The Kakehashi Project & the US-Japan Relationship: An Interview with Nari Konno

By: JANE SCHOTT

Washington: In December 2017, ten students from SAIS DC took part in the Kakehashi Project, an exchange program coordinated by the Embassy of Japan. Read about Shiyana’s experience of the trip here. Before spring break, Jane sat down with Nari Konno, the Director of the Kakehashi Project, to learn more about its history, goals and impact. That interview has been transcribed here with minor edits by The SAIS Observer.

Nari Konno is the Press Public Relations Officer at the Embassy of Japan in Washington D.C.

Jane Schott is a second year American Foreign Policy concentrator at SAIS who participated in the Kakehashi Project this past January. Before attending SAIS, Jane spent two years working in Yamagata, Japan as an English teacher for the JET Program.

Jane Schott: Would you mind telling us about the history of the Kakehashi Project?

Nari Konno: It started in 2013, and it was initially targeted towards college students. Most of it was sending US college students to Japan for a week, and having them go on a tour of American government agencies, the business community, cultural heritage sites and just have a week-long ‘Japan 101’ experience. And because it did so well, we got really good feedback, the program kept expanding and expanding.

It includes now not just college students but graduate students such as yourself, think tanks, mayors, Asian American leaders, people from business schools, members of Congress. There’s even a program that targets people interested in pop culture. We also did a ‘sports exchange’, where members of karate clubs went to Okinawa, which is where karate started.

JS: How many programs happen every year?

NK: It changes every year, but for the fiscal year 2017 we had 19 set programmes. It’s becoming something for everyone. For example, there are a lot of students in this country who study Japanese.

JS: Yes, I was one of them.

NK: There’s a subcategory of the program that targets students who learn Japanese, so we awarded a place on the program to the winners of Japanese speech competitions around the US. They went in January and did a lot of cultural site visits, and went to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and learned about Japan’s foreign policy.

JS: There are so many students that do study Japanese and really want to go to Japan but can’t because they don’t have the financial means.

NK: it’s surprising to see the number of students who study Japan and love Japan but have never been to the country, so we wanted to give them as many opportunities as possible to do so.

JS: I think it makes such a difference to actually go to Japan, speaking as someone who loves Japanese culture.

NK: Did you do the homestay?

JS: I did, it was fantastic. I didn’t do a homestay on JET because you get your own apartment, so this was the first time. It was a different level of integration that I’ve never experienced before, which was extremely cool.

NK: Everyone says that about homestays. When you get thrown into that environment where no one helps you and you just have to communicate, and just enjoy yourself, you actually do end up enjoying yourself. After a night’s stay, eating raw horsemeat..

JS: Oh yes. Yeah we went to an onsen, and I was a little more used to that than the two girls who stayed with me. Like ‘we’re going to do this and it’s going to be great!’ An onsen is a Japanese hot spring, and you don’t wear any clothes, so Americans are usually a little uncomfortable.

Do most programs have a general focus or a more specific focus? When we went, we studied Japanese energy security, and the George Washington students studied education.

NK: Because it started as a college student program, it was originally a very generalised program, meaning you’d talk about policy, you’d see some business, you’d see some culture. It was more about the soft side of Japan and participants would get this whole spectrum of experience. But as the list of participants expanded, we tried to make it more tailored to the interests of the individuals that are going.

Until last year, the graduate student programmes were much like the college programmes. But it didn’t meet the expectations of graduate students, who have a more professional attitude toward this kind of exchange. They want networking experience, they want new knowledge. And when the trip is so generalised, it just becomes a fun trip and that’s it. You don’t get any concrete, tangible results.

So we tried to rearrange what we do with the grad students. This year, when selecting which students to invite, we had a narrow focus of topics and themes the students had to be interested in. At SAIS, because Dr. Kent Calder had a class about Asian Energy Security, and is such a fan of Japan, we thought it would be good to target the students in that class, with a deep knowledge and interest in energy security, and to plan a trip around that theme. We’re assuming that at least some of the students will continue to pursue the field of energy security, so when they go to Japan, they can meet people in that field, exchange business cards, and hopefully use that leverage in their career.

JS: It’s interesting because two of the people who were on my trip are now looking at careers in energy. One of the girls is going to the Department of Energy, and one of the first years has completely changed his focus – he’s all about LNG and Japanese oil markets.

NK: That’s really great to hear. That’s what I hope people get out of the Kakehashi Project, and if it helps those two individuals to pitch themselves as Japan energy experts, because they’ve been selected on this exchange programme to go to Japan and meet professionals in the field, it might help them with their career objectives. And it would help us to know that a friend of Japan is in the Department of Energy.

JS: What would you say the KP’s core goals are?

NK: It’s building friendship and trust between the two countries. Kakehashi itself means ‘bridge’ literally translated. We want to create a group of people that will serve as a bridge between Japan and the US, and who will help to foster a better understanding between the two countries. They get to see how Japanese people live, and understand the culture that they cherish – we hope that participants like our country!

JS: How has the Kakehashi Project continued to support the US-Japan relationship?

NK: The program itself is only five years old so it would be a stretch to say that it’s been a critical aspect of the relationship, but it’s a part of a long-term effort between Japan and the US to nurture and foster a group of people that really understand each other. People who can be supportive of each other, even in times of difficulty. These people-to-people exchanges can really help countries to either rebuild a relationship, or enhance an already existing relationship.  People-to-people exchanges start from the grassroots, and they have a long-lasting effect in building trust between two nations. And I think the Kakehashi Project can be put in that context.

JS: One of my major goals, after JET and now the Kakehashi Project, is coming back and telling people about Japanese culture. So how can participants best share our experiences?

NK: In the short term it’s very simple – write blog posts about it, mention the programme on your LinkedIn. Just publicise your experience, your discoveries about Japan, how it has helped you in your career.

In the long term, it is my hope that you will build your career around what you heard and saw in Japan. Like the person that you mentioned earlier who wants to join the Department of Energy can bring back her observations and integrate them into her career, maybe working in an office that deals with Asian energy security, and just take advantage of the connections that she built in Japan. Find that business card and contact that person. That’s a really good way to leverage the resources that you’ve created during that one week. And I say this because I think it helps that individual, but it’s also helpful for us to have a friend in the States who has that responsibility.

JS: Ok I have one last question, this is for the SAIS community. How do you apply for a KP, for all the people who will be reading this? I know there were many people who were jealous of me when I got to go to Japan.

NK: This is an invitation-only programme. We selectively choose uniquely qualified students who we think will be appropriate for the programme. It sounds a bit intimidating but our target really depends on where Japan is at at that precise moment, and what we want to promote in terms of policies. For example, this year, because of the Fukushima disaster in 2011 and the debate we’re having in Japan about energy policy, we focused on your group, which was studying Asian energy security. You’ll hear about the trip from program coordinators at SAIS. So if you hear about it and you’re interested, just sign up, and don’t be scared about onsens, don’t be scared about raw horsemeat.

JS: Because it’s delicious

NK: Well yeah it’s delicious, but the experience also sticks with you for the rest of your life. Don’t be stuck in the Washington D.C. bubble – it’s so hard to get out, but sometimes you just have to put aside all the risks you think exist and just go out there.

Jane Schott is a second year American Foreign Policy concentrator at SAIS DC.