ByÂ Alexis Agliano SanbornÂ (Shimane-ken, 2009-11) forÂ JQÂ magazine. Alexis is a graduate of Harvard Universityâ€™s Regional Studiesâ€”East Asia (RSEA) program, and currently works as an executive assistant atÂ Asia SocietyÂ in New York City.
Now, Hill can add another feather to his cap: last February, the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission and CULCON (the Conference on Cultural and Educational Interchange) in Washington, D.C. appointed him has their new chairman. For those familiar with Hill and his history, this appointment comes as no surprise: Hill knows Japan as intimately as he knows America. He began his career there as a Monbusho English Fellow in the mid-â€™80s and then served as a JET in Gifu Prefecture, experiences that helped him to tap into hitherto unexplored entrepreneurial sectors, in particular sports-related infomercials.
Since 2006, his company, Oak Lawn Marketing has been the largest infomercial brand in Japan. If youâ€™ve seen Billyâ€™s Bootcamp advertised there, you have Hill to thank for. Now back stateside, Hill uses his broad background in education, culture, business and non-profits to further strengthen interpersonal understanding between the U.S. and Japan. JQ caught up with Hill at his new digsâ€”asking about life, opportunities and the risks that inevitably lead to his success.
Could you explain your background with Japan?
I developed a passion for martial arts, budo, and Shorjinji Kempo, in particular, during my time at college.Â This passion creates a curiosity and interest in Japan. During the summer of my sophomore year, I spent several weeks imagining my future. One of the books that influenced me at the time was Japan as Number One by Ezra Vogel. Looking around my immediate peers and acquaintances, I knew very few people who knew about Japan or could be considered Japan experts. Yet, many smart and respectable people were stating that Japan and Asia was the next land of opportunity. So I decided to start Japanese language training in my junior year with the intent of finding opportunity in Japan.
How did your time as a Monbusho English Fellow and JET lead to a career as an entrepreneur?
I was an MEF in Gifu Prefecture from 1985-1987 and the first CIR in Gifu during the first year of the JET Program from 1987-1988. As an MEF, I worked at both the kencho and kyoiku center. At the kyoiku center I helped put together teacher training programs for English teachers. In my two years in Gifu, I probably met and helped with training probably almost every junior high school or high school teacher in Gifu. I was also essentially a one-shot teacher. During my two year stint, I visited something like 230 of about 240 junior high schools and high schools, hence my job was more of a cultural ambassador who offered exposure to the English language and U.S. culture.
In 1988, Gifu hosted a regional exposition â€œMirahaiku.â€ Since I also had a desk at the kencho, I was asked by the general affairs division to make the English name for the expo, which I named â€œFuture Watch â€™88.â€Â The English name received a significant amount of press coverage, more from local media and to a lesser extent English language media, but inspired the organizers that the expo should have an international flavor. As a CIR from 1987-1988, some of my main responsibilities was to work for the planning organization for the expo, which was a hybrid of individuals seconded from both business and government. The expo was a great success, and the network of business leaders and government leaders with whom I worked side by side gave me the confidence that I could do business and open doors if I started my own business.
What changes have taken place in the JET Program since when you started and now? Is there anything that you think should be done differently?
The MEF program was focused almost solely on exposure. Since most prefectures [had] only one or two MEFs, our ability to do anything more than exposure and hopefully inspire was quite limited. Teacher training programs offered some additional opportunity, but since communication skills were not part of the test process, teachers viewed communication skills more as something that is useful for travel rather than as a prerequisite for success on the job. The growth in the number of participants has allowed for significantly greater exposure which should translate into more opportunities for in-depth learning.
Certainly, there are many examples of this working well, but the exam system and the focus of what teachers and students get evaluated on has remain unchanged and essentially ignores communicative skills. [These] skills are still seen by both teachers and students as a luxury rather than a necessity. I also believe that the JET Program has not seized the opportunity to evolve. When I came, we were told that the maximum period was two [with a] maximum of three years. I understand today, there are some areas that allow up to five years, but essentially the program is still focused on a finite period. Since one of the goals of the program is to create the next generation of Japan hands between Japan and almost 60 countries worldwide, I would offer two suggestions.
1)Â Â Â Â Â From the English language side, I would offer the opportunity based on high performance for full-time employment. I think any system that does not recognize and reward excellence becomes stale quickly, and creating a stable of motivated, talented Japan hands who are inside the system to make it better would stimulate both the JET participants to do better and their Japanese colleagues as well.
2)Â Â Â Â Work with the Japan business community and other organizations to promote job fairs and exposure to after-JET opportunities on a more strategic basis, while giving JETs an extra year on their work visa post-JET so they can explore other opportunities in Japan.
Could you tell us a little bit about CULCON and how it differs from other organizations?
CULCON is a binational advisory panel to the governments of the United States and Japan that serves to focus official and public attention in both countries on the vital cultural and educational underpinnings of the bilateral relationship.Â Its origins lie in discussion held in 1961 between President John F. Kennedy and Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda.
As an ongoing binational advisory panel, public and private sector participants meet regularly todiscuss ways to promote U.S.-Japan relations, identify timely issues, and respond with innovative solutions.Â These solutions are a direct result of the gatherings and discussions of CULCONâ€™s unique grouping of public and private sector. There is no other organization with the same unique structure and capacity to convene other stakeholders who have the resources and expertise to address and carry out its recommendations.
What are your goals for the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission and for CULCON? How do you plan to achieve them?
The Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission is an independent federal agency.In 1975, the U.S. Congress appropriated the Japan-United States Friendship Trust Fund to be used by the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission for research and cultural, artistic, educational and intellectual exchange with Japan. Like CULCON, its goal is to increase awareness about the importance of the U.S.-Japan relationship and help to strengthen it. Through JUSFC funding and CULCON-supported activities, we hope to encourage more artistic and educational exchanges. The Commission also wants to encourage and support legislative exchanges, public policy dialogues and collaborative efforts to address global challenges.
Because resources are limited, we want to promote partnerships between individuals and institutions with common interests and missions. For example, we hope that JUSFC funding can be leveraged to make it possible for grantees to secure new funding from other sources that will make it possible for them to carry out their activities. Another priority is to engage a broader audience and new generation of U.S.-Japan managers, including JET alumni. Last year, CULCON collaborated with the U.S.-Japan Bridging Foundation to launch a JET Alumni Association Initiative to help strengthen the JETAA USA network.Â This project is going well and weâ€™re looking forward to working with [more] JET alumni in the future.
Last month, CULCON hosted its fourth summit of U.S.-Japan related organizations. What were the takeaways from this event that JETs should be aware of?
The CULCON-sponsored meeting of U.S.-Japan related organizations offered the U.S.-Japan community an opportunity to hear about the successful outcomes of the Obama/Abe Summit meeting in April and to consider ways to deepen people-to-people exchanges. Participants learned that people-to-people exchanges, especially cultural and educational exchanges, are a priority to both countries; interest in internships for U.S. and Japanese undergraduates is high; and investing in next generation leaders is important. Â Without a doubt, a strong U.S.-Japan alliance depends on friendships established through firsthand experience.
You’ve worked with some important figures in the Japan and East Asia scene. Do you have any particular memorable moments with them?
Over the years I have been extraordinarily blessed and honored to work with many figures from politics to sports to entertainment and, of course, business. While many experiences are memorable, one of my earliest experiences was immediately after I had finished my tenure as CIR in Gifu Prefecture and had returned to the U.S.
One of the projects I had assisted on as CIR was establishment of a sister city relationship between Gifu and Cincinnati. Gifu Prefecture in 1989 decided that they wanted to commemorate the relationship by inviting Pete Rose, then manager of the Cincinnati Reds, to Japan to conduct baseball clinics. They sent a group of Gifu politicians to the U.S. to negotiate the terms and they hired me to accompany, interpret and represent the politicians when they met with Pete Rose at the Redsâ€™ spring training facility. We negotiated with Pete for several days, but he could never remember any of the politiciansâ€™ names, so everywhere we went with him he would only introduce me.
Not only did we meet everyone on the Reds, but we met with managers and players from several other teams. Based on the way that Pete introduced me, many people walked away with the impression that they had met some young kid from Japan who must be really important. Several people whom I met, I ended up doing business with when I started my first business the following year. I share that story because sometimes I almost feel like Forrest Gump, when I look back at all the people I met and have created relationships with over the years. My advice to the JETs is, donâ€™t be afraid to take center stage and be memorable (of course in a respectful way), because these seemingly random relationships or encounters can be the source of great opportunity.
Since your appointment to CUCLON, what has the experience been like working with Ambassador Caroline Kennedy and other distinguished Japanese politicos? What are their goals in working with you, and how might JET fit in?
The basis of CULCON is that grassroots exchange, particularly with a focus on long-term educational and cultural exchange, are the building blocks for a long-term stable friendship and partnership between our two nations. In this sense, there is a very strong sense of shared purpose between Ambassador Kennedy and the Japanese politicos that if we donâ€™t address the issues of restoring interest in young Japanese to study in the U.S. while reinvigorating U.S. youth interest in Japan, the future stability of our relationship is in jeopardy. In this sense, the JET role is profound. To foster interest in our country and to instill the courage to leave Japan to learn and grow is invaluable. Likewise, the JETs are the next generation of Japan hands who will interact and lead the relationship whether in education, business, government, etc.â€¦
What is your metric of success at CULCON?
The recently released recommendations of our Educational Task Force, many of which were adopted almost verbatim in the Abe Administration education manifesto, calls for doubling two-way long-term educational exchange between our countries by 2020, i.e., doubling the long-term exchange students from Japan to the U.S. from just under 20,000 to 40,000 per year and likewise from the U.S. to Japan from 6,000 to 12,000 per year. This is a very concrete goal.
To achieve this goal, however, requires a rippling effect of change, including an increase in short-term exchanges to promote interest, a modification of the school year in Japan to accommodate and harmonize with the international school calendar which begins in September, a delay in the start of the recruiting season to accommodate study abroad, as well as placing emphasis and value on experience abroad and language in the hiring process, and an increase in opportunities related to Japan and Asia for globally prepared bi-cultural young people from both Japanese and multi-national corporations. There are many exciting things happening in Japan, in the Japan-U.S. relationship, and how Japan and the U.S. are in a position to lead the pivot towards Asia. CULCON can contribute to this pivot by achieving our numeric target, which will ensure a strong growth in Japan hands for the future.
As a foreigner, what kind of obstacles have you faced in Japan? Have you found that these have changed over the course of your career? How have you used this to your advantage?
Any minority faces obstacles, even without outright discrimination or prejudice. Particularly in Japan, where so many relationships are defined by either insider or outsider status. Aside from outward appearances, however, I have found that establishing insider relationships in Japan to be less difficult than I initially perceived. Arriving in Japan with several years of experience and a ni-dan in Shorinji Kempo allowed me to enter a dojo and quickly create friendships based on shared interests and values. I have also found that the Japanese proverb ã€ŒçŸ³ã®ä¸Šã«ã‚‚ä¸‰å¹´ã€ (even moss on a rock takes three years) to be prophetic. From business to relationships, it seems that every year increases my or our, in the case of company, credibility. Truly, my experience in Japan [is that] you truly thrive on developing and cultivating long-term relationships and that those relationships are not dependent upon culture or where you were born, but rather long-term commitment. The biggest barrier for entry into Japan is that the time required to gain acceptance and entry is longer and requires greater investment of time or money than in the U.S. or many places around the world. In this respect, I think the founding vision of CULCON was both wise and prophetic.
In a 2009 Japan Times article, you said that many of your projects were successful because it was a bubble economy. Can you elaborate?
My first company focused on education, sports and cultural exchange. I created numerous exchange events, sports events, represented athletes, and worked with several of the organizers of the local expositions which were popular at the time. My point in the JT article was during the bubble years almost every organization, particularly local governments, had excess funds and a tremendous appetite and confidence to try new things. While the height of the bubble for corporations was the late â€™80s, from a tax perspective and availability of budget, the early â€™90s was the most aggressive time for local governments, many of whom wanted to engage in international exchange. My starting my business in this field in January of 1990 was extraordinarily timely, and by starting the business in Nagoya, I essentially had no competition.
So for several years I was a genius, feeling like I could sell almost any idea. But when the money dried up around 1993-94 after the bubble burst, it was like an immediate transition from genius to Â idiot, going from being able to sell almost any idea to essentially being unable to sell any idea. As an entrepreneur, I was able to recognize and address a need. Unfortunately, the sustained viability was only a few years, which forced me to adapt and look for different needs to address. In my first three or four years there was tremendous interest and potential for bringing people and events to Japan; subsequently my focus from about 1993-1997 switched to outbound, setting up exchange programs for Japanese junior high schools or high schools to visit the U.S.
How did you gauge the potential success of a product in Japan?
At Shop Japan, we have a very simple philosophy: there is a reason that products or brands become sustained hits. We believe, and our experience proves, that the emotional trigger points that drive consumer behavior cross cultures and borders. We are not looking for what is unique to Japan, but rather for shared concerns or complexes that affect large groups. Sleeping, fitness, skin care, cleaning and healthy eating are not issues unique to any country. Our experience is that in Japan the messaging is often overly focused on product features or capabilities rather than on the why the product solves a problem.
When we can effectively communicate a problem with an aspirational solution, we have generated consistent growth. By staying customer-focused and on providing solutions rather than a never-ending focus on features, we have found that products and brands effectively cross borders and that a hit in the U.S. has tremendous potential for being a hit in Japan. Of course, quality and service are givens in the Japanese market and we focus on these two areas, but essentially these two aspects are a minimum expectation and not the driving factor in making a product successful.
What types of opportunities are available in Japan now that weren’t available in the past?
By nature, I believe there are always opportunities. Looking at the issues facing Japan, a declining and aging population, increasing global competition and a decreasing number of globally prepared young people, I believe there are a plethora of opportunities to contribute and in the future help lead Japan in engaging internationally, whether in business, education or government. The current Abe administration, large business groups like Keizai Doyukai, and major educational institutions have recognized and are addressing the need for diversity, so I believe there will be a tremendous increase in opportunity for globally prepared young people in Japan with Japan experience, particularly for women and non-Japanese.
Twenty-five years ago I had to start my own business because essentially there was not a market for Japan experts without specific business experience, particularly at Japanese corporations. Similarly, even if there was an opportunity, it was only for a short-term basis, with little to no chance for advancement within the organization. My feeling is that this situation is changing rapidly. A recent survey by the Keizai Doyukai found that over 80% of the members are looking to hire non-Japanese and that they are more interested in non-Japanese who know how to work and succeed in Japan than industry-specific knowledge. [This] means that they are looking at non-Japanese as more of a long-term investment and commitment rather than a short-term rental. In my opinion, this is a paradigm shift and offers tremendous future opportunities in numerous fields for JET participants in the future.
You said you returned to the States at one point because you got â€œtiredâ€ of Japan. What specifically â€œtiredâ€ you? Besides a business venture, what made you return to do work in Japan?
I first came to Japan as an MEF/JET from 1985-1988, approximately 3.5 years. Unlike today, there was no Internet or Skype, international phone charges were extremely expensive, and travel was more difficult and more expensive. Gifu at that time was quite rural, and essentially I was immersed in the language and the culture. While this was great for my language and cultural skills, it was to a certain degree sensory overload. At the end of three years, I was ready to become reacquainted with my American-ness.Â I returned to Japan at the beginning of 1990 because I realized that there was more opportunity for immediate success and growth for me by starting a business and living in Japan. My second hiatus from Japan occurred from the beginning of 1998 through the fall of 1999. One of my Japanese clients had a troubled company in the U.S. and asked me to take over the company to try to turn it around. It was a fun challenge and also allowed me to give my family a chance to spend some time living in the U.S.
Could you tell us a little bit about the transition from private sector work to government?
Since my role with JUSFC and CULCON is appointed and I still have my day job, I donâ€™t particularly feel that I have transitioned to government. There is a very strong and capable staff in Washington, D.C. that handles the day-to-day, so the role of the directors and me is to think about the big picture trends in the relationship and work to establish priorities for the executive director and staff to execute.
What advice would you give to â€œJapan specialistsâ€ today to help them develop professionally?
Obviously I believe there is tremendous opportunity. However, as the discussions about the pivot to Asia and Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations indicate, Japan specialization today is more meaningful in the broader context of how the U.S. and Japan shape and lead policy for the region. While there are certainly U.S.-Japan opportunities, there are even more opportunities from a global perspective. From a pure business viewpoint, there are an increasing amount of Japanese corporations that are strong domestically in Japan, but through M&A and expansion derive more revenue and profit and have more growth opportunity outside Japan. With a declining population of young people going abroad or globally prepared, who are going to be the leaders of these corporations in the future? Where the realm of leadership of Japanese corporations was once Japanese only, we are seeing a quantum shift in acceptance and opportunities for non-Japanese leadership.
What developing sectors hold potential for those Americans who wish to actively use their Japanese skills and knowledge?
I think any sector that has viability outside of Japan holds great opportunity. In education, MEXT wants to double both incoming and outgoing exchange. Obviously for Japanese universities, since the population of young people is declining, getting students from abroad is not only a growth opportunity but necessary for survival. Similarly as mentioned earlier, most Japanese companies, whether AEON, Lawson, Rakuten, Uniqlo, Suntory, etc. through both M&A, as well as expansion, are doing business outside of Japan.Â However, there is a growing need for leaders who can both function and succeed in a Japanese work environment as well as outside of Japan.
With Abe’s â€œthree arrows,â€ Obama’s shift to Asia and the international relations in East Asia, what can JETs do to help shape the future of U.S.-Japan relations?
JET is part of the solution to the diversity problem facing Japan. Stay engaged, look for opportunities and continue to act as ambassadors to your respective countries. Inspire Japanese young people to look beyond Japanâ€™s borders to learn and to live. Continue to develop Japan expertise and search out the opportunities which continue to open up over the next several years. JET has been tremendously successful in developing Japan hands over the last 27 years, but Japan needs our expertise even more today. Finally, I believe that the Japanese government has finally admitted that the current methods of teaching and test English education have failed. The recognition may have been long in coming, but once Japan recognizes a problem it has a tremendous ability to act quickly. Stay optimistic and take more responsibility when it is offered.