James Kondo’s multi-faceted career spans the worlds of diplomacy, business, geopolitics, technology, entrepreneurship, academia and public health.
He currently serves as Chairman of the International House of Japan (I-House), a non-profit organization established after World War II to expand Japan’s collaborations with countries around the world. Over the years, I-House has championed democracy, freedom, dialogue, and human rights throughout the world. Under Kondo’s leadership, I-House has evolved to address today’s global challenges, including friction between China and the U.S., the rising tides of nationalism and isolation in many countries, increasing wealth disparity, and the new frontiers and dangers of disruptive technology.
Kondo previously served as Chairman of Twitter Japan and Vice President of Twitter Inc., and advised the Japanese government’s Cabinet Office. As a management consultant, he spent fifteen years at McKinsey & Company and has taught at institutions including the University of Tokyo, Keio University, and Hitotsubashi University. He co-founded two Japan-focused think tanks—The Asia Pacific Initiative and the Health and Global Policy Institute—which promote global cooperation and international wellness, respectively.
NichiBei Connect recently spoke with Kondo about guiding I-House to meet the current moment, the power of mentorship for ambitious people of all ages, and how multi-disciplinary thinkers can reshape the world.
Where did you spend most of your time growing up?
I was born in New York because my father’s work took my parents there. When I was three, my family came back to Japan and then from ages nine to fifteen, I was in the U.K. My mother was an English literature professor and had a romantic notion of sending a son to a British boarding school—and as the second, dispensable son [laughs] I was sent there for about six years. Then I was back in Japan in high school, and I split college between three years at Keio University in Tokyo and one year at Brown University in Rhode Island. During my time at Brown, I used to drive up to Boston often and loved the area. I returned to Boston twice, once to study at Harvard Business School under the sponsorship of McKinsey, and later to help launch an AI lab at MIT Media Lab with funding from Twitter.
How did your time at Brown compare to your education in Japan and the U.K.?
It ended up being one of the most enlightening years of my life, but not in a way I was expecting. My parents always went for classic, somewhat conservative choices in their schools—when the opportunity came up for me to study at Brown as an exchange student from Keio, it seemed like a continuation, as Brown is one of the older Ivy League schools. I did not realize that it was the Berkeley of the east coast! Brown was completely different from the boys’ schools I attended in the U.K. and Japan, both of which were traditional, conservative, and had aspects to them that were great, but also aspects that were actually quite troubling. Brown was filled with super progressive people, which was very new to me.
Though I was born in the U.S., that year was my first time living there as an adult and it exposed me to the idea that individuals can shape a society. It also taught me a lot about working for the underprivileged—at the time, Brown had huge pushes on expanding Latino studies and was very active in LGBT rights. It combined to be the biggest change I’d encountered in my life up to that point.
My experience at Brown shaped what I believed was possible. To this day, I still think that’s one thing that’s truly inspiring about the U.S.—this core idea that you can make society better if you participate and fight for inclusion. Those general ideas, which have stayed with me, stem from that time at Brown. I owe that university a lot.
Has mentorship played a big role in your life?
I’ve been fortunate to have many very important mentors and I believe in the power of mentorship. Mentors see in you possibilities and potential that you can’t recognize yourself, and they can bring those valuable qualities out in you.
Every time I moved to a new area or encountered new growth challenges, I benefitted from mentors because the wisdom of experience and judgment is something they can provide for a young person. Even today, if I really want to grow, I benefit tremendously from mentors. Everyone should seek one out. It’s a very different relationship from the one you have with your boss—it’s about your growth as an individual, as opposed to what it takes to accomplish the job you’re currently in.
Can you give an example from your life and career?
It may sound strange today, but when I joined McKinsey over thirty years ago, in Asia, consulting was completely new. The notion that young people could come into a company and provide advice to people who’d been in a business for decades was bizarre to me—but I was taught by one mentor at McKinsey that it’s not you providing the advice. It’s the facts that you gather. If you work hard and gather the right information, the facts will convince even the most experienced business people. This was extremely liberating for me to discover as a young person. I was insecure about my lack of expertise on anything, so it meant a lot to learn that, if you work very hard, approach a problem openly, and gather objective facts, those facts can be fresh and convincing. I owe my mentor there a lot. In a similar way to how Brown opened up my perceptions of what was possible, the mentorship at McKinsey opened me as well.
I should also mention that my last two or three professions before I-House—including my work at Twitter and teaching at Tokyo University—have all been driven by younger teammates I’ve worked with in the past. They had moved to those places and pulled me in, so I’ve benefited from younger mentors who thought I could contribute to their projects. With Twitter for example, there was no revenue or international presence at the time, but a friend of mine was the CFO. We had worked together in the past, and he invited me to help him build the company up. I’ve always thought it a privilege to be invited into something new by someone you’ve worked with before, particularly someone who’s younger.
That’s fascinating—we normally think of mentors as people who are older, not younger.
It’s one perspective that we miss a lot. Everyone gives lip service to listening to younger generations and supporting youth, but it can sometimes be a paternalistic view, like we’re still the experienced ones with all the levers to the world. To learn about the future, learning from younger mentors is a better way to go.
Why do you see I-House’s work as being particularly important right now?
We are in a period of very deep geopolitical tensions. When that happens, bridge builders are needed more than ever. There can also be skepticism about bridge builders, because people may want you to take sides.
I-House was built right after World War II to focus on international exchange, mutual understanding, and collaboration towards building a peaceful and prosperous Asia. Fortunately, that work played a part in helping create years of peace and prosperity based around friendship between Japan and the United States. It’s important to make sure that the newer tensions we’re seeing now don’t erupt in the same way we saw in the 1940s.
At I-House, we’ve been seriously revamping our work to not just focus on geopolitics, but also on cultural exchange, sustainability, ways to collaborate around the region. Regional rivalries in Asia are going to be some of the most important issues of the next generation, but existential issues like climate change are key. As an independent international organization in Japan, I-House must do whatever it can to help.
What’s one I-House initiative that you’re particularly excited about right now?
It is called the Commons Project—a collaboration with the Rockefeller Foundation and World Economic Forum. The idea is to create a digital passport for COVID-19 PCR tests and, eventually, vaccination, but to make sure that health data is owned by the individual, not by a major corporation or single government. While people may trust their own government or platform, an American who’s traveling doesn’t necessarily want to share his or her health data with the Chinese government, or with Alibaba. We’re trying to build a global platform and data trust that everyone can use securely. That’s just one way we’re trying to make I-House a “do tank,” and not just a think tank—by building the social good the world needs while being the Japan anchor around it.
What other strategies are you using to achieve those goals?
A place like I-House can be entirely focused, as a non-profit independent organization, on solving issues related to international relations and diplomacy. That being said, we need multi-sector support, and I’m finding newer sectors to be more relevant to our work.
As an example, I-House’s stakeholders were originally academics, diplomats, business leaders, politicians, and some journalists. What we’re finding now is that technologists, artists, designers, and philosophers are contributing to solutions for the broader systemic issues we’re trying to face. To solve the world’s biggest issues, we need all disciplines to contribute. Put another way, no single discipline can solve today’s most pressing issues like climate change, geopolitical tensions, inequality, or nationalism.
That’s an interesting contrast to the traditional idea that you need deep expertise in a field to get anything done.
We grow up in a strange way. When you’re a kid, you’re interested in every idea, every approach. When you grow up, you’re told to focus on a discipline—but at the end of the tunnel, you learn that, because you focused so narrowly, you cannot actually address the issues you cared about. There’s this paradox, and I think the original passion and curiosity we all have is extremely important—and is actually required to solve the problems that humanity needs to face.
Can you elaborate?
By working across disciplines and fields, you develop horizontal insights in a way that those who haven’t pursued several paths find difficult to do. Each discipline or field has its own tribal culture and norms. If you become versed in various disciplines or fields, not only can you bring more forces to bear, you can innovate by connecting things that were not connected before.
If the world were stable, if we didn’t have huge issues, then discipline-specific work would be fine. But the current system is not working and we need people to build new systems. It’s not enough for each discipline to be sub-optimizing. We need people to rearrange disciplines.
Humans are inherently interested in many things, but we tend to believe that we need to park our interests when we’re young and only revisit our original curiosity once we retire. Instead, we should be encouraged to focus the best of our efforts during the prime of our lives. The major issues of our time warrant that sort of attention.
In your own career, how do you manage projects across multiple disciplines?
I’m always a little over-stretched, but one lesson I’ve learned over time is to work with people who I respect, invest in them, allow them to make decisions on my behalf, and trust that they’re making better decisions than I necessarily could. If you don’t trust the people who work for you enough to let them use their own judgment and creativity, you become overwhelmed and your scope gets too narrow. I’ve actually looked towards the movie industry as an example of doing this right.
A film producer works with a completely new cast and crew for each movie. There’s a system in the film industry that facilitates such organization.
Most organizations in other industries are not as fluid for each project, but I’ve always thought the movie model makes sense. By being very conscious of setting up a system of people I can trust, I can now run many, many more projects at the same time—or maybe I’m not even running them! That’s the insight, that it is not actually a vertical command-and-control structure, but a horizontal network of people you trust. I’m connected to every project that I care about and they’re run well through people I trust, without me having to oversee everything.
I came to this realization very late, and through many failures. But I see more and more young people adopting this horizontal view of life. They’re used to fluid organizations and the idea of networks as opposed to hierarchies.
Your biography mentions that you spend free time engaging in Zen, jazz, cooking, and photography. Why those things?
I can do all of those things wherever I am, which is important because I travel so much and have lived in so many different places. I’ve always thought of cooking as magical, and there is a reason why many religions put the notion and ritual of food at the center of their practices. Food brings people together, and nurtures the self and the community at the same time. When I was in business school, every week, I would invite friends over and ask them to each bring one dish made from a family recipe. We would write the menu together and tell our stories about what, for example, our grandmother’s soup means to us. This practice helped me learn about people in a way that I hadn’t expected
What about Zen?
My ancestors were Buddhist monks, so at an early age, I became interested in Zen Buddhism. I started working with a Zen master as an adult. Our work reflects who we are. Most failures are personal failures of judgment. I’ve seen talented leaders fail because they project their personal issues onto their work.
Like Gandhi said, I believe you need to be the change you wish to see. We can’t just deploy technology and policy, and assume that the world is separate from us, because all of our work stems from what is inside us. Ultimately, I feel that I will not be able to bring peace into the world if I can’t bring peace into myself.
International education opportunities clearly made a significant impact on your life. How can international education help young people today?
Studying abroad—and being exposed to other countries and cultures at a young age, when you’re still very agile and not sure what you want to do with your life—encourages people to appreciate different cultures, see different possibilities, and build bridges. It’s also just fun to step away from your old neighborhood and try new things.
Since the world is becoming more nationalistic, nativist, and inward-looking these days, I truly hope that young people in the U.S. and Japan will continue to explore international exchange. The more we can support international learning opportunities, the better.
For more on James Kondo’s inspiring endeavors and initiatives, visit the following links: