Every country has its champion promoters, the people who see beyond national boundaries and whose vocation is to build bridges between their country of origin and the world.
The two individuals introduced here are no exception. Both have impressive resumes, but what makes them stand out is a passion for positive change.
Their energy and intellectual curiosity are infectious, and they neither believe in nor accept bureaucratic inertia. They acknowledge that Japan cannot go it alone in global persuasion, and offer specific remedies to help this country overcome a perception of insularity.
Overnight Twitter icon
Noriyuki Shikata made a name for himself when he became the “face of Japan” handling over 50 top-level foreign media requests in the first few weeks after the Great East Japan Earthquake.
He was then deputy cabinet secretary for public affairs and director of global communications at the Prime Minister’s Office. On March 11, 2011, he had about 100 Twitter followers; today he has nearly 18,000.
Shikata’s journey to becoming a policy expert began in his childhood home of Kyoto. The dramatic turn for him came in his senior year of high school, when he lived in the United States as part of the American Field Service (AFS) youth exchange program.
In his AFS application, he said he loved nature and playing basketball, which led to placement in the Ozarks region of Missouri. He attended high school in the town of Diamond, which, with a population of under 800, is also the birthplace of inventor George Washington Carver.
When Shikata arrived in Diamond, he was not particularly good at speaking English. He enrolled in Modern Communications, a course that coincided with the 1980 presidential election, a contest between incumbent Jimmy Carter and his opponent Ronald Reagan. The school held a mock presidential debate, which fascinated him. “That was my introduction to communication issues,” he says.
It wasn’t just communication that he came to value, however. Recognizing and adapting to different cultural dimensions became important to him as well. The popular Japanese TV drama Shogun aired during his year abroad. Shikata’s classmates, heavily influenced by the national stereotypes present in the series, asked him if there were cars in Japan and if samurai still existed.
“At the same time, there was a stereotype on my side about American society,” he says, heavily influenced by Hollywood movies. “American life was reflected in Manhattan, New York, and Hollywood, California. But in the Midwest, many of those classic traits weren’t as prevalent.” He fondly recalls the favorite pastime of his host family—attending the county fair.
Shikata’s experience of rural American life was quite a contrast to Kyoto, but there were also similarities. He saw the famous Japanese work ethic reflected in his host father, who worked in a factory during the week and on his farm, alongside his children, every day. In the Midwest, people had great pride in driving a Ford or General Motors automobile, just when Japanese brands such as Toyota and Honda were entering the US market.
Shikata would later attend Kyoto University and return to the United States to earn a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. His remedy for Japan’s global communication woes is straightforward: Tokyo needs to communicate more with foreign residents living in Japan.
“[Sending more Japanese students overseas] is so important for national interests. Our diplomacy cannot be effectively conducted if we don’t have enough [bilingual] people who can communicate in English, or even better, people who are trilingual in Japanese, English, and Chinese,” he says.
Less talk, more action
Mitsu Kimata embodied the concept of Womenomics before it had a name. A graduate of the University of Tokyo, she has also served as a high-ranking bureaucrat and foreign diplomat, but at a time (1960s–’80s) when it was almost unheard of for a Japanese woman to be seen, much less to shine, in government. Married to a physician, the mother of a physician, and the daughter of a physician, her drive is to resolve what ails society through people-to-people connections.
Kimata has no patience with excess talk and lack of action. After a successful 15-year career in charge of international technical cooperation at the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, she went on to represent the Japanese Mission to the United Nations in the mid-’80s, a position she was granted because there were simply no other qualified female candidates available in Japan’s Foreign Service at the time.
Her philosophy on international relations has been nurtured over time and with great care, like the finest washoku (Japanese traditional cuisine). During her stint at the UN, she vowed to make herself indispensable to at least one or two people from the 150 nations represented. She did this with her famous international dinners hosted in her home. Japan won all 11 of its committee seats during her three-year stint, triple the usual number for any country.
Today she says this same personal touch must extend to the Japanese people. Japan cannot improve its global communications on its own, whether at the corporate or the government level. She believes that, if every Japanese had just one online friend from another country, it would be harder for people to assume, “the Japanese are this way or that.”
After her time in public service, she spent a decade as the founding president of The Body Shop Japan, after receiving the endorsement of Dame Anita Roddick, the UK company’s founder. Later, Kimata established the nonprofit JKSK, which aspires to empower women and leads volunteer tours to the Tohoku region.
Her life’s motto, based on advice her father instilled early on, is, “Be positive. Don’t rely on other people. Become a person other people can rely on.”
Kimata says that despite Japan’s stated need to boost global ties, not enough Japanese have visited other countries or shaken the hand of a foreign person. There is a weak international connection at the most interpersonal level.
“Japan shows a high degree of exclusivity, and does not include a widely supportable religion or ideology, and therefore it is difficult to communicate the culture to people of other societies and to build cultural connections,” she said.
Her greatest hope is for educated women to take the lead. “We have a past of leaving things up to men, but we must put a period at the end of this history of underutilizing women’s talents, power, energy, and sensitivity, and work vigorously toward realizing a 50–50 society.”
Dr. Nancy Snow is a speaker, university lecturer, and author who has been published in outlets such as The New York Times and The Guardian. She is currently in Japan as a Social Science Research Council Abe Fellow, completing her next book, Japan: The Super Nation Brand.
Japan won all 11 of its [UN] committee seats during [Kimata’s] three-year stint, triple the usual number for any country.