An American Experience

By: Minoru “Ben” Makihara
Minoru “Ben” Makihara is Chair, Japan CULCON Panel and former CEO of Mitsubishi Corporation.

Minoru Makihara
Minoru “Ben” Makihara with classmates at Harvard

I arrived in the US via Panama Canal in the fall of 1949 to spend a year at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, and then on to Harvard College for another four years.

This was a period right after WWII when Japan was still at its lowest point, but I was deeply impressed by the kindness and generosity of the people in the US.I never had a bad experience because I was Japanese, which in retrospect I think was remarkable.

In retrospect, these five years remain in my memory as the most pleasant and memorable years in my whole life.  Not only while at school was I well looked after, but during holidays I was invariable invited to stay with friends and families, and the bonds established still continue after 64 years.

I always know that I can depend on their frank and open advice, whether about situations in the USA and Japan, or in fact about matters both personal and confidential which one could not expect from other sources.

They have not only helped me in making business decisions, but have been essential in supporting me in my involvement in the relationship between the two countries.  It has certainly broadened my horizon and enriched my life.

I feel strongly that having an experience of living abroad, particularly in your youth, enables one not only to have a more open and global view, but provides a unique opportunity to know about your own country.  And perhaps most important, it provides one to establish friendships to guide you through trials and tribulations.

An Accidental Diplomat

by Kurt Tong
Ambassador Kurt Tong is Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo

Kurt Tong
Kurt Tong with members of the 1982 ICU Soccer Team

Study abroad completely set the direction for my life and career.  In 1981, just as I graduated from high school, I had an opportunity (due to my father’s sabbatical leave) to defer college in the United States and instead come to Japan and study at International Christian University for a year.  The result was threefold:  my soccer game improved; I learned elementary and intermediate Japanese; and the world was spared a mediocre physician as my academic interests shifted from pre-medicine to international affairs.  Later, during a year of language study at the Inter-University Center in Tokyo in 1985-86, I met staff from the U.S. Embassy who helped me find an internship at the Embassy.  As a result, after a short stint with the Boston Consulting Group, I soon found myself forgoing graduate school or the possibility of an academic or journalism career to join the U.S. Foreign Service.  This direction was further reinforced by my participation in the Japan-America Student Conferences in 1984 and 1985, where I discussed weighty world affairs with Japanese friends, and – most important – met my future spouse.  Without these study abroad experiences, I imagine that instead of my current work I would be living somewhere in rural New England, raising livestock and treating the mumps and skiing injuries.

Even if people studying abroad do not end up having career and life direction-setting experiences, like I did, they still almost always have experiences that inexorably alter their view of the world and their place in it.  As Atticus Finch said in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view — until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”  In an increasing round and global world, international experience is irreplaceable, and study abroad is among the most profound forms of international experience.  I have numerous friends from the Japan-America Student Conference whose day-to-day work and life has little to do with Japan, but who readily explain that the JASC experience shaped their approach to life in profound ways.   The fine work of CULCON will not only help strengthen bonds between the United States and Japan — an important goal — but it will also improve lives and mutual understanding even more broadly, both within and between nations.