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There was no shortage of Japanese pageantry during the welcome ceremony of the 27th US–Japan Conference on Cultural & Educational Interchange (CULCON), held at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Iikura Guest House on June 16.

“Can I confirm we are all aboard the CULCON express?” exclaimed former Japanese Ambassador to the United States Ryozo Kato (pictured above), co-chair of this year’s conference. US Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy, an honorary member, gave a wry grin as her full title was announced prior to making her remarks.

Kennedy, whose father, the late President John F. Kennedy, established CULCON in 1961 together with Japanese Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda, echoed common sentiments in the room by noting the strength and importance of the US–Japan relationship.

“Over the last 70 years, the United States and Japan have built countless bridges of friendship across the Pacific, overcoming differences of language and culture to unite our countries. We have all benefitted from this alliance,” said Kennedy.

A binational, public–private advisory panel, CULCON gained public attention following a 2013 Education Task Force (ETF) report, which found that student exchange numbers between Japan and the United States had dropped significantly during the 15 years leading up to the study—particularly in terms of Japanese studying in the United States. Japan, which once represented the largest group of foreign students at US universities, had fallen to seventh place by 2012.

The ETF prompted a response from Tokyo and Washington, and in 2014 President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe released a joint statement endorsing CULCON’s proposed goal of doubling two-way student exchanges by 2020.

This ongoing effort was at the top of the agenda for participants in this year’s CULCON plenary session, held on June 17 at the regal Mitsubishi-Kaitokaku manor in Shinagawa.

There, Kennedy again reiterated the importance of CULCON’s commitment to education exchange, stating that “demands are changing and the young people of today have different needs and interests than generations past.”

In a message that was read aloud to the plenary committee, Abe stated: “Japanese studies in the United States play a major role [in the Japan–US alliance]. Those studies serve as a starting point to advance towards a profound mutual understanding of each other.”

With emphasis on achieving the ambitious goal set forth by Obama and Abe, numerous follow-up recommendations were discussed at this year’s plenary session.

Actions proposed for the US side included demystifying the student visa process, encouraging US universities to develop non-degree programs for the purpose of exchange, and expanding private-sector support. On the Japanese side, follow-up recommendations called for enhanced and increased government-funded grants for study abroad, improving campus infrastructure to better accommodate international students, and encouragement of grassroots exchanges and early exposure to US culture as a way to incentivize study abroad.

Also on the agenda for the panel—which was co-chaired by Kato and Oaklawn Marketing CEO Harry A. Hill—were discussions surrounding the arts and Japanese language, as well as intellectual person-to-person exchanges.

Kennedy also praised the efforts of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ). “Government cannot meet these challenges alone,” she stated, noting the “groundbreaking and ambitious initiative” by the ACCJ, in its recent plan to provide US-style internships at American companies in Japan to Japanese students who have spent time studying in the US.

“No matter what happens, whoever is going to be leader, the importance of US–Japan [relations] will never be changed,” chimed Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs Shinsuke Sugiyama during his welcoming remarks. Sugiyama was speaking at his first diplomatic occasion since his appointment to the post. “And I do believe that core people are gathered here tonight helping lay that foundation as members of CULCON.”

Thomas Beecher is a Tokyo-based writer and editor with a keen interest in global business.
Demands are changing and the young people of today have different needs and interests than generations past.