Leaders Convene at a Leading Tokyo University to Forge New US-Japan Partnership in Education, Exchange

Yume Hidaka, Program Director at The Laurasian Institution, stood before 50 thought leaders convened last month for a summit at Waseda University in Tokyo, hosted by the U.S. Center for Citizen Diplomacy (USCCD) J-Center program. Yume, an advisory council member to the J-Center, manages student and young professional exchange programs between Japan and the United States. She delivered a simple and powerful summary of her organization’s mission that also spoke to the reason for the gathering in Tokyo she addressed.

“We are helping thousands of students become tomorrow’s global leaders.”

Dozens of scholars from primary, secondary, and higher education, leaders of international non-profit organizations, and representatives of U.S. and Japanese government agencies came together for the two-day summit. They explored ways their work can more purposefully achieve their shared objective: fostering globally competent leaders that will guide the next generation of the U.S.-Japan relationship.

The summit was facilitated by the J-Center program, an initiative that networks organizations and resources that exist to promote Japanese culture, language, arts, and educational exchange in the American Midwest. The program was made possible with grant funds from the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership, a public-private foundation that promotes Japanese culture around the world.

The gathering in Tokyo created an opportunity for educational leaders in the United States and Japan to discuss issues of common concern, share best practices, and reaffirm their shared interest in fostering the next generation of American and Japanese partners. While these leaders all work in different disciplines of the field, consensus emerged that encouraging people of all ages to not only learn about one another, but also to learn with one another is a powerful force for global competency and cooperation.

That theme was front and center for the two-day summit in Tokyo. Working sessions were separated by panel and group discussions that focused either on primary and secondary or higher education. The elementary and secondary school leaders explored the idea of using virtual classroom partnerships, a low-cost way for schools to make connections globally, as a tool for international education. They also discussed how community groups, often interested in contributing to educational initiatives that connect students to world cultures, can be more purposefully leveraged to deliver educational experiences that have a lasting impact on students.

The higher education sessions explored issues of vital importance to colleges and universities in the United States and Japan. Institutions on both sides of the Pacific are interested in maximizing opportunities for their students to have meaningful cross-cultural experiences, both on their home campuses and while studying abroad. All participants embraced the idea of a continuum of student engagement. A key question was central to their discussion: how do we engage students in meaningful ways before, during, and after their cross-cultural exchange experience?

The most impactful student programs meet three specific criteria. First, they ensure a thorough pre-program orientation that provides students with the tools necessary to succeed. Second, successful programs invest in timely monitoring of the program while it is unfolding to evaluate feedback in real-time. Lastly, they provide a post-engagement period of reflection that encourages the students to think about what they have taken away from the experience and empowers them to use those lessons moving forward.

Ultimately, cross-cultural educational exchange activities must be thoughtfully designed and implemented in ways that underscore the idea that these are not just one-off experiences, but the foundation for globally competent leadership.

Despite any number of associations and conferences that allow educators and administrators to network, these individuals have limited opportunities to engage with other community leaders outside of their specific educational domain, even though their parallel work is often complementary. In addition to the ideas explored and suggestions made by the working groups, a fact that was evident during all of the sessions was a basic desire for more opportunities to discuss these issues and form more impactful partnerships. There was clear value in the simple act of convening these individuals who, together, can better connect classrooms, campuses, and communities across the United States and Japan.

The U.S.-Japan relationship has always been a unique one that has far-reaching implications in international politics, economics, and security. Japanese culture — both traditional and contemporary — has captured the imagination of Americans for generations, and the same is true of American culture for people in Japan. One need only look to the Japanese love of baseball and Lady Gaga to see the impact of U.S. cultural exports on Japanese society.

Earlier this summer and fall, I had the pleasure of touring Japanese culture festivals around the Midwest. The region’s vibrant network of community organizations create regular opportunities for citizen diplomacy interactions between the two cultures. These festivals showcase the ways people in the middle of America learn more about Japan in their own backyards. Global engagement is not always a highly structured, scholarly interaction. Sometimes it takes the form of a child in Nebraska learning how to make an origami paper crane from a Japanese woman wearing a kimono, or a blonde Minnesotan toddler learning to use chopsticks, or even a skinny man in Missouri challenge a group of professional sumo wrestlers. After each of these simple interactions, people go home with more understanding of people and cultures different than their own. Their worldviews are forever changed.

Between virtual classroom collaboration, university study abroad, sister-city exchange programs, and language learning, community members in the United States and Japan engage with one another in meaningful ways on a daily basis. In addition to being personally enriching, this engagement feeds the perhaps obvious but vitally important realization that increased cultural exposure enhances global understanding.

The leaders that recently spent two days in Tokyo exploring ways to strengthen and amplify their work together did so knowing that their efforts are important not just to the U.S.-Japan relationship, but also to creating a model of transnational cooperation.

When a Japanese high school student visits somewhere like Iowa as part of a class trip, that student realizes the English she has studied for years was not just another subject to pass, but was indeed a tool of communication that now allows her to make new friends around the world. When an American college student spends a semester studying somewhere like Kyoto, he comes away from the experience feeling empowered by the fact that he knows he can operate in a society very different than his own. In other words, these experiences create individuals that are equipped to lead, regardless of the cultural context.

The fact that so many of these opportunities exist in the U.S.-Japan relationship is a testament to the strength of that particular international partnership. It also raises some questions worth reflection: Does the unique relationship that underlies U.S.-Japan partnerships through cultural and educational institutions offer a model that could inspire cultural bridges between other parts of the world? Can we do more to leverage the power of citizen diplomacy and maximize the potential in existing relationships?

Rosie Edmond, Regional Director of EducationUSA in Northeast Asia and the Pacific, summarized the sentiments of the Tokyo summit. In her closing remarks, she called on those convened to consider the future of their relationship and the importance of individuals and institutions working in the U.S.-Japan space to re-realize their collaborative potential.

“In other words,” Rosie suggested, “Let’s not divorce and find new partners. Let’s honeymoon again.”

Matt Clark

Matt Clark is Program Manager at the Center for Citizen Diplomacy where he designs and implements global engagement projects to promote and celebrate person-to-person interactions across cultures. Matt has coordinated and hosted international conferences that explore opportunities for enhanced collaboration between thought leaders in K-12, higher education, community-based exchange programs, and cultural organizations. He is a magna cum laude graduate of Drake University and serves on the Board of Directors for the United Nations Association of Iowa, is Vice President of the Japan-America Society of Iowa, and represents the JET Alumni Association as the Iowa Chair.

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