Dr. Patricia Maclachlan is a well-known Japan expert who teaches, researches, and writes at the University of Texas, Austin. She serves as the Professor of Government and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Professor of Japanese Studies, and teaches courses related to Asian politics, international relations, and political economy.

As a researcher and writer, Maclachlan has authored books on a fascinating range of Japan-related topics; her work The People’s Post Office: The History and Politics of the Japanese Postal System: 1871-2010 examines the legacy of one of Japan’s most powerful social institutions, while Consumer Politics in Postwar Japan: The Institutional Boundaries of Citizen Advocacy looks at how ordinary Japanese citizens organize themselves into influential political forces. Most recently, her writing has focused on the role of agriculture in Japan’s economic and electoral future. 

Maclachlan earned her PhD in political science and Japan studies from Columbia University, and was a research associate in the Program on U.S.-Japan Relations at Harvard University. For several years, she has served as a member of the Japan-United States Friendship Commission (JUSFC) and the U.S.-Japan Conference on Cultural and Educational Interchange (CULCON); her work with these groups has included helping to increase study abroad participation and empowering the next generation of U.S.-Japan leaders.

NichiBei Connect recently spoke with Maclachlan about mentorship, writing, and the vital importance of the U.S.-Japan relationship. 

When did you first become aware of Japan as a country and culture?

I was born and raised in Vancouver, which has a very large Asian population that’s been there for generations. As a young teenager, I became aware of Japan and China because of those communities, and through friends that I made in school. 

What first intrigued you about Japan and make you want to learn more?

My fascination with Japan began through the lens of the piano business. My father was a musician and a small business owner who ran a piano shop—he sold, rented, tuned, and restructured the instruments, and his top seller was a Japanese piano called Kawai. It’s a great instrument, and my parents had one in their home forever. 

As a result of my father’s work, I gained an understanding about Japanese manufacturing, ingenuity, marketing excellence, and product creation. How had the country been able to manufacture pianos so skillfully, and sell them so effectively in a distant market like Vancouver? I wanted to know more.

That was the trigger. After that, I started taking classes related to East Asia and Japan at the University of British Columbia. My interest grew from there. 

How did you decide to combine your interest in Japan with a career in academia?

When I was an undergrad, like many students who study history and politics at the college level, I thought I was going to be a lawyer. But when I started taking courses on Japan and became interested in the country from an academic perspective, I decided to go to Japan for two years to teach English after graduating, instead of going straight to law school. 

I taught English at a YMCA in Northern Hokkaido and spent a lot of time reading and getting to know the country. I traveled all over the place. Among other things, that experience helped me realize that I probably would have made a lousy lawyer.

Why is that?

It became clear during my time in Japan that I always see both sides of a coin, so you wouldn’t want me defending you in a court of law. When I came to that realization during those two years overseas, I also realized that I loved research and writing. I loved learning about new places and I had developed a deep interest in Japan. I recognized that an academic career might be better suited to my personality. So while I was in Japan, I applied to graduate schools. I was accepted at Columbia University in New York City, chose to attend, and never looked back.

Did you connect with any mentors at Columbia who made a difference in your education and career?

All of my professors inspired me in different ways. Gerald Curtis, who’s a specialist in Japanese politics, taught me how to ask the rights sorts of questions about Japan. He was great at finding ways to get to the heart of any matter and truly understand it. His style of analytical thinking had an enormous influence on me. 

Another professor who unfortunately died about a year ago was James Morley. He had been involved in repairing U.S.-Japan relations after World War II, and he ended up being the chair of my dissertation committee. He was the most kindly man you could ever imagine, but he could also ask the most brutal questions. When I was working on my dissertation, he pressed me to explain the choices I was making. His level of rigor was very influential. 

I would also highlight the contributions of Carol Gluck. I never took a course from her, but I spoke with her often and attended every public lecture she gave at Columbia while I was a student, and for years after I graduated. I don’t think she knew I was learning so much from her, but she gave me a great sense of Japanese history. 

In some ways, your career reflects the people who selflessly gave time and advice to support you. Those are just a few of the people who did that for me. 

What advice could you give to young people who are seeking the right mentor in the U.S.-Japan space?

Start early. If you’re going into an academic career, the best time to look for mentors is when you are choosing a school. As an applicant, it’s important to know who you might be working with, should you be accepted to an undergraduate or graduate program. Read some of the works written by faculty members and trust your gut reaction. If your head and stomach tell you that you’ve found someone you can relate to, listen to those instincts as you make your choices.

How can people accomplished in the U.S.-Japan space give back as mentors?

It’s crucially important to listen to students, appreciate their backgrounds, and understand their interests. Too often, we look at students as people who occupy desks in our classrooms, when they come from vastly different life experiences. You can only really understand and help a young scholar if you know the whole person.

To readers who want to pursue careers related to Japan, how important are language skills?

It depends on your area of focus. In fields like economics or political science, you can get by without strong language skills if you work primarily with statistical methodologies. That said, if you’re going into fields like Japanese literature. pre-modern Japanese history or anthropology, good language skills are a must. To truly understand what’s distinctive about Japan, what causes Japan to change, and how that change unfolds, you need to be comfortable working in archives and talking to people directly. 

Are you fluent in Japanese yourself?

I’m functionally fluent. I don’t speak like a native and I never will, and that’s largely because I didn’t start systematically learning Japanese until graduate school. My Japanese has holes in it and I’m constantly having to bring it back up to snuff, which can be both exciting and a little frustrating sometimes.

Are there any aspects of Japanese culture that you love, but that readers may not be aware of?

When I first lived in Japan, I was taken aback at the rituals of public behavior and discourse. When you meet new people, you go through a similar pattern of conversation—you bow at the same time, you exchange business cards. When you write a letter, you always start with certain opening lines about the weather and you inquire after the health of your recipient’s family. There seemed to be scripts for so many areas of social interaction in Japan. When I was young, that grated on me. 

Now, living in the United States at a time when many things are changing so quickly and the future is becoming increasingly uncertain, I find it so reassuring to go back to Japan and slip into those comfortable modes. It’s almost like visiting a temple or church where you know what’s going to be said next. Hearing it makes you feel like you belong, and like there’s continuity and renewal. 

It’s so interesting that I used to find those customs stifling, but now they feel reassuring. It’s a reminder of how tradition can provide important, calming, and fruitful contributions to individuals and to society.

In terms of your writing, what’s new and exciting right now?

I’ve finished a new book with my co-author Kay Shimizu on the reform of Japanese agriculture and Japanese agricultural cooperatives. That project has made me think of other projects I’d like to do about agriculture and food production—not just in Japan, but from a more comparative perspective. I’m very interested in stories relating to Japanese farmers and how, through policy actions, the Japanese government has kept them within the middle class, even as the economy has industrialized. 

This topic raises questions about inequality–about how postwar Japan managed to remain a relatively equal society compared to the United States, Russia, and some European countries, although this has been changing in recent years. What is it about Japan’s policies and social norms that enable it to stay that way for so long? Those are just a few of the questions I’d love to examine in future projects.

How did you decide to write a book about Japanese agriculture?

I’m very interested in how groups mobilize for electoral purposes in Japan, and how they extract concessions from the political system. My first major project as a graduate student was looking at how consumers formed organizations and partnerships with other groups in the policy-making process, and how they worked together to get benefits like safer products, accurate labeling, and so on. 

After that project, I moved on to the postmasters, who have been an extremely influential political group and electoral power in post-war Japan. Postmasters were always compared to Japanese farmers—these were the two biggest interest groups in terms of mobilizing the vote behind the ruling liberal democratic party—so farmers’ associations were a logical next topic for me to study. 

Much of your scholarship seems to be comparative between Japan and other countries. 

My mentors drummed into me the idea that Japan is not unique. When we call Japan unique, we suggest that it’s beyond comparison, that it stands alone and that the tools we use to understand other countries don’t work with Japan. I think that suggestion is false. 

Japan is distinctive, but it is also very comparable to other countries. In the social sciences, we have lots of methodological and analytical tools to help us understand why Japan has such a distinctive mix of norms, rules, laws, and customs. If we look at Japan through the lens of comparative politics, transnational history, and other new methods that are taking off in various academic disciplines, our study of Japan becomes more fruitful not just for Japan itself, but for other countries as well.

When you compare Japan to other countries, do you focus on the U.S. or look elsewhere?

The United States is not always the best country to compare to Japan. Though they have much in common, they are also very different in many ways. When we compare the two countries, Japan often looks more different than it deserves to. In fact, Japan and a lot of European countries are far more similar than Japan and the U.S. when it comes to industrial policies, economic development models, and postal systems, for example.

Can you speak more about the postal service?

In the U.S., the post office isn’t as big a deal as it is in Japan, and the USPS has been losing a lot of credibility. In Japan, the post office is far more than a place to mail a letter. Historically, it has also run the world’s largest bank, Japan’s largest life insurance system, and a variety of other cradle-to-grave services that form a social safety net for the Japanese. There has been nothing like that in the United States. But Britain and Germany have done similar things. 

Are there any topics you haven’t written about yet but hope to in the future?

Given that my interest in Japan began with my father’s experiences selling Japanese pianos, I’ve always had in the back of my mind a project on the historical trajectory and sociological context of piano manufacturing in different countries. It would be wonderful to understand how pianos first became popular in Europe, how the Steinway factory took root in New York, and then how piano manufacturing diffused to Japan, and then Korea China. That would be a lot of fun to research and write about.

What advice could you offer to readers who want to follow in your footsteps and write about fascinating aspects of Japanese history and society?

Try to focus your research and writing on issues Japan is navigating that other countries grapple with as well—look at big trends relating to globalization or demographic decline, for example, or the role of the state in the economy. Examining Japan from a comparative perspective is key, though be aware that this practice doesn’t necessarily make your work any easier. 

All too often, scholars have a tendency to rely only on English-language literature, and overlook writings in Japanese, which is a mistake. It’s important to also look at Japanese scholarship on any issues you’re studying.

I also recommend narrowing the scope of your research so it doesn’t take you twenty years to write a book. One of the joys and pitfalls of doing research in Japan is that the political, economic, and social systems are highly interconnected. Once you start pulling one thread, you realize that a political story becomes a social story, an economic story, even a cultural story. It can be challenging to find out what begets what, so putting boundaries on your topic from the start can be helpful.  

To you, why is the U.S.-Japan relationship important?

Historically, Japan has always been an important partner to the United States, particularly in the context of the Cold War. And although the Cold War has long been long over, Japan remains just as important to the United States. China is a challenge to the U.S. and represents a big unknown for us. We’re not always sure about its intentions. We sometimes feel threatened by its economic and military policies. And in the context of China’s growing power, the U.S.-Japan relationship remains key because Japan can play a balancing role. The Japanese are stepping up to the plate more than ever before to act as a go-between, and to bring the two sides together.

In a broader sense, Japan and the U.S. share common values. Both countries want an open trade system and believe in democracy. Many of the norms that the Japanese hold dear are shared by Americans. So the relationship is important not just strategically, but economically and culturally as well. 

Careers in the Japan field can contribute to the military alliance between the U.S. and Japan, but also to the exchange of ideas, understanding, and culture. Good personal relationships between Americans and Japanese help both sides understand each other better. That may sound like a cliche, but working with CULCON and the JUSFC has made me realize to the core of my being just how much international alliances rely on good, strong connections between ordinary people. That includes students, business people, artists in all different guises, and of course, official government representatives. 

How can readers help strengthen that vital relationship?

There are so many interesting ways that Americans can contribute, even if they haven’t studied Japan at school. The most important way to start is by spending time in Japan. If you’re in high school or college and have the option to do so, sign up for a study abroad program. Find out about any sort of exchange programs that can make it possible for you to visit. Learning about Japan first-hand can be such an inspiring and rewarding experience.