Telephone Interview
Dr. Leonard J. Schoppa

Associate Professor, Department of Politics
University of Virginia
December 1, 2004

Click Arrow at Right for Topic
Teaching in the JET Program
Undergraduate years
Graduate training at Oxford
Deciding to pursue an academic career
Why study politics?
Publications and contributions to the study of Japan
Latest research project
Japan Politics Central website
Econo-Political Japan during the next decade
Future of Japan Studies in the United States
"The 2006 Koizumi Succession in Historical Perspective." Professor Schoppa's May 31, 2006 presentation for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C.
Click highlighted links and photos below for sound and additional links



RCA: Thank you for taking time to talk with us. First, how did you become involved with Japan?

LJS: I’ve been involved with Japan since the age of one. My parents took me to Japan when my Father began his career as a missionary there. He spent the first two years studying Japanese in Tokyo, so I lived there as an infant. Then we moved to Hokkaido until I was ten years old. I attended a couple of my first years of school at a Japanese elementary school in Hokkaido, and learned to speak Japanese there, and developed a life-long connection.

RCA: Where in Hokkaido?

LJS: We lived in the suburbs of Sapporo. My family moved to an open field that was being converted into a bedroom community. So ironically, we lived in something like an American suburb in the middle of Japan.

RCA: Have you been back since to Sapporo?

LJS: Yes, I’ve been back a couple of times. Once when I was twenty-two, and was a JET teacher in Japan. I had a couple of opportunities that year to go back and see my old friends, and to see what had happened to the community. And then I went again in 2001, when I was in Japan on a Fulbright. I gave a talk up in Hokkaido, and once again reconnected with some old friends. So, it seems I return in twenty-year intervals. [Back to Topics]

Teaching in the JET Program

RCA Tell us about your experience with the JET Program.

LJS: After college I was planning to go to law school. I was admitted to law school, but didn’t want to do that right away. The JET program at that time was known as the Mombusho English Fellows Program. It was about a year or two before they created the program under the name of JET. It ran pretty similarly to what is now very widely known as the JET program. It was a perfect opportunity to go spend a year in Japan. I had been studying some Japanese in college, but was eager for the opportunity to improve and polish my Japanese after an absence of ten years. [JET Program Home Page]

Language is really important, isn’t it, when we study Japan.

LJS: Certainly, and you’ve got to keep working on it. [Back to Topics]

Undergraduate Training

RCA: That’s for sure. Where did you do your academic training.

LJS: My bachelors degree is from Georgetown, the School of Foreign Service. I did an international economics concentration there with Asian Studies on the side.

RCA: Among the professors, was there anyone who was especially influential on your career decisions?

LJS: A professor who taught foreign relations, Professor Umegaki, Michio Umegaki, who later went to teach at Keio. I ran into him several years later when I was affiliated with Keio, in the Faculty of Policy Management. He was a young professor at that time at Georgetown. He pointed me in the direction of the JET program, and wrote me letters of recommendation. He helped show me that there are careers out there where you can pursue this interest longer-term. [Back to Topics]

Graduate Training at Oxford

RCA: And then, you did your graduate work after the JET Program?

LJS: That’s right. Even though I had planned to go back to law school, to start law school upon finishing the JET program, while I was in Japan I applied for a Rhodes Scholarship to go to Oxford. I was lucky enough to get one of those. It allowed me to postpone law school for additional years while I continued to pursue politics and Japan, and finally come to the realization that I didn’t want to do law and that I could be quite happy doing something more interesting.

RCA: Did any of the Oxford faculty influence your career?

LJS: I was studying Japan only as sort of a sideline at Georgetown. But when I got to Oxford to work on what initially what was going to be a masters degree in politics, studying a lot about European countries and European politics, I went to a couple of lectures by Arthur Stockwin, and decided that I wanted to focus on Japanese politics. [Home page of the Nissan Institute, Oxford] He became my mentor when I was a graduate student. He walked me through the processes of doing field work, and organizing a dissertation. I recently had an opportunity to participate in a festschrift volume for him, and to catch up with him just a year ago. I don’t get to see him as often because he’s still over there in England, and I’m over here.

RCA: He must be a terrific teacher.

LJS: Yes. One interesting experience from my graduate years almost turned me off from going into academia. Professor Stockwin organized a book conference which eventually became T.J. Pempel’s book, Uncommon Democracies. A group of collaborators who were writing chapters for that book gathered in Oxford. They included Ellis Krause and T.J. Pempel.

The first time I met those guys, it was so intimidating in a way. I guess I was kind of intimidated by the high-powered gathering that came together there, and the lifestyle of American academic that I was exposed to. So I wasn’t sure that I wanted to do this. But in subsequent years … [Back to Topics]

Deciding to Pursue an Academic Career

I did not immediately go from graduate school into teaching at the college level. I spent a year teaching high school. I had studied Japanese education policy, and I thought I might want to focus on American education and get involved in the policymaking process, or something related to education policy. So, I was not really sure about what I wanted to do. Even after graduate school. It was later contact with people like Ellis, and T.J., and Chalmers Johnson that helped convince me to go into teaching and a professional career studying Japanese politics.

There was one particular turning point. I was teaching high school at San Diego, where I taught Japanese language and social studies at a magnet school. Arthur Stockwin, my mentor, had gotten in touch with Chal Johnson to let him know I was in the area. Chal gave me a call and invited me over to dinner. We had dinner there with Karel van Wolferen and John Dower, who was then at UCSD.

It was really comparing conversation with those guys over dinner with my life as a high school teacher, that made me conclude that I needed to go back into teaching at the university level. I’m very grateful to all of the people who helped shape my career. [Back to Topics]

Why Study Politics?

RCA: You know, it’s hard sometimes to know, but what do you think it was that drew you to the study of politics, as opposed to law, or economics, or some other discipline?

LJS: I guess I had my interest in …. I don’t know if I can say that I’ve had my interest in politics as long as I’ve had my interest in Japan. Growing up there you don’t necessarily question whether that’s something you’re interested in. It’s just something you live.

But my family was pretty political. And when we got to Texas after returning from my Father’s missionary service in Japan, I became interested in American politics. Then at Georgetown I worked on Capitol Hill for a congressman from Texas. So I was interested in American politics and interested in Japan. So Japanese politics was the way to combine those two things. I didn’t actually take any class on Japanese politics as an undergraduate. I kind of put them together later. [Back to Topics]

Publications and Contributions to Study of Japan

RCA: Let’s talk a little about your work, your research and your publications. What do you consider your most important contribution to the study of political Japan?

LJS: You may know that I have two book projects that have counted for most of my publications, both articles and books. The first one, growing out of my dissertation, was on Japanese education policy. It is a relatively specialized topic. And the people who are interested in that continue to consult it. I think it has been influential.

The second book was on U.S.-Japan trade bargaining. There’s a much larger community of people interested in that. Not just people who study Japan, but people who are interested in trade negotiations, bargaining theory, and those kinds of things. I got a couple of articles from that project published in the journal International Organization. That put my work before a little wider audience than the usual Japan scholars. So I would say that second project is the most influential thing I’ve done, up until the current project I’m working on. Once that gets out, I hope it will have a similar effect. [Back to Topics]

Latest Research Project

RCA: Can you say a little about that project?

LJS: My new project goes under the working title “Race for the Exits.” It’s a look at why Japan has not reformed itself to deal with all of its economic and social problems since the 1990s. The argument I develop in the book concerns the traditional system of social protection, reliance on lifetime employment, companies providing a lot of job security and protection from the risks of the economic market place. And women providing unpaid care to family members.

Japan has been able to provide remarkable degree of income security, job security, life security, with a very small state. With relatively small welfare programs. Especially those other than health and pensions. Pretty decently-sized health and pension programs. But for life risks that come up during the working years, Japan has relied almost entirely on this kind of private welfare system.

My argument is that that system no longer works in an era when demographics have shifted, and women want to have more choices, certainly, and in many cases do more than be just the primary care-givers in their families. And where firms are struggling in a much more globally competitive marketplace.

The question I ask in the book is why Japan hasn’t been able to transform this formerly very successful system into one more suited to the changed circumstances Japan operates in now. I build on Albert Hirschman’s exit-voice model to try to explain that puzzle.

RCA: That sounds very interesting. When do you expect it to be out?

LJS: An initial very short and readable version of some of my ideas came out in Foreign Affairs in the fall of 2001. I also have completed a book manuscript which now is under review at Cornell University Press. I hope that project will move toward publication next year some time. [Back to Topics]

Japan Politics Central Website

RCA: You are remarkably productive. One thing I have found very useful is your website, Japan Politics Central. How did that get started? [The Japan Politics Central Webpage]

LJS: I guess it started about the time the internet was getting started. I had graduate students who were quite interested in the web, back around 1996, when it was still a relatively novel concept. They said “You should have a personal website.” And they helped me develop my own website. When they moved on they had to train me to maintain it.

I learned how to do the basics of web authoring comfortably enough that I wanted to do something beyond just a personal homepage. I noticed there was an absence of information in English on Japanese politics.

I started with a site that was composed mostly of links and have been able to add more content over the years so that you can actually find things there that are not available anywhere else on the net.

RCA: Yes. You also include a very unusual and useful database.

LJS: Yes. Folks at a consulting firm in the Washington, D.C. area, known as Dynamic Strategies Asia, had developed this as part of their business model. For a while they thought they could make money on the internet by compiling information about Japanese politicians in a way that was researchable. It turned out that there was not enough of a paying market for this material. They were using the database themselves for their own consulting. That’s what made it worth their time to develop it. But they decided that it was not commercially viable, and that they wanted to make this information available to a more general audience for free. So they donated the database to the University of Virginia about a year ago.

RCA: It’s a terrific resource. We have a link to it on our page, with a brief description. I imagine it requires an incredible amount of work to maintain.

LJS: It is a fair amount of work. I’m trying to get some graduate students to help me with some of the routine maintenance. [Back to Topics]

Econo-Political Japan During the Next Decade

RCA: From your perspective, what do you expect of econo-political Japan in the next decade or so?

LJS: I think it’s going to be an interesting time. One thing that is clear is that the traditional support base of the LDP is shrinking. They continue to rely disproportionately on elderly and rural voters. Both of those categories of voters are shrinking in Japan. They have managed to maintain power lately by making alliance with the Komeito that allows them to win quite a few more seats than they would otherwise – maybe 80 seats in the last election. I think that is the number that I recently saw in a study by Kabashima Ikuo.[article summary, under "Politics"] Those are seats they wouldn’t have won in the absence of support from Komeito voters. So, this is a pretty fragile situation.

Even if they maintain the alliance with Komeito, as the base of support for the LDP shrinks they are going to have a harder and harder time holding off the Japan Democratic Party. And Komeito may see the writing on the wall before that day comes and switch sides. Play the kind of role that the Free Democrats played for so many years in German politics, shifting political power by changing sides.

RCA: Do you see the Democratic Party of Japan becoming increasingly successful with Japanese voters?

LJS: I think so. If we look at the trend line, they are the one party that has been able to gradually build support over several elections. It’s easy to imagine that line will continue upward. I think it depends very much on developments in the Japanese economy, whether the DPJ can continue to build support.

RCA: What about the implications of foreign affairs for the Japanese party system?

LJS: It’s much harder to tell how that will affect the party system. The effects of the economy on voting are much easier to anticipate. It’s clear that Koizumi has gotten ahead of the Japanese public with his decision to send and keep troops in Iraq. He’s one of a diminishing number of foreign leaders who have stuck with Bush’s policy on this.

I think there’s growing support within Japan for Japan to have a larger role in the international community and even to send troops abroad. And even the Democratic Party of Japan supports moves in that direction. So the real question is what happens to American policy in Iraq, whether it turns out to be even more of a disaster, whether Koizumi suffers from that, whether the LDP suffers from that. That’s all very difficult to anticipate. [Back to Topics]

Future of Japan Studies in the United States

RCA: What about the study of econo-political Japan in the United States? Do you see any trends during the next decade or so?

LJS: Well, as you know, our discipline is moving away from area studies, has been moving away for several years. I think that trend, combined with the shrinking economic and even political significance of Japan, is leading more of us to diversify the topics we study. To enrich, is a more positive way of putting it, our scholarship by being more comparative, if we’re comparativists, or looking at China and Korea more if we’re interested in international relations in the region. I personally am trying to do both for strategic as well as, I think, good academic reasons.

RCA: Thank you for your comments and for your time. [Back to Topics]


On May 31, 2006, Professor Schoppa participated in a panel entitled "Considering a Post-Koizumi Japan," sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Click here to view a summary of his oral presentation, entitled "The 2006 Koizumi Succession in Historical Context," in the Japan Considered Occasional Papers series.