Dr. Leonard Schoppa has devoted his expansive career to the study of Japanese politics and foreign relations. He currently serves as Professor of Politics and Undergraduate Director for The Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics at the University of Virginia, where he has been a faculty member for over thirty years.

Schoppa first traveled to Japan as a toddler and spent much of his childhood living in Hokkaido with his family. He continued learning about Japan while an undergrad at Georgetown University; after graduating, he taught English in Japan through the Monbusho English Fellows program, which later became the Japan Exchange and Teaching [JET] program. Schoppa earned his doctorate in politics from Oxford University and adapted his dissertation research into his first book, Education Reform in Japan.

In 1990, Schoppa joined the faculty of UVA, where he currently teaches courses on subjects ranging from East Asian international relations to comparative politics and public policy. Schoppa has also served as a Visiting Fulbright Research Fellow at the University of Tokyo and the ICU Institute of Asian Cultural Studies in Tokyo, and served as a visiting professor at Keio University. He has published a wide range of articles and books, including Race for the Exits: The Unraveling of Japan’s System of Social Protection, Bargaining With Japan: What American Pressure Can and Cannot Do, and The Evolution of Japan’s Party System. Schoppa’s most recent research focuses on topics including Japanese housing mobility and fertility rates.

Nichi Bei Connect spoke with Schoppa about the intricacies of Japanese politics—and how mentorship can help forge meaningful careers focused on Japan. 

When did you first visit Japan?

My family moved to Tokyo when I was a year old, and my father began studying the Japanese language in order to become a missionary. We stayed in Japan as a family for ten years. Eventually, my father was posted to a town near Sapporo, in Hokkaido. It was a brand-new bedroom community built on the rice paddies, and everybody else in the town was Japanese. I went to Japanese kindergarten, first grade, and second grade at my local school. That early immersion certainly contributed to my ongoing interest in Japan.

How did that interest in Japan manifest after you returned to the U.S.?

When I was in college, I started to really study the Japanese language. Even though I had been fluent as a child, I spent about eight years not speaking a word of Japanese and forgetting a lot of what I knew. So I re-studied at Georgetown University, and afterwards, went to Japan on the Monbusho English Fellows program. I asked to be sent back to Sapporo, since I’d lived there as a child and thought it would be interesting to visit again as an adult.

Is Sapporo where you ended up?

No, and that was my first experience with Japanese bureaucracy not listening to individuals. [Laughs.] They sent me instead to Kumamoto on the island of Kyushu. I spent a very happy year there teaching junior-high school students, getting to know the country again, and exploring everything as an adult—somehow in my early years, my parents had completely insulated me from sushi, for example. I also discovered the joys of onsen [natural hot springs] and many other wonderful things.

How did you first become drawn to Japan as a career focus?

At Georgetown, in addition to re-learning the Japanese language, I studied international economics and politics at the exact historical moment when the United States was waking up to how Japan seemed to have caught up to—and might even be overtaking—the United States. With the decline of the Soviet Union, Japan was becoming the third leading power in the world, and was just starting to be recognized as a major economic competitor. So I happened to be choosing my career path at a moment when Japan was a topic of major interest. 

Did you know then that you wanted an academic career?

I came out of undergrad thinking I wanted to be a lawyer. I went to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship, and a common path for Rhodes scholars in those days was to spend two years at Oxford, then come back to the U.S. and go to law school. In fact, I was following Bill Clinton’s path—like him, I graduated from Georgetown, went to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, and was scheduled to return to Yale Law School to earn my degree. But somewhere along the way, I started wondering whether I really wanted to be a lawyer.

What changed your mind?

I actually wrote Bill Clinton a letter when he was the governor of Arkansas. I told him I was interested in education policy, but wasn’t sure whether to become involved as a politician, or to study education policy as an academic. He encouraged the latter. I ended up taking his advice, staying at Oxford one more year, and turning my master’s degree into a doctorate. The main additional work I needed to do was to write a dissertation—which became my first book.

What was the topic, and why did you choose it?

I wrote about Japanese education reform under prime minister Nakasone. I was drawn to that subject partly because I had taught in the Japanese public school system while education reform was being debated, 

It was an interesting puzzle. Americans often referred to the Japanese education system as a model, and yet it emerged as one of the top issues in Japan in the 1980s. The prime minister devoted a lot of political capital to trying to change it. I didn’t understand why Japan was trying so hard to alter its education system at a time when the country was doing so well economically. I also didn’t understand why, despite those efforts, Japan’s educational policy didn’t actually seem to be changing.

What were some of the reasons?

The Japanese have a curious tendency to reelect the Liberal Democratic Party [LDP] over and over again. This was puzzling in the 1980s, when the party had been in power for over 30 years, and it’s even more puzzling now that they’ve been in power for nearly 70. When the same party stays in charge, how can that party ever change anything? How do they challenge existing policies if they’re the ones responsible for creating those policies in the first place?

As I wrote my dissertation, I found that there were indeed many parts of the political system that were wedded to the status quo. There were groups of politicians who had devoted their careers to education policy, worked their way up over the years, and felt responsible for the system. Even though those politicians were from the same party as the prime minister—and even though he was making education reform one of his top issues—they were part of a tribe (or “zoku”) that would not cooperate. 

As I did my research, I discovered that many policy areas in Japan seemed to be characterized by similar groups. So my dissertation became an opportunity to talk about how those political tribes developed over many years of the LDP staying in power. 

Do you see those same dynamics still playing out today?

One big change is that the LDP has had two very powerful prime ministers — Koizumi in the early 2000s, and Abe, until he stepped down not long ago. Those two leaders learned how to leverage power within the political system to implement changes. 

Koizumi took on the postal lobby, a group of politicians who were heavily invested in the national postal savings and finance system. That system paid for many public works projects, but even though its main defenders were within Koizumi’s own party, he turned the 2005 election into a referendum on whether people preferred his reform ideas—or those of the old guys defending the status quo. By winning that election, he was able to defeat his opponents on that issue. 

Other politicians since then have figured out how to leverage power in similar ways. It’s a very interesting kind of politics, where debate and resistance comes from inside the same political party, as opposed to ongoing debate between multiple parties. 

Beyond the guidance you received from Bill Clinton, what role has mentorship played in your career?

Everybody who’s had success in academia owes a debt of gratitude to their dissertation supervisor. You just don’t go anywhere without that person’s support. I’m very grateful for the support I got at Oxford from Professor Arthur Stockwin, who read many drafts, and shared his enthusiasm for Japanese politics with me. He introduced me to professors in Japan who became my sources, and they in turn introduced me to key political figures who really facilitated my research. 

What advice would you offer to readers who are looking for the right mentor in the U.S.-Japan relations space?

If you live somewhere that has active public affairs programming, see if there are talks related to Japan that are open to the public. Most events like that are free, and can give you an opportunity to hear people who are involved in the policy field. The hosts are often very influential in Japan policy as well. 

If you’re in DC, a good place to look is the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where events are hosted by Michael Green. They’re always very interesting, and Mike is a great facilitator of discussion. You’ll learn not only from the speaker, but also from the discussion that goes on around the table.

Most of the time, speakers will be open to talking with you after their lectures, so introduce yourself and tell them you’re interested in Japan policy. Public events are a natural entry point at which to catch people, share your business card, and make an introduction. Often you can follow up by email, and you can start to build a collection of experts you can call on later, even if they don’t remember you.

What if you don’t live near organizations that host public events?

Write a letter or email a famous professor. You should never feel bad about doing that. When I was first hired at UVA, I wrote to some of the leading people in my field, many of whom were established at other universities. I told them I was going to teach Japanese politics and asked if they had suggestions for readings I might assign, or syllabi they could share. 

Everybody I contacted was helpful. I collected syllabi from five different people, and that helped influence how I put together my course.

What advice could you offer to readers who want to apply for fellowships and grants related to Japan?

When you’re writing an application, you often have to summarize your project in roughly three pages. Remember that those might be the only pages the selection committee looks at, so make sure that your summary grabs your reader’s interest from the beginning. Help your selecting committee immediately understand why your area of focus needs to be studied, before you jump into describing your methods and ideas.

What are some of the topics you’re researching right now?

A lot of people outside Japan don’t know this, but the Japanese see single family homes like American see new vehicles. Once you drive it off the lot, a car immediately loses value, depreciates steadily, and eventually becomes worthless. The Japanese treat their homes the same way. Most single-family homes are perceived as worthless after about 20 or 25 years. 

I’m studying this phenomenon right now, and how it causes people to see themselves as being unable to move. Since families can’t make money from selling their homes, they have to save up for another big down payment, which can take a very long time. Americans have this idea that they can always move, even if they’ve only owned their home for a short period of time. The Japanese don’t see themselves as being mobile. They’re rooted where they are. 

Where do you think that perspective comes from?

A lot of people think it’s cultural—the Japanese generally have strong ties to the land and to their families, and there’s a cultural tendency towards long commitments. But I think it’s also a product of financial structures that make it impossible to move. I’m very interested in how that lack of mobility affects Japanese involvement in local politics. Many Japanese people spend significant time and energy on civic engagement, and are devoted to their neighborhoods.

Can you offer advice for staying organized while working on large research projects?

If you have experience working with Japan, you know that exchanging business cards is a standard part of meeting people. Especially if you’re conducting research and meeting lots of people it can be overwhelming to keep track of everyone. I recommend coming up with a system to help you store and document business cards when you first receive them. Even if you store your contacts digitally, I also recommend hanging on to the original cards. Especially in Japan, it can be hard to find people’s email addresses on the web, so if you’re trying to contact somebody you met 15 years ago, having old cards can help you find out where to write a letter or send a fax instead. 

Throughout your career, have you often needed to reach out to people you met years earlier?

Yes, especially in my earlier years. It’s easy to underestimate the degree to which people you meet early on will later become important and interesting. A while back, a friend introduced me to a foreign ministry bureaucrat who was thinking of going to Oxford for her graduate studies, and she wanted to know more. We went to lunch and I ended up with her business card. She ended up marrying into the royal family, and is now the Empress of Japan. [Laughs.] That’s just one example.

At UVA, do you have a favorite course that you teach?

I like all of my classes, but I’m particularly excited about a few that I developed from scratch, and at my own initiative. One of them is called Comparative Public Policy and it’s all about puzzles. We introduce theories about why different countries adopt different policies. Students read articles and write papers looking at pairs of countries that approach the same policy differently. They try to understand why the countries have taken different paths. 

What have you learned from creating and teaching that course?

It’s deepened my understanding of American public policy, which often seems more puzzling than Japanese policy, particularly in areas like healthcare. The Japanese have a national health insurance system, but the United States does not. That’s just one way in which Japan is actually a much more “normal” country than the U.S. in terms of advanced industrialized nations. By comparing ourselves to Japan, we can start to understand why the U.S is the way it is.

To you, what makes a great teacher?

The most important thing is to be excited about your subject matter. That daily excitement is infectious. If you’re teaching a subject that deeply interests you—something that you can spend a whole career studying and still want to find out more about —students are going to sense your enthusiasm.

Why is the U.S.-Japan relationship important, and why should people contribute to it through their careers?

At the moment, a lot of people are talking about the rise of China, the China threat, and the Chinese economy. But Japan is the indispensable ally right next door. Japan has been working with China as China has grown in power. We can learn a lot from Japan by seeing how they navigate many of the same challenges that the United States is confronting.

Our current administration in the U.S. has said that Asia is where the future of the world is going to be settled, on topics as varied as climate change, war and peace, and economic prosperity. I agree that the action is in Asia, and Japan is a very important player to support and understand.