Dr. Edward Lincoln is an accomplished educator, author, and expert on Japanese economics. Until recently, he was teaching at Columbia University and George Washington University and has authored nine books and monographs that explore economic theory and practice in Japan and East Asia.

Lincoln grew up in New Jersey. He first became intrigued by Japan via an interest in Japanese trains, and through a romantic connection with a Japanese exchange student in high school. He earned his Bachelor’s degree from Amherst College and, upon graduating, received a fellowship to teach English in Kyoto. He later attended graduate school at Yale University, where he earned an M.A. in economics and East Asian Studies, and a Ph.D. in economics. 

Lincoln’s accomplishments include senior fellowships at both the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations, as well as advising Ambassador Walter Mondale on economic issues at the American Embassy in Tokyo. Before teaching at Columbia and George Washington, Lincoln served as director of the Center for Japan-U.S. Business and Economic Studies at New York University’s Stern School of Business, where he also taught as an economics professor.

As an author, Lincoln has published a wide range of works that examine the nuances and global implications of Japanese economics. His writings include Winners Without Losers: Why Americans Should Care More About Global Economic Policy, Japan’s Unequal Trade, and Japan Facing Economic Maturity, which received the Masayoshi Ohira Award for outstanding books on the Asia-Pacific region.

NichiBei Connect recently spoke with Lincoln about his professional journey, and how lessons learned from Japanese economics can benefit countries around the world. 

How did you first become interested in Japan as a country and culture?

I grew up in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, which was an extremely white town at the time. There were no Asian families, no Black families, maybe half a dozen Jewish families, though I didn’t even know they were Jewish at the time. We didn’t study Asia in school at all. There was very little diversity, and I knew very little about Japan growing up. 

As I was starting high school, I did learn about the Shinkansen [Japanese bullet train] when it opened in 1963, because I was interested in trains and read articles about it. But knowing almost nothing about Japan was pretty typical for people of my generation. The war and occupation were over, and Japan had not yet emerged with a lot of recognizable brand-name products that were known in the United States. 

Something dramatic happened for me on Labor Day evening of 1966. I was a clarinetist and concertmaster for my school band, and we were performing an outdoor concert. During intermission, someone came up to the microphone and said, “We’d like to introduce our foreign exchange student for this year.” She was from Japan and was absolutely the most attractive girl I had seen in my whole life. I won’t share all the details of what happened that year, but she and I have been married for almost fifty years now. She was the origin of my real interest in Japan.

That’s an amazing story. What happened after her year of studying in the U.S.?

It was difficult. I’d met the love of my life, and at the end of one year in the United States, she had to return to Japan. And according to the rules of her visa, she had to stay there for a minimum of two years before returning to the U.S. After she left, we stayed in touch by mail. She went to college in Japan, and I went to college in the United States. I spent four years trying to figure out how to get to Japan and reconnect. In those days, it wasn’t simple. There was no JET program, for example, and there were very few foreigners working in Japan at the time. 

What was your solution?

Luckily, I happened to go to Amherst College, which has a close relationship with Doshisha University in Kyoto. It started with a man named Joseph Hardy Neesima, who had snuck out of Japan in the 1860s, before the Meiji Restoration. He stowed away on a ship, was taken under the wing of the ship’s owner who was from Boston and wound up studying at Amherst. He became a minister in the U.S. after graduating, and decided to go back to Japan and found Doshisha. 

Because of that relationship, one graduating senior from Amherst was given a fellowship to teach English conversation at Doshisha each year and live in an American-themed international house on campus. I was chosen and spent a year teaching in Kyoto, even though I had no qualifications. I just made it up as I went. [Laughs.] 

And you reconnected with your girlfriend?

I did. We rather quickly became engaged and were married in 1972. As we approached the wedding, I began asking myself if there was a way to combine my interest in economics with my newfound connections with Japan. There were a handful of schools in the U.S. that offered that combination and had professors specializing in Japanese economy or Japanese economic history. I ended up going to Yale. 

Why there?

It was luck or happenstance. While I was in Japan, I wrote to a Japanese history professor I’d had at Amherst. I told him I wanted to study Japanese economics in graduate school, and he happened to know a professor at Yale University named Hugh Patrick, who then mailed me information and encouraged me to apply. I was accepted, worked with Hugh Patrick at Yale, learned a great deal from him, and wrote my dissertation on the economics of technical change on the Japanese National Railways from 1949 to 1975. 

It sounds like Hugh Patrick was an important figure for you.

He was a true mentor. He was the one who got me to Yale in the first place and he really looked after me. At one point when I was there, the Nixon administration decided to slash discretionary spending programs including graduate school scholarships for area studies students, even though Congress had authorized the expenditures. Suddenly I had no money! Eventually, the matter went to the Supreme Court, the Nixon administration lost, and funding was restored, but while that was happening, I couldn’t afford to just sit around and wait.

When my funding first went away, Hugh Patrick hopped on a train to New York. He met with representatives from the Sumitomo Group and convinced them to fund a scholarship at Yale for me and one other student. That saved our careers. Needless to say, Hugh Patrick’s support was enormously important for me.

That scholarship got me through graduate school, and I started looking for a job after that. Since my field was Japanese economics, the search wasn’t easy, because there weren’t a lot of opportunities in that specific field back then, especially in academia. 

Where did you end up?

Again, Hugh Patrick was critical in helping me move forward and find a job. He knew someone who recently began running a small organization in Washington, DC called the U.S.-Japan Trade Council, later renamed the Japan Economic Institute. I worked there and followed a largely non-academic route in my subsequent career. 

Before I started working there, the Trade Council had a history of putting out pro-Japanese materials that were ostensibly coming from an American organization, even though the Council was actually funded by the Japanese government. They got into trouble with the Justice Department for doing that a couple of years before I joined – the organization was not registered as a foreign agency, which is required if you’re lobbying on behalf of a foreign government. Under orders from Justice, they corrected the situation and brought on a new president who hired me.

That certainly sounds like an interesting first job out of graduate school.

It was very interesting, and it got me in the door doing something related to Japan in Washington, DC. I stayed there for five years and wrote about all sorts of economic aspects of U.S.-Japan trade relations and investment relations. That’s when I began to realize just how large and important the United States’ economic relationship with Japan was. It’s still a hugely important relationship today. Especially if you’re interested in trade, investment policy, and overall economic relations, Japan remains a very important country to look at. 

How did you first become interested in pursuing a career in economics?

In my senior year in high school, we had a two-week segment on the subject as part of a U.S. history course. Even though it was only a very simple economic theory, I was just blown away. I thought it was really cool stuff. When I got to Amherst College, I signed up for two economics courses my freshman year. The first one was the standard introductory theory course that began to fill out the limited knowledge I had at that point – but the second course really hooked me. It was focused on aspects of the American economy. 

Why did that course catch your attention?

The man who taught it was very interesting. He was on a one-year contract with the federal government to set up the research department at the brand-new Department of Transportation, so he would fly up to Amherst from DC every week to teach. He took the economic theory I had been learning and applied it to the analysis of different sectors in the U.S. economy, which was brand new to me and very exciting. 

Fifty years ago, economics was very much about theory, and applied economics courses were difficult to find. I remember thinking that the theory was great, but what good did it do in the real world? And this professor showed us! I just loved that. His course really sucked me into economics. 

Right now, what do you find most fascinating about the Japanese economy?

Whenever I give a lecture on the Japanese economy, I start by saying, “There’s only one thing you need to know about Japanese economics, and that is demographics.” Japan is the first country in the world to be experiencing a sustained decline in population. The population peaked in 2008, and they’ve already lost 2% of the population since then. Over the next 30 to 40 years, they will lose somewhere on the order of 25% to 40% of the population. Other countries in the world, including China, will be experiencing a similar trend relatively soon. The Chinese population will probably peak at some point in the next decade or so and start declining. Low birth rates are the rule across East Asia. But since Japan was the first to experience this, it’s fascinating to watch. 

Why is a declining population such an important trend to monitor?

It raises a lot of important issues and concerns. If you have a rising percentage of the population over age 65 and a declining percentage of the population under age 16, what are the implications? What does it do to government finances? How do you finance the social security system? How do you finance healthcare? It also matters at corporations. If you have a declining number of bright young college-educated people coming into your corporation every year, that changes how companies perform.  Corporations in Japan are becoming more heavily tilted toward older engineers and older managers. What does that do to companies’ vitality? 

We don’t know the answers yet to many of these questions, but they are certainly worth asking, even for those who don’t work in the field of economics. Demographics influence nearly every aspect of Japanese society. A population that’s aging and shrinking – that’s the story of the day and will be for some time. I’m convinced that it affects literature, film, social behavior, and other aspects of society.  

What can readers do to find their own mentors in the U.S.-Japan space?

If you’re studying a Japan-related field in graduate school, build a strong relationship with your advisor, or with other professors with whom you’ve worked and have some personal chemistry. Professors and advisers can stick up for you and help guide you in the right direction. 

Building mentorship relationships with professors is good for the professors, too, because it helps them attract future students. If professors at certain schools are known to have mentored students who go on to build accomplished careers in the State Department, for example, a rising number of students will want to go to those schools as well. 

It’s also a good idea to reach out to alumni from your graduate or undergraduate program who are working wherever it is you may want to work. They can advise you, send you in the right direction, and offer help.

Your book Winners Without Losers: Why Americans Should Care More About Global Economic Policy makes a compelling argument for prosperity through collaboration, rather than war. 

Trade and investment are good for countries – and we are entering a world in which the gains from engaging in global economic activity are so great that the whole notion of armed conflict over things like control of territory is absurd. In a nutshell, that’s what my book was about, inspired by the example of Japan. We have gained tremendously since the end of World War II by lowering trade and investment barriers. 

Can you elaborate?

Economic growth has accelerated around the world since the war ended, and it’s spread from the initial set of Western European and North American countries to Asia and South America. Africa has started to make powerful economic gains as well. And all of this growth has happened not through armed conflict, but through trade and investment. 

Japan is such a shining example of how important economic ties can be, and how pointless military conflict is. Japan tried using military force to make itself richer and more successful, and it ended in disaster. After World War II, the country took a different route by building connections through trade and investment. Now, they are one of the most affluent nations in the world, with extremely little interest in engaging in international military conflict. Japan is largely a pacifist society, and that paradigm continues to work very well for them. The country has shown the world just how much can be gained by building strong international connections.