JQ Magazine: JQ&A with Matthew Gillam, Senior Researcher at the Japan Local Government Center

“When you come back from Japan, people say, ‘You know Japanese, you’ve been abroad, you should be able to get a job anywhere.’ You soon realize that it doesn’t work that way. Alumni coming back should look at things you did in different light: what did you fundamentally do, and take away from that?”

By Adam Lobel (Nagano-ken, 2000-02) for JQ magazine. Last year, Adam returned to New York after 10 years in Japan, where he researched satoyama (traditional landscape of Japan) as a master’s student, and collaborated with Japanese policymakers in science and technology while working at a think tank. Adam currently helps manage his family’s business, a land use law firm in Manhattan, and looks forward to contributing to New York’s green building movement.

Born and raised in Marshalltown, Iowa, Matthew Gillam was hooked on Japan after visiting when he was 17. After college, he lived in Japan for eight years, and then returned to the U.S., where he completed a master’s at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). Matt has spent the past 14 years as a researcher at the Japan Local Government Center (JLGC), discovering and sharing best practices from local governments in North America with his colleagues in New York and Japan.

By encouraging organizational discipline and providing tools to build strong networks, Matt has helped strengthen the JET Alumni Association, thus helping thousands of JET participants smoothly transition to life back home. He promotes JETAA’s role an important stakeholder in productive business and cultural relationships with Japanese localities, helping broaden the JET Program’s mission long after participants return home.

In this thought-provoking interview, JQ spoke with Gillam about what it was like to study Japanese at the University of Iowa in the 1980s, life in Japan before the existence of JET, and the kindness and hard work JET families displayed in the aftermath of 3/11. He emphasizes that JET—an experiment in grassroots internationalization—has changed how the world thinks about Japan. Matt gave this interview before heading to Japan, where he spent four days with It’s Not Just Mud (INJM), a non-profit volunteer organization based in Ishinomaki.

How did you become interested in Japan?

I was exposed to Japan when I was seven: my sister spent the summer of 1969 as an exchange student in Yamanashi. She fell in love with Japan, and told us about it after returning home. Eventually she went to live in Japan, teaching English at Sony Language Labs. In 1979, just before my senior year of high school, my mother and I went to visit. Before that trip, I never liked to travel. Suddenly, I was in a completely new place. I realized there was a bigger world, and it was interesting. That’s when I fell in love with Japan, its people, food, art and architecture.

After my sister returned to the U.S., she placed a Japanese student in a nearby town. I fell in love with that student, who eventually became my wife. In college I flunked out of forestry, my first major and, looking for something new, got into Japanese language. I did a year abroad at Kansai Gaidai in Osaka, and spent eight more years in Japan after graduating.

How did people react to your decision to study Japanese? What was Japanese study like at the University of Iowa in the 1980s?

Some people did not understand my decision to study Japanese, especially because it was a small Midwestern town. Their reaction was, “Why Japanese?” This was 1982: Japan was just beginning to emerge as a major economic rival, and Japanese culture hadn’t permeated the Midwest yet. It was a strange thing to do.

My sister understood, and my mom understood, but other family members and friends did not. In those days, some people’s reaction to Japan was still influenced by the Second World War: “These people were enemies; I am not comfortable with them.” That only got worse through the eighties with trade friction.

Study materials were primitive by today’s standards: Japanese textbooks by Prof. Eleanor Jorden, a kanji dictionary, and language lab with cassette tapes. Our professor, Thomas Rohlich (now at Smith College) started the same day I did. We had a Japanese teaching assistant from Tokyo, but most of the teachers were white men.

There were no Japanese restaurants or pop culture. Fisher Control, a company in my hometown, employed a Japanese engineer, who had relocated with his wife. At the beginning of my first year of college, there were 30 students, the biggest class they had ever had! That number slowly decreased, until there were only six or eight students by my third year. There were a couple of Japanese students on campus who became casual friends. Prof. Rohlich’s wife was from Kyoto, and she hosted a gyoza party. That was about it.

What were you doing in Japan?

Between 1984 to 1993 I lived mostly in Osaka, with a few months in Kyoto and Kitakyushu mixed in. I taught English and studied Japanese and martial arts (Hakkyokuken); my last two years I worked in an architectural design firm in Kyoto.

How did that lead to your work at JLGC in New York?

After I returned to the U.S., I lived in Chicago for a couple of years, where I got involved in the Council on Foreign Relations (currently the Chicago Council on Global Affairs). At a dinner talk in 1994, I heard Prof. Gerald Curtis from Columbia talk about Japanese politics—and I was smitten. I followed him back to New York, where I studied international security policy at SIPA. In the summer of 1996, between my two years of study, I worked at a local town office in Kagawa Prefecture for two and a half months—an internship run by JLGC. But my plan after graduating was to do intelligence work in D.C. While going through the CIA’s rigorous security clearance process, I read about a full-time position at JLGC through SIPA’s job postings; I sent a very brief cover letter and my resume, and got a call from the executive director a few weeks later with an offer. Right after signing the contract, I found out the CIA rejected me. I am happy I ended up here, because I really enjoy my work, get paid for learning, and contribute to U.S.-Japan relations.

When did you first hear about JET?

In 1987 I heard about JET while I was living in Japan. It was one of many things that seemed to be related to the trade friction going on. Information was limited in those days: it was pre-Internet, so we were lucky if we could get our hands on Time magazine or The Japan Times. At the time, I couldn’t read Japanese well enough to follow current events.

I really learned about JET after joining JLGC in 1998: a SIPA student, who had been a program coordinator in Tokyo, spent a couple of days a week at JLGC working part-time, and was taking care of JET alumni matters. Around 2000, when she was leaving, they gave me those responsibilities. I scrambled to figure out what was going on. Although I wasn’t a JET, I understood the problems encountered trying to transition back to life at home, figuring out what to do with my life, and how to sell my experience. But I had to learn what JET was about, what participants had been doing in Japan, and what alumni needs were.

What work do you do to support JETAA?

When I first took over, I worked hard to strengthen relationships, particularly among CLAIR, MOFA and alumni. Lines of communication were not always good. My predecessor did a good job, but there were things that needed improvement. Once I became familiar with important issues, like the lack of communication among different chapters, poor communication within chapters, and communication issues between chapter officers and our office, I began to ask, “How do you engage members and find activities alumni need and are interested in?” Or, “How do you track your members, build a database, and create lasting alumni association?”

I arranged for a speaker from Columbia’s Alumni Association to talk about these issues, and acted as an advisor for the alumni as they worked to create bylaws for chapters and the national groups. We also worked together to develop the role of JET country representatives as people who (1) facilitate communication to support individual chapters, and (2) take the lead in coordinating relations with the alumni for CLAIR and MOFA. I have also played a role as the institutional memory for JETAA, since it is an all-volunteer organization with high turnover. To foster a sense of continuity, we standardized the process in which current officers groom successors and lead a smooth transition when they step down, including handing over well-kept financial and membership records. Also, we’ve developed awareness that each chapter has a range of members, from new returnees who need career support and events where they can reminisce about Japan, to older alumni with families, who want family-friendly events and opportunities to do volunteer work.

What were some of your career highlights before JLGC? How did working in Japan prepare you for working in the U.S.? What career advice do you have for returning JETs?

Construction work during my gap year of college taught me practical thinking, common sense, and a good work ethic. I worked in restaurants all the way through college. I was an English teacher in Japan, and did architectural design. After coming back, I did sales for Rand McNally, then came out to New York and got this job. I have to say, having been an English teacher in Japan has been an incredible asset. When I was looking for a job it was hard to sell, and I know many people wrestle with this.

I was a poor public speaker, who was bad at interacting with people. My experience as a teacher taught me how to communicate. Understanding how to communicate effectively has helped me work in a Japanese office. Sometimes my colleagues struggle with communicating in English, the way I struggle in Japanese. Abilities I was able to develop as a teacher have been incredibly valuable in my current work.

When you come back from Japan, people say, “You know Japanese, you’ve been abroad, you should be able to get a job anywhere.” You soon realize that it doesn’t work that way. Alumni coming back should look at things you did in different light: what did you fundamentally do, and take away from that? For example, I wasn’t just an English teacher, I did lesson plans, I planned how to teach people, I learned how to communicate clearly, I learned about communication problems, I learned how to hold people’s attention, and present in an interesting way. My top piece of advice: join an alumni chapter, talk to the people, especially the officers, because they have gone through this. Go to jetwit.com, and join the LinkedIn forums. Think about how to package what you’ve done in a way that’s valuable to an employer.

Do you see JET as a vehicle for multiculturalism in Japan? Has JET created a bridge for foreigners to immigrate Japan?

At a talk almost 10 years ago at Middle Tennessee State University, my contention was that JET was a way to internationalize safely. Foreign people come in, impart knowledge and expertise, and go home. JET has been successful in opening up Japan to the world, and getting Japanese used to having foreigners around. This is easier than having to deal with immigration.

I feel JET has been more successful in introducing Japan to the world. You now have people in professional positions around the world that have spent time in Japan, speak the language, and know the people. They can explain Japan, and are sympathetic. Steven Horowitz, founder of JETwit, has elegantly said JET created an expat community for Japan consisting of people who are not Japanese. During the 3/11 disasters, there were 24 JET alums working in the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo. Ambassador Roos’s right-hand man, Matthew Fuller, is a JET alum. JET alumni were in key positions in Washington, Tokyo, and around the world to help deal with this crisis. This network has played an important role in other areas as well. Japan has been able to get itself out into the world through the JET alumni. It has given itself a buffer, so even when it’s not good at explaining itself, there are people who can do that job for them.

Many alumni have interesting careers and are visible, including artists, writers, playwrights, and performers. At JLGC, we see Mombusho English Fellows (MEFs) and JET alumni who are involved with government: Michael Green, Michael Auslin, etc. We don’t have as much interaction with alumni who are in the private sector, but I suppose in the business world there is a similar effect. I believe JET also created an opening for Japanese pop culture. I have talked with JET alumni who came back, and wanted to translate and sell manga, or expose people to J-pop. My feeling is that the alumni who brought back their love of Japanese culture and found a way of selling it here started many of these booms. The magnifier of Japan’s soft power is incredible.

I met someone a few weeks ago who manages a Japanese portfolio for a hedge fund; JET was a launch pad for him.

I am sure there are many people like that. You pick up the language and learn the culture; it’s a great way to get into Japan-related business. For people like me, we approached it cold. It was hard to know where to start: you jumped in, studied what you could in college, and after that tried to find a job teaching English somewhere—maybe spend a year or two—and came home and went into a regular career. It was hard to transfer that experience out. With JET, we try to make people understand that it’s not just English teaching: it’s a government sponsored, highly-selective, professional teaching position.

3/11 was a major disaster, with recovery efforts still underway. How have you and JLGC supported JET participants during this challenging time?

JLGC was involved from that morning; we became the point of contact between families in the U.S. and CLAIR Tokyo in Japan. Prefectures and local governments would communicate with CLAIR Tokyo, who would then relay information to us. Canada accounted for their missing JETs almost immediately. In the U.S., we had many missing JETs, some for days and weeks. We coordinated information, posted it on our website, and conveyed information to Japan.

My goal for weeks was working with these families. AJET in Japan jumped in: Matthew Cook (former chairman of AJET) was great; Michael Maher-King (Smile Kids Japan) leveraged his program to provide support for orphanages in the affected zone; Paul Yoo helped with The Fruit Tree Project.

Over the course of days and weeks, I developed a network in the U.S. with some of the families: Taylor Anderson’s family has been incredible. Some families of missing JETs, who were eventually found safe, developed networks to gather and trade information. Something struck me: I’ve always known that JETs are fantastic, but I learned that JET families are fantastic. When reports indicated a JET had been found, these families would call me to confirm: “He’s safe, but tell the other families to get a hold of us if they need anything.”

Cameron Peek, prefectural advisor in Miyagi, was a godsend. I had no information on the ground, but Cameron would answer my questions. He was on the ground looking for people, and gave me feedback. Steven Horowitz is always there for JETs. His intelligence gathering through JETwit was indispensable. The country reps here worked to put together the relief fund, and chapters jumped on relief efforts instantly.

We then transitioned out from finding the missing JETs and taking care of the families of Taylor Anderson and Monty Dickson (the two American JETs who died in the disaster) into fundraising and relief work. JETAANY jumped in and offered to run the fund as 501(c)(3) non-profit. Other chapters raised money. Jim Gannon, Executive Director at Japan Center for International Exchange (JCIE), who has experience with non-profits, helped put together the fund committee. I participated as an advisor: someone who could communicate with the Japanese government, find recipients for the money, help alumni get the information they needed, and frame the big picture based on my past experiences.

Any thoughts on the future of JET?

The future of JET is something we’ve been dealing with the last couple of years. JET came under attack [in 2010] after major political changes—and ensuing central government reforms—rocked Japan. An alumni movement to save JET emerged as a response: people stood up and said, “Think about this, this is a great program, you can’t just cut this.” They got Secretary of State Clinton to declare that the U.S. values JET.

The consensus is that the central government understands the value of JET. However, the primary reason for JET is bring internationalization to local communities and teach English—a dual role and dual burden. It has done well in the international arena; in the local arena, are English skills better than they were? I think they are, but are they as good as they could be? The program has shrunk due to the amalgamation of localities, and budgets being tightened. Some localities take the cheaper option of going with the private sector. JET costs more, so it is incumbent on us to show that it’s worth more: you’re not just getting an English teacher, but access to a network, to highly-selected professionals. The emphasis now is on continued support of local communities, e.g., getting alumni linked up with their former communities, and finding ways to make use of that connection through trade and tourism promotion. The emphasis is on how to get alumni more involved in supporting local governments.

Aside from sister city relations, we’ve been highlighting JET as a tool for local trade delegations that need people who (1) know Japanese, (2) possess a great pool of expertise, and (3) who can help on local level matters—directly benefiting Japanese prefectures, or state governments here. Success depends on communication, and knowing where JET alumni currently reside. We’re trying to improve communication channels, and the ability to track members, so we can get alumni more involved. For JET to survive, it has to show benefit to the people who paid for it.

To find out more about JLGC and the activities it supports, click here. Visit their homepage at www.jlgc.org.