

Diversity among the group participants is also important. However, organizers should aim to group together those on a similar professional level. Moreover, for the organizers, an exchange program is an opportunity to discover new talent to connect to Japan. While complete exclusion of candidates with prior knowledge of Japan would be unfair, for the most part, exchange programs should be an opportunity to introduce a new network to Japan.

The program content, too, must be designed with its participants in mind. There is no one-size-fits-all model for a successful and substantive exchange program: a high school exchange model cannot be applied to an exchange program for professionals and experts. For a program to be truly impactful, it must correspond to the interests of the participants and provide added value in terms of sparking new research ideas, developing beneficial connections, expanding professional networks, and providing key insight into the political, economic, and security interests of Japan.

For a program to be truly impactful, it must correspond to the interests of the participants and provide added value in terms of sparking new research ideas, developing beneficial connections, expanding professional networks, and providing key insight into the political, economic, and security interests of Japan.

Preparing for Meaningful Discussions

For exchanges to realize their full potential, meetings and discussions should be interesting and informative—something that, while obvious, is not always the reality. Time is highly valued during an exchange program, and participants will build their perceptions about Japan from the limited meetings and interactions the organizers arrange. A good exchange program therefore takes care to choose the appropriate interlocutors. Strong English language skills will help, but because one can hire an interpreter, language is not the key ingredient for a successful meeting. What is more necessary is to help bridge the differences in presentation and communication styles. Oftentimes, Japanese like to provide a well-prepared presentation of facts, often accompanied by PowerPoint slides and handouts. For a delegation relatively inexperienced in Japan, one such meeting can be beneficial in providing a foundation of knowledge. However, Americans will often want to get to the honne—the “truth of the matter” or their counterparts’ real opinions—meaning that the meetings will need to advance in order to generate real interest.


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Disappointing meetings can be avoided by prepping the interlocutors on the backgrounds and expectations of the delegation members, while briefing the delegation members about their interlocutors and allowing them to formulate their questions in advance. Excessive repetition is detrimental. For example, if the delegation has already been informed of the recent key developments in the bilateral alliance, or maritime security in the East China Sea, they do not need another formal presentation on the topic. Instead, they would appreciate finding out how their Japanese interlocutors candidly view those developments.

Of course, cultural differences do arise and Japanese tend to be less outspoken in public compared to their American counterparts. Junior officials can also be hesitant to voice their opinions in the presences of their bosses or senior officials. Organizers should give the Japanese side ample time to prepare for the interaction and create a comfortable environment for frank discussions to take place. For example, breaking up a large group for a casual lunch or dinner, with a number of Japanese interlocutors interspersed in each group, can create a far more candid environment where delegation members and their interlocutors feel comfortable engaging in deeper conversation.

A final word on interlocutors: diversity is a component often missing in U.S.-Japan exchanges. Delegations should be shown a true slice of the country they are visiting. Organizers must go beyond meetings with the usual suspects to structure a balanced portfolio of events in terms of gender, age, and political views, with representatives from both the private and public sector. Organizers should also introduce participants to their potential counterparts with whom they could work together in the years to come, rather than impress them with meetings with just famous or senior officials and experts.

Many Networks to Draw On

To achieve the long-term goal of generating more US experts who have contacts in Japan and can collaborate and work on issues with their Japanese counterparts when an occasion arise, it is vital for organizers to follow-up and maintain connections with and among past program participants to achieve the program’s long-term impact.

A component of the Kakehashi Initiative rightly targets the wealth of “alumni” who have studied, worked, or served in Japan. These alumni include those who are already familiar with Japan but lack a way to continue their involvement in Japan or relationships with Japanese, such as former participants of the JET program or former US Forces Japan personnel and families. Since its inception, the JET program counts approximately 40,000 alumni from North America. More than 35,000 U.S. military men and women are stationed in Japan at any given time, and with the addition of family members that accompany them, the total number of military-affiliated Americans residing in Japan is close to 80,000 annually.(*1) As the United States and Japan begin their path toward the eightieth anniversary of the end of World War II, reaching out to former POWs for further reconciliation is also desirable. Utilizing existing resources could help raise the profile of bilateral relations among the US audience more efficiently and on a much larger scale.

IMG_1385Other important networks to draw on are those including Japanese who have lived abroad, in addition to foreigners who have lived in Japan. Japan is a country with a rich history and culture. Every exchange program should include activities that showcase this as an important aspect of its national strengths. It can be argued that countries don’t always know what their strongest soft power tools are—the highlights may be clearer with an outsider perspective. Programs should utilize the knowledge of those with a unique ability to find points of interest and connectivity and select cultural activities that will be truly memorable to visitors.

Finally, as exchange programs undoubtedly consume a lot of time and energy, governments should proactively seek ideas from, and consider partnerships with, nongovernmental organizations with years of experience conducting exchanges. Government bureaucrats may not have the time and focus that professional organizers have to plan and execute programs. The government should also partner with organizations familiar with the U.S.-Japan policy community; outsourcing to a public relations firm with little understanding of the strategic purpose of the alliance may not be the wisest option for implementation. And programs should also find ways to bring global businesses and the private sector in both countries on board in this effort to strengthen bilateral relations, by offering a useful context to think about U.S.-Japan cooperation in their respective fields.


The U.S.-Japan relationship is a global partnership that requires people-to-people ties in a wide range of areas. With more exchange programs addressing the suggestions above, namely, clear strategic objectives, careful selection of participants, tailored programming with diverse interlocutors and activities, and efforts to leverage existing Japan “alumni” and private-public partnerships, U.S.-Japan relations could be supported by a new generation of policy leaders who have found trustworthy counterparts with whom they can cooperate on common challenges in both the Asia Pacific and global arenas. The future will hopefully bring opportunities for more execution of such responsible and effective bilateral exchange programs.


sharon-stirlingSharon Stirling is a senior program officer with the German Marshall Fund’s Asia program, where she manages the Japan portfolio, including the annual Trilateral Forum Tokyo and Young Strategists Forum, among other initiatives. She also manages GMF’s developing portfolio of work on Southeast Asia, including the Southeast Asia Trilateral Forum. Prior to joining GMF, she was a TV news producer for NHK, covering the US State Department, the 2008 presidential election, and the 2008 global financial crisis from the broadcaster’s Washington bureau. She was born in the Philippines and spent 15 years total in Japan, Taiwan, and China. She graduated magna cum laude from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

Kazuyo Kato3Kazuyo Kato is the director for education and finance at Sasakawa USA. In addition to managing the organization’s finance and administration, she leads the Education Program, which helps policymakers and experts improve their understanding of the US-Japan relationship and policy issues. She previously worked as an analyst at Arthur Andersen (later KPMG) in Tokyo, as a research associate in the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ International Security Program, as an associate at Armitage International, and as a program officer at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Tokyo. She was born in Australia and raised in Tokyo, Egypt, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. She graduated from Stanford University with a bachelor’s degree in international relations and a master’s degree in international policy studies.

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