Dr. Dennis Yasutomo

Professor of Political Science &
Asian Studies

Smith College, Massachusetts

May 31, 2005


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Early Involvement with Japan.

RCA: How did you first become involved with Japan and Japan studies, Dennis.

DY: I think I grew up being interested in Japanese culture, since I am American of Japanese ancestry. My Father is a “Kibei,” born in the United States and then raised in Japan by his sister. He came back for good to the United States right before Pearl Harbor. My Mother is a Nisei [second-generation American of Japanese ancestry] who visited Japan for the first time only in the 1960s. She is fluent in Japanese. But she learned her Japanese in an American concentration camp during World War Two. As I was growing up, I was exposed to Japanese culture through the prism of a Japanese-American family. An example of the kind of exposure I had to Japanese culture was that, for me, Christmas Day did not have the same meaning for me that it had for others. For me, Christmas Day was the annual “mochi-tsuki,” the mochi-making activity that the Japanese-American community engaged in. They made rice cakes for o-zoni on New Years. So that was my exposure to Japan in this country.

I think that it’s easy to assume that because I am Japanese-American, I naturally developed an interest in Japan. But as a child I don’t think that was the case. I actually resisted studying Japanese language. And in fact my interest in Japan did not start until I was a senior in college.

The turning-point was the summer between my junior and senior years when my parents and I for the first time went together on a vacation and we went to Japan. They were planning to stay there for a month. Once I got there, I guess, there was an attraction and I didn’t want to come back. So, I begged them to let me stay a little longer. They agreed. Then when I came back, the next fall semester I enrolled in first year Japanese as a senior. So, I came fairly late to the study of Japan, compared with many of the college students today.

A lot of people also assume that because I’m an American of Japanese ancestry I would have a natural advantage in the study of the language. To some extent it’s true, when it comes to listening and hearing certain words, and certain types of pronunciation. But any advantage like that dissipates in the first month or two of the first year of language class.

RCA: How did you decide to study politics rather than literature, history, or something like that?

DY: That probably started in high school. I was interested in current events and world affairs. Way back then, before the internet was around, the New York Times published a West Coast edition. I subscribed to it. I think I subscribed to the Sunday edition. I still remember that it used to come a couple of days late, wrapped in plastic. It was extremely thick and heavy. Obviously, I read selectively, probably not very completely. But I loved reading about what was going on in the world.

So when I got into college I majored in international relations at San Francisco State. State had an international relations department that was separate from the political science department. Honestly, I wasn’t interested in Japan at first at all. My original interest was Western Europe, then China, and then Southeast Asia, especially as the Vietnam War escalated. But I stayed with political science and international relations once I got to graduate school.

RCA: So you were interested in politics and international affairs before you became academically involved with Japan.

DY: I think so. I remember taking a class as a senior in high school from a very good teacher, Herbert Altman, if I recall correctly, who tweaked my interest in international affairs. [Return to Topics]

Influence of Undergraduate and Graduate Training and Professors

RCA: How about professors during your undergraduate years? Did any of them encourage your interest in Japan?

DY: Not really. There were a lot of good teachers who taught international relations, and they were good in the political science disciplinary aspects of it. But I can’t say that any one person who really promoted an interest in Japan at the time. I think I naturally moved to it after my visit to Japan between my junior and senior years. Had I not gone, I might not have switched to Japan as a professional choice.

RCA: When did you arrive at Columbia?

DY: Well, I went there via a somewhat circuitous route. Unlike a lot of the students today, I actually went to Japan for a year. I did my study abroad year after I got my B.A. I got my B.A. and headed off for a year to the International Division of Waseda University. At the time it was a fairly small program that was in a building shared by radical students in the Theater Department. So it was a fascinating time to be there. I spent the year there, studied the language and the culture. When I returned I decided I wanted to go on for further graduate study and shifted to Columbia where, as you know, I studied in the Department of Political Science and the East Asian Institute.

RCA: What year was that?

DY: Columbia was 1971. I think we met in 1972.

RCA: That’s right. We were in Japan in 1971-72. What did you find academically related to Japan at Columbia?

DY: What attracted me to Columbia more than other places was the strength of its East Asian studies program, especially its Japan studies curriculum there. As you know, there was a whole cast of characters there on Japan who really attracted me. Especially the person who was my adviser, James William Morley [click here to access the 2005 Japan Considered interview with James Morley]. He, I think, was the person most influential for me at the time. Not only in terms of research, scholarship, and the classroom. But also in the way that he regarded and treated students. He remains in many ways the model for the way I teach and advise my students here today.

But it wasn’t just Jim Morley, but a whole cast of characters -- Gerry Curtis, Herb Passin, James Nakamura, Carol Gluck – on the East Asian Institute side. And a whole list of people in East Asian Languages and Cultures, with Donald Keene, Edward Seidensticker, Arthur Tiedemann, Hershel Webb. And I haven’t gotten to the China people.

This was the other thing that attracted me to Columbia. It was strong in both in Japan and China, with Andy Nathan, Tom Bernstein, and others. When I got there I realized it also was strong in its offerings on Korea. This may sound like name-dropping, but it was a great time to be there and I learned a lot from all of them, whether or not I took their courses. [Return to Topics]

Language Study and Early Field Research in Japan

RCA: Do you remember Columbia sending you to Japan for language study and field research?

DY: Yes, actually I stayed in Japan for three years, a little longer than I should have stayed, doing my dissertation research. Columbia opened a lot of doors. During my three years there I realized how much I enjoyed field work. More than anything else, I enjoyed learning how to do research. I would say that Columbia had a lot to do with approaching people, how to interview, what things to look for, and later, how to write something.

RCA: Did you go to the Inter-University Center during your first year?

DY: Yes, I spent one year at the Stanford Center, when it was in the Noken Building in Kojimachi. That was a terrific experience because they take you from the level you arrive at in the language, and helps you to take off. Then it helps to gear your language ability toward conducting research. A lot of things have stayed with me. Like how to sit when interviewing someone. Those little touches that don’t amount to much now. But at the beginning it certainly put a pattern in your brain about how to approach people, how to interview, and how to draw out the kind of information that you need.

RCA: Where did you affiliate to do your research after you left the Center?

DY: I affiliated with the Institute for Developing Economies, which was perhaps the major institute there that looked at the developing world. My topic was Japan’s policy toward the Asian Development Bank [ADB]. And I was interested at the time in Asian and international organizations, as well as Japanese foreign policy. So this was a research institute. To be honest, I did not think too much about trying to affiliate with a university or an academic institution. I really wanted to affiliate with an institution that did research, but that also did policy-relevant projects. And “Aji-Ken,” as it was known, was a great place to be.

RCA: Have you maintained any of the contacts that you made at Aji-Ken during your initial experience?

DY: Well, a lot of them now are gone. Most of them are gone. But many of the people I became good friends with are still there, and I stay in touch with a couple of them.

RCA: Did they encourage your work and help you find sources?

DY: Yes, certainly. They were a great help with the research and general advice. But, to be honest, at the time I was looking at the Asian Development Bank no one else was working on it. So there really weren’t too many people familiar with the Bank, its operations, and the Japanese role in creating and managing that institution. So, it was an institution that taught me a lot about Asia, development, and many other things. But as far as the ADB went, I had to do a lot on my own.

RCA: Did you return to Columbia or did you start teaching right away after your three-year sojourn?

DY: I went back to Columbia and spent another three years or so writing up, as a research associate, doing both administration and writing up. I finished the thesis in three years, and then went to Japan for another year. During my year in Japan I got my current job.

RCA: What were you doing in Japan after finishing the thesis?

DY: I was doing research for what later became my book on strategic aid. My thesis was on multilateral aid through the Asian Development Bank. And while I was in Japan in the late 1970s, I started to feel quite strongly that bilateral foreign aid, or ODA [Overseas Development Assistance], would become a fairly major component of Japanese foreign policy. So I shifted to bilateral aid during that year. [Return to Topics]

Early Interest in Japan's Role in the Asian Development Bank and ODA

RCA: Let’s talk about the substance and significance of your research. You have written more about Japanese ODA in English than anyone else, and know more about it. How has your perception of Japan’s ODA, and its role in Japanese foreign affairs, changed over the time you have been observing it?

DY: I think it has changed a lot, in many ways. I have to take you back to the 1970s. As you know, I’ve written a trilogy of ODA-centric books [see link at bottom of page]. I’ve tried to cover both bilateral and multilateral foreign aid as it developed over the past quarter-century, or more. When I first started studying ODA in the 1970s there were only a couple of books out on the topic. All of them focused primarily on the economic dimension.

Alan Rix was just finishing his research in Tokyo when I met him. A couple of years later, after returning to Australia, he produced the first major study of the political dimension of ODA. I came after him, focusing on the politics and the political dimension, the strategic dimension of ODA. After that, in the eighties, Robert Orr, Skipp Orr, and others came to the study of ODA and it filled out as a field of study.

But back in the seventies, it was not a very popular topic. Many people felt there was no future in it. I vividly remember meeting with a famous Japanese academic at the time, to whom I went soon after arriving in Japan for advice on my topic, multilateral aid and the ADB. He was very polite and suggested at the end of the lunch that maybe I should do yen revaluation rather than the ADB. It turned out that he had met with you a week or two before, and obviously was taken with your topic.

RCA: He probably assumed I’d never get it done.

DY: Well, you did. And that was the atmosphere at the time. Why bother with ODA or foreign aid? It isn’t worth your time. But while I was there, Prime Minister Fukuda Takeo announced his Manila Doctrine, with one billion dollars for ASEAN projects. He announced in Bonn, at the Bonn Summit, what later was to become a series of ODA-doubling plans that carried on through the 1980s. And it was in the early 1980s that Japan began to conceptualize foreign aid with a more political and strategic tinge to that policy.

At the time, I would have to say that people there were nervous about that fact that I was referring to things like strategic aid. Today, it’s sort of common sense. As you know, ODA has evolved into a full-fledged diplomatic instrument for Japan to pursue national interests. But it wasn’t that way until the 1990s. That trend started, though in the 1970s and the 1980s.

So I guess over the decades I’ve seen a gradual transformation and evolution of foreign aid from an economic policy tool to a more political and diplomatic instrument. And then after 9/11, I think we’ve seen a greater evolution – or, some people might say, devolution – of ODA, in that ODA and Self Defense operations now are coordinated, and in some cases integrated, as in Iraq and tsunami relief operations. So, this is in one sense old, and in another, new.

I’ve tried, in some ways, to get away from ODA throughout my years studying it. But it always seems to come back, or I always seem to come back to it. [Return to Topics]

Speculation on the Future of Japan's ODA Policies

RCA: You have interpreted it in a way that the rest of us can understand. Sticking for a moment with ODA, do you think that Japan’s future use of ODA, after the anti-terrorism concerns quiet down, will continue along that line? Or will Japan return to something more like what most of us thought it was in the 1980s?

DY: That’s a difficult question to answer. In some ways, you might argue that ODA policy has crossed the Rubicon. In the sense that at the time the Japanese government was promoting ODA, its major attraction for many people in Japan was that it was considered to be a kind of substitute for military might. In other words, it showed that Japan could contribute to the international community through ODA, a non-military diplomatic instrument. I think many people felt that ODA substituted for the lack of a military component in Japanese foreign policy.

However, in the past couple of years, we have seen that ODA and SDF [Self Defense Forces] operations have now become integrated. To use Prime Minister Koizumi’s metaphor, these are two wheels of the same cart. You might argue that for the future, if this is the configuration that Japan’s international contributions will take, in other regions of the world, in other countries, in other situations, you see, in a sense, a more traditional balance in Japan’s policies between the non-military and the Self Defense Force components of their foreign policy.

It’s difficult to predict the future, of course. But in many ways it does look like Japan has the potential of coming out of this period with a different kind of foreign policy that we might not have expected ten years ago.

RCA: Do you think that Japan’s ODA policies today are similar to those pursued by the United States?

DY: Again, that’s a difficult question. It can be argued either way. Japanese ODA retains many features that are not like the United States. So, even though it resembles U.S. ODA in some ways, it remains very “Japanese.” On the one hand, if you do look for similarities, you might cite the linking of the strategic uses of ODA with the actual dispatch of the Self Defense Force which does start to look a little like an American aid configuration. I remember talking with a U.S. AID [Agency for International Development] official some years ago, back in the nineties. He said that U.S. foreign aid follows the troops. At the time, he was referring to Bosnia.

Japan has begun to coordinate ODA with the Self Defense Force, I would say as early as the early 1990s, with U.N. Peacekeeping Operations in Cambodia. In fact, you can argue this evolution of Japan’s ODA two ways. You can argue, on the one hand, that there is a continuity here. That Japan has been doing this in an incremental fashion.

With the dispatch of the Self Defense Force to Cambodia there was some coordination of ODA policy, but not integration with SDF operations. 1998 was the first time that Japan dispatched both a JICA [Japan International Cooperation Agency] team and a Self Defense team to Honduras, for hurricane disaster relief. In Iraq you have the integration of foreign aid and the use of the Ground Self Defense Force, back to back. And again, with the tsunami relief effort you have again the coordination of ODA and the Self Defense Force in what the Japanese are beginning to call “seamless aid.” In other words, it starts with humanitarian assistance, disaster relief. Then, move toward reconstruction. And the next stage is development assistance.

So I think there is, in a sense, a greater coordination, not only of aid types, but also aid implementation agencies and the whole aid process. So I do think that in that sense you see both some continuity and some change in the way that Japan is using just ODA. [Return to Topics]

Current Research Agenda

RCA: Let’s talk about your current research agenda and upcoming publications.

DY: I’m currently working on a project that looks at Japan’s diplomacy toward the Persian Gulf region, especially Afghanistan and Iraq. Japan is doing some very interesting things in both countries, things that we don’t know too much about, but things that may have long-term implications for Japan’s future international role.

In Afghanistan, what interests me is that Japan is overseeing DDR, demobilization, demilitarization, and reconstruction. And in Iraq, Japan has stationed the Ground Defense Forces in Samawah, almost 600 of them. The irony here is that in Iraq the military is not allowed to engage in maintaining public security, and is restricted to humanitarian and reconstruction activities. In Afghanistan, civilians are in charge, in part, of the public security effort. These kinds of ironies I find very interesting.

I hope to go more specifically into Japan’s overall diplomacy toward the region, which will include Iran. It started some years ago with my interest in Central Asia. Hopefully, I can draw from Japan’s diplomacy in this area clues to the question that you have been asking about whether Japan’s diplomacy has changed, or whether we see the same old Japan. So, I’m at the early stages of this project, but hopefully I can start getting under way now that the academic year is over and I’ll have time. [Return to Topics]

Establishing a Japan Studies Program

RCA: You are one of the few people who has established a strong Japan and East Asian Studies program at your College. I wonder if you could tell us something about that, and give us a sense of what’s necessary to build a Japan studies program.

DY: Program building, as you yourself know, requires a lot of patience. This has been a long, long campaign to build up an area studies program here. I would say that area studies, East Asian and other areas, is alive and well at Smith. I wish I could take all of the credit for it, Bob. But there are many reasons why we have managed to keep area studies strong here. Many, many people are involved.

I don’t know how idiosyncratic Smith is. First, my Department, the Department of Government, is committed to it. We take pride in saying we offer area studies courses, as well as theory and thematic courses. We like to think of it as a distinctive feature. It always gets put into self-studies and outside reviews. So, I think in a sense it has become part of the identity of the Department.

In fact, when we think about new positions we tend to think about [geographic] areas where we need coverage. In the end, it may not be the main factor in our decisions. But I know we certainly give it consideration. As a result, today we cover Africa, Latin America, Europe, and the Middle East, as well as Asia. Probably one of the advantages we have is that, comparatively speaking, we are a fairly large department for a small liberal arts college. And we also have the largest number of student majors, which gives us a constituency.

But I think in addition, in the late 1980s, Smith made a commitment to inter-disciplinary programs. So, we have Middle Eastern studies, Latin American studies, and, of course, East Asian studies. So, the areas and civilizations the departments can’t cover are covered by these inter-disciplinary programs. Specifically for East Asian studies, the program I now direct, we’ve been making a case for decades that the study of East Asia should be considered an integral part of a liberal arts education. We’ve been saying that it should not be considered separate, distinct, exotic, and peripheral. We’ve argued that the study of East Asia will teach students a lot about other cultures and civilizations, and we’ve encouraged comparative study of the East Asian region.

I know you are asking about the “nitty-gritty” of how to build a program. Some of the keys are, first of all, to have a core group of people committed to building a program and an administration that is supportive, and, frankly, outside funding. I think our last three or four positions have been seeded by foundation grants, and this certainly helps out the College in times of budget difficulties, which seems to be the rule these days, across the country.

So, to make a long story short, program building is a long-term process. It’s taken us over a decade and a half, maybe two decades, to get to where we are now. We also did it by stages. We started by solidifying what we thought were our strengths, which was the study of Japan, and then China. And we were able, I think, to build a fairly solid foundation to study both Japan and China. Many liberal arts colleges are strong in one, but not the other. We feel comfortable offering a good curriculum with both. And, as of 2006 or 2007, we hope to have in place the third pillar of East Asian studies, Korea.

This means we will be able to offer consistently area studies courses on all three of the major civilizations of East Asia. We do teach all three languages. So we are now trying to build on that an area studies curriculum that matches all of this. It sounds, I know, a little like the Columbia model that I mentioned earlier. And to some extent, I think I learned during my years there that to have an effective East Asian studies program, it’s good to have all of these civilizations represented to some extent. [Return to Topics]

Student Interest Today in Japan and Area Studies

RCA: Do you have difficulty attracting students?

DY: No. We do not. Do you mean just Japan studies?

RCA: Well, Japan studies, or the whole business. Is area studies today attractive for high-quality liberal arts students?

DY: Yes. The study of East Asia here is very strong. I think that here at Smith, in some ways we have bucked the national trend. We often hear that the study of China is on the up-swing and that Japan has gone downward in the recent past. But I know that here at Smith the study of China is popular. But Japan has been more than holding its own. So we do have a built-in constituency of interest in East Asia. That never has been a problem. I think that has helped us to build our program. We do have interest; we do draw students who are interested in Asia. And, of course, that helps.

The nature of the student body has changed over the years. Their interest in Japan, for example, has shifted back to not even the 1980s configuration, but maybe even before, to that of the 1960s. A lot of our students are interested in pop culture. Things like manga or anime. These are the things that seem to draw the new generation of students to the study of Japan, whereas when we had the Japan boom back in the 1970s and 1980s, it was for more practical reasons like, how do I get a job with a Japanese company after I graduate?

It seems to be going back to an earlier period, even like in the 1950s, when a lot of the interest in Japan was located in what, at the time, was called the “non-mainstream” sectors of society. Those interested in martial arts, film studies, and Buddhism, and so-forth. But a lot of those things have become pop culture and has become mainstream. So I think we have a fairly solid student interest in Japan. And it’s just a challenge for those of us who teach courses to try to respond to that new generation and not try to present Japan through the prism of our own experience.

RCA: You’ve done a remarkable job there. In closing, I appreciate the support and encouragement that you have given the creation of this Japan Considered project since its very inception. Indeed, before that. I couldn’t have done it without your help, and I do appreciate it. And thanks for your time today. [Return to Topics ]

[Click here for selected books by Dennis Yasutomo]