JQ Magazine: JQ&A with Paige Cottingham-Streater, Executive Director of the Japan U.S.-Friendship Commission

“It’s impressive to see not only the countries and communities from which JET alumni herald, but also the ways in which they contribute to the program during and after their involvement. The Japanese government should certainly be pleased with the return on its investment in introducing so many people to Japan.” (Courtesy of JUSFC)

By Renay Loper (Iwate-ken, 2006-07) for JQ magazine. Renay is a freelance writer and associate program officer at the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership. Visit her blog at Atlas in Her Hand.

Paige Cottingham-Streater (Mie-ken, 1988-89) is a co-founder of the JET Alumni Association and executive director of both the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission (JUSFC), a federal agency that provides grants for research, training and exchange with Japan, and the United States-Japan Conference on Cultural Interchange (CULCON), a binational advisory panel to the U.S. and Japanese governments

Cottingham-Streater previously served as deputy executive director of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation, where she worked for 16 years. In 2004, she received the Japan Foreign Minister’s Commendation in recognition of her longstanding work to strengthen U.S.-Japan relations. The award commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Treaty of Peace and Amity between Japan and the United States.

A regular on the U.S.-Japan relations conference circuit in the United States and abroad, Cottingham-Streater spoke with JQ recently to discuss her rich career, advice for today’s JETs, and thoughts about the future between America and Japan.

What initially sparked your interest in Japan?

My father served in the Korean War and spent time in Japan, so I was initially introduced through his recollections of the history and phrases he learned. In 1970, I was an elementary school student and Japan was hosting the World Exposition in Osaka, so my family traveled [there] to attend the expo and experience Japanese culture. As a young person, I was interested in the similarities and differences between Japan and the U.S. We arrived in Tokyo and saw department stores and familiar automobiles, but there were distinct and subtle differences, such as language spoken and [the] size of automobiles. I returned home wanting to learn more, so in high school I took an Asian Studies class. As a freshman in college, I took another Asian studies class and then more Japanese studies classes [ultimately leading to a] double major in Asian Studies and Government, with the goal of becoming a lawyer who could build a career involving Japan.

JETAA began in 1989. What was your personal motivation for creating the organization?

I’d had a wonderful and rewarding year in Japan that I didn’t want to end completely when I returned to the U.S. I also wanted to find some small way to repay the generosity I had received from the community and country that hosted me. Before departing Japan, several of us who were not renewing met to explore ways in which we could stay connected with each other and support the program by recruiting others and sharing information about Japan. There were a handful of us who were returning to different parts of the United States so we decided Washington, D.C. should be the central focus. When I returned to D.C., I contacted the Japanese embassy about the possibility of working with them as well as the JET office to hold meetings and build a mailing list.

How many other people did you co-found it with? 

I found four others in Washington, D.C. who had also recently returned. California, New York, and Philadelphia quickly grew shortly thereafter.

Where would you like to see JETAA go?

I’d like to see JETAA build an infrastructure and organize itself in a way that allows the organization to operate as a single entity, with chapters serving the unique needs of local communities in the U.S. and overseas.

Did you have any idea that it would be as large as it is now (52 chapters in 17 countries, over 23,000 registered alumni)? What do you think about these numbers? 

I could not have imagined at the time that the alumni network would reach the numbers it has and be as active. I’m delighted and proud. In the early years, the program was significantly smaller, selecting about 1,000 U.S. participants annually. The Japanese government had a goal of increasing the number of applications and participants to 3,000 and several of us were concerned about how these increases might change the quality of the program and its participants. Thankfully, the program not only continues to grow, but also attract a more diverse and qualified group of candidates.

It’s impressive to see not only the countries and communities from which JET alumni herald, but also the ways in which they contribute to the program during and after their involvement. In my own work, I’ve seen JET alums active in education, public policy and academia. The Japanese government should certainly be pleased with the return on its investment in introducing so many people to Japan. We all have varied experiences, but whether we served in Hokkaido or Hiroshima, we have a common bond and a personal connection to Japan and the communities in which we served. I think this was demonstrated in a tangible way after 3/11, when the JET alumni association and its members rallied to raise funds and volunteer to support Japan in its recovery.

What does your work at the JUSFC and CULCON entail? 

JUSFC is a federal agency providing grants to U.S. and Japanese organizations promoting scholarship and educational and cultural exchange. CULCON is a bi-national panel of prominent public and private sector individuals involved in U.S.-Japan relations and motivated to address ways to overcome obstacles to and promote educational and international exchange. My work involves highlighting the importance of the U.S.-Japan relationship, encouraging individuals and organizations to pay attention to Japan, providing resources to support projects and studies examining issues relevant to Japan and the United States. This involves organizing [and] attending meetings, meeting with potential grantees to offer suggestions and feedback, and collaborating with U.S. and Japanese government officials, peer organizations, and more.

What is the relationship between JUSFC and CULCON? 

CULCON and JUSFC were established at different times to support the U.S.-Japan relationship. CULCON was founded in 1961 by former Prime Minister Ikeda and President Kennedy at a time when the U.S.-Japan alliance was unpopular in Japan and the dialogue between Japan and the U.S. was considered “broken” –in the words of Ambassador Edwin O. Reischauer. CULCON was established to improve the dialogue and has done so for the past 50 years through research projects, symposia and policy discussions. CULCON panelists come from the public and private sector, including the Departments of State and Education. In 1975, JUSFC was established by Congress as an independent federal agency to focus on and strengthen the U.S.-Japan relationship. Congress also established the Japan-United States Friendship Trust Fund to support the Commission’s work. A board of 18 commissioners—12 of whom are CULCON panelists—and a permanent staff of four officers, make grants to non-profit institutions in the United States and Japan for programs of research, education and exchange.

Is your role the same for both? 

I lead for both organizations. As secretary general of CULCON, I work closely with the chairman and other panelists to set the agenda for CULCON’s activities and follow-up on meeting outcomes. As executive director of JUSFC, I inform the U.S.-Japan community—especially, academic and policy organizations in Japan and the United States about funding opportunities. I monitor the current situation in the U.S.-Japan relationship and identify trends and areas of need for greater attention. Both positions require ongoing communication with scholars, students, government officials and policy specialists in Japan and the United States. In both positions, I make every effort to broker relationships that will promote collaboration between institutions and individuals with shared interests.

How does the JUSFC work with the JET Program, JETAA USA, or JETAA DC in any way? 

Recently, JUSFC and CULCON have reached out to JET alumni to engage them more directly in the U.S.-Japan dialogue. There is a growing interest among the U.S.-Japan community to support the next generation of people who will be involved in U.S.-Japan relations. We view JET alumni as strong candidates to fill an important role and want to provide introductions and hear their perspectives. I have personally spoken to JET participants prior to their departure to Japan and upon their return, letting them know the range of personal and professional opportunities to be involved. Institutionally, we have invited JET alumni to develop an innovative program, or ways to more deeply integrate their community with the goals and mission of JUSFC and CULCON.

If anyone is interested in working in a similar field or role as you, what should they know?

I always recommend developing strong skills, so one is prepared and marketable. Be open to all possibilities. Every task and position offers a learning opportunity and experience. In addition, it’s important to do your homework, learn the issues and be able and willing to offer your services. Finally, build a network, making no assumptions about who may or may not be helpful to you. There’s something to learn from everyone, and you never know who may make the introduction you need to the person or position that will set you on the course of your desired goal.

[Looking ahead,] I’m curious to know what role Japan will play on the international stage, and who in the United States will be involved in and responsible for managing the United States’ relationship with Japan. Will Japan reform its education system to encourage and support overseas study abroad opportunities? Will Japanese women assume more leadership positions in the workplace? Will civil society organizations be able to grow and thrive?

Without a doubt, Japan is a strategic partner to the U.S. due its geographic location and economic position. In addition to the alliance and economic interests, external considerations in the region, including China’s growth and uncertainty on the Korean peninsula, to say nothing of global challenges caused by conflicts and climate change, bring into question Japan’s interest in these issues and their impact on the U.S.-Japan relationship. I believe it will be important for skilled and knowledgeable individuals to work closely with their Japanese counterparts to address these and emerging issues and thoughtfully manage the bilateral relationship. I wonder who those people will be. Are they current undergraduates enrolled in Japanese studies courses, or graduate students doing research and gaining professional experiences through internships? Perhaps the next generation of Japan specialists includes local journalists covering stories about foreign direct investment in the United States, or recently elected members of Congress whose constituents serve in the armed services. What challenges will they face, and what will motivate them to invest in the U.S.-Japan relationship by studying Japanese, traveling to Japan, hosting Japanese visitors, and understanding the issues?

In all of your Japan-related work, what has been the most fulfilling and rewarding?

I am most fulfilled when I am learning new things, meeting a challenge, or making a meaningful contribution. In my previous position as deputy executive director of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation, I was able to do all of these things. I’m proud of my work directing the Mike Mansfield Fellowships, a unique government-to-government exchange in which US government officials spend a year learning Japanese and a second year working inside the Japanese government. I enjoyed learning about a variety of issues from trade and economics to fisheries management and healthcare regulations, and securing placements in the Japanese government for almost 100 mid-career officials. It was fulfilling to design and implement a program established by Congress to address an important need to build a corps of U.S. government officials with Japan expertise. It has also been rewarding to witness the many ways in which Mansfield Fellows have been able to advance in their careers and actively contribute to the U.S.-Japan relationship during their year in Japan on the fellowship, and in their post-fellowship positions.

I find my new positions fulfilling as I use the skills I developed in previous positions to meet new challenges, such as identifying and cultivating the next generation of global leaders and strengthening exchanges between Japan and the United States. I also continue to learn about resources available for Japanese studies in the United States, and initiatives to promote art and cultural exchange.

What do you see on your horizon?

A deeper involvement with the U.S.-Japan community, and further exploration of ceramics and tea.

Lastly, it seems like your plate is overflowing. How do you relax and unwind?

I practice yoga regularly. It is good physical exercise and helps me develop techniques I can apply to my work life, such as patience, focus, and openness to new possibilities.

Visit JUSFC at http://www.jusfc.gov and CULCON at http://culcon.jusfc.gov.