Diana Newton is an accomplished educator, lawyer and public speaker, and an expert on America’s multi-faceted relationship with Japan. She currently leads the Tower Scholars Program at Southern Methodist University (SMU) and holds the title of Senior Fellow at the University’s John Goodwin Tower Center for Public Policy and International Affairs.

She regularly lectures on topics including public policy, international affairs, and U.S. relations with Japan, Korea, and China. Newton was raised in Pennsylvania and first traveled to Japan as a young teenager in an exchange program; during her trip, she developed a deep friendship with her host family, and fell in love with Japan and its culture. Upon her return to the U.S., Newton studied Japanese language in high school, majored in East Asian Studies at Yale University, and earned her J.D. from Boston University School of Law. She began her law career at a private firm in Washington, DC, before working in several legal positions at the U.S. Department of State and serving in the Executive Assistant/chief-of-staff role to the Deputy National Security Advisor with the National Security Council.

Newton’s career journey has included fellowships at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and the Japan Center for International Exchange in Tokyo, as well as board and committee seats at organizations including the International Center for Transitional Justice and the Japan-America Society of Dallas-Fort Worth. At SMU, Newton played a key role in developing the multidisciplinary Tower Scholars Program and became the program’s founding director. The Tower Scholars Program offers students the opportunity to simulate global policy crises, participate in real-life policy analysis, and learn from experts in the fields of international diplomacy and intelligence. 

NichiBei Connect spoke with Newton about the experiences that launched her towards a successful international career, the mentors who helped her along the way, and the enduring power of the U.S.-Japan relationship.

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

I grew up in a small town outside Philadelphia called Huntingdon Valley and had a pretty typical suburban life. I have to give credit to my parents, who heard about an exchange program that let students live with families internationally for a month. There were four choices—two in Scandinavia, one in Rome, and the last in Nagoya, Japan. Rome sounded amazing, but my parents told me, “We’ll let you decide, but you should consider the fact that you may go to Europe many times in your lifetime. You may never go to Asia.”

And you decided on Japan?

I did and it changed my life. I was thirteen or fourteen and fell in love with the country. It was so different from anything I had ever seen. I loved the art, architecture, history—everything. 

I lived with a very traditional family in Nagoya. They had a big farmhouse and their own rice paddy. My [Japanese] mother made her own soap. They had a garden that we ate out of. I was fascinated by the fact that my host family slept in a tatami mat room, rolled their beds up at night, and put them away. The family had three daughters, and I became very close with the oldest.

How did your interest in Japan continue once you were back in the U.S.?

I started studying Japanese at a Philadelphia public high school that had a language institute on Saturdays. I also had a high school teacher who had served in the Pacific during World War II and taught a history class on Japan. He became a good friend and a mentor. All of those factors converged to keep me interested in Japan. Then I went to college, and I majored in East Asian Studies.

When did you return to Japan?

I didn’t study abroad in college because I’d already been to Japan when I was younger. But I did go back, right after I graduated, with the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme (JET), which was hugely instrumental in helping me form a strong engagement with the country. I was lucky to be given the position of Coordinator for International Relations. I was chosen for that role because I had already studied Japanese.

What did it mean to have that position?

It meant that I didn’t actually teach English. [Laughs.] Instead, I went to rice festivals, seaweed factories, or the fugu factory in Yamaguchi and gave speeches about life in America. 

My presentations were very general, and I remember the Q&As being the best because I could really explain how different things are in the United States. At one point, I spoke at a preschool and a mother asked what Americans eat for breakfast. I said that Japanese-Americans sometimes eat rice and miso soup, but a lot of people eat cereal, and that there isn’t one thing that we all do. People would also ask questions like, “What’s the weather like in America?” My response was, “Northern Maine or Southern California?” [Laughs.] Giving those presentations taught me a lot about how people in other countries can perceive the United States, and really highlighted some of the contrasts between Japan and the U.S. when it comes to homogeneity and diversity.

Where in Japan were you giving these speeches?

I was assigned to a government international affairs office in the southernmost prefecture on Honshu. It was what most Japanese people would call inaka, or the rural hinterland, but even though it was remote, it was such a gift to be assigned to Yamaguchi City. If I’d been in a bigger city, I wouldn’t have had such interesting experiences.

How so?

Because I was stationed in the middle of nowhere, I learned more Japanese. I became friends with more Japanese people. I didn’t have a contingent of other American ex-pats who I could gravitate towards. It was wonderful because I really ended up immersing myself in the experience. If I’d been in a bigger city, or had there been more Americans, I wouldn’t have engaged with the country as powerfully. Another experience that I had by virtue of being in such an isolated area was feeling what it’s like to be a minority. There were plenty of times when I was in a grocery store and a little kid would say, “Mom, it’s a foreigner!” And once when I was walking to work, a man rode his bike off the road because he was so surprised to see someone with red hair living in his neighborhood. That sort of experience can get old quickly. 

But I remember complaining to an African-American JET participant about how a Japanese woman moved away from me on the bus, and this young black woman said, “Welcome to the United States, for me.” That was eye-opening. I knew I needed to remember that conversation and perspective. I never want to make anybody feel the discomfort I sometimes felt as a foreigner in that small town.In spite of those experiences, I felt very warmly welcomed by so many people, including my host family and my amazing boss, who became one of my most important mentors. His name was Mr. Kashibei. We worked very well together, and he helped me navigate Japanese office life—which was good, because I was twenty-two and had no idea what was expected of me as far cultural traditions and norms. I got to know him and his family quite well, and I’m still in close touch with all of them.

Was there a learning curve when it came to working in a Japanese office?

I had been trained by the JET program not to rock the boat when it came to cultural differences, but there were some things I pushed back on. The first weekend I was there, Mr. Kashibei took me into the office and showed me around. He said, “This is your desk, and the office ladies all wear uniforms. Do you want to wear a uniform?” Since he used the verb want, I told him that no, I didn’t want to wear a uniform. He said, “That’s okay. You’re American. We’re going to do this a little differently.” One thing I did give in on was when he said, “All the women come in early. They sweep the floors and wipe off the desks. And they all make and serve the tea.” I remember thinking that felt a little sexist, but I decided to go with it anyway, and it turned out to be a great cultural experience. I learned so much hanging out with the women who worked in the office. But when the JET program announced that my replacement, would be a man, I went to my office supervisors and said, “He’s doing the same job I’m doing, so I assume you’re going to have him come in early, make and serve tea, and sweep the floors.” Again, they told me they’d have to change the way they did things. Everybody made their own tea after that. 

After the JET program, were there mentors who made a difference in your career?

Absolutely. When I came back from Japan, I went to law school, worked at a firm in Washington, DC, and heard about a job opening at the Legal Advisor’s Office at the State Department. I wanted to experience what it was like to work in government, so I applied for the job and learned a lot. I ended up working on an Asia-focused portfolio for Joan Spero, who was Undersecretary of Economic, Business, and Agricultural Affairs at the time. It was only a short-term position, but Joan and I hit it off. She was brilliant, wonderful, and extremely supportive. She encouraged me to do new things but didn’t micromanage at all. A few years later, when I was at the National Security Council, Joan was the one who reached out to nominate me for an International Affairs Fellowship at the Council on Foreign Relations. And that opportunity led me to become involved with the Tower Center at Southern Methodist University, where I teach now. Meeting Joan at the State Department was so important to my career because she continued to have an interest in me even after I stopped working for her. She encouraged me to use her as a sounding board, to call her up from time to time and ask her advice.  I have done that repeatedly over the 25 years since we have worked together.  We currently serve on a board together. 

One other important mentor in my life is Bill Tsutsui, who used to be a Dean at SMU. He was largely responsible for starting the Tower Scholars Program and invited me to be on the committee researching the idea. Bill encouraged me to deepen my involvement and ultimately talked me into becoming the program’s director, which has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. Bill really pushed me to get outside my comfort zone, take on a little bit more, and do something different.  I am so happy to have the chance to work with him again as a commissioner/panelist on JUSFC/CULCON.

What advice could you offer to readers who want to connect with the right mentor in the U.S.-Japan relations space?

If you see people whose work you admire, reach out, tell them, and ask if you can meet up for coffee. People always love to talk about themselves, and many accomplished professionals are willing to talk with people who are interested in their work. I’m always eager to help, because so many people have done the same for me. Even if you don’t know exactly what career path you want, think about who around you acts like you want to act, does things you want to do, or has a level of respect that you want to have. Then spend time with them and ask, “How did you get to this place?” It can be nerve-wracking to reach out to important people, but very few will turn you down. If you’re truly interested in what people are doing, most will love to tell you about it. 

Given your experience as a speaker and lecturer, what advice could you offer to when it comes to public speaking?

Preparation is numbers one, two, and three. Write out your remarks and study them so you don’t have to read them in the moment. I’ve given some bad speeches—they’re always the ones where I waited until the last minute or was too busy to prepare. Keep your remarks short. Only speak for twenty or thirty minutes and then go to the Q&A. Answering questions allows you to connect with the audience which I find is always more fun than just talking.

SMU’s Tower Scholars Program—and the simulations you lead to help students work through real-world policy crises—sound fascinating. What have you seen students learn from these experiences?

One of the most significant areas of growth and learning is how to communicate and work together effectively. The student who’s acting as Secretary of State, for example, may not automatically think about what the student who’s acting as Secretary of Defense will say in response to his or her proposal—so I try to encourage students to discuss their ideas and approaches ahead of time, before any Situation Room simulations begin. Beyond that, they learn about preparation, how to assert themselves in meetings, and how to get their voices heard. There are always going to be over-talkers who are pushier than everyone else. I always have a couple of kids in the class who I have to encourage to interject and make themselves heard in discussions.  It is a learning process that unfolds over the course of the semester for all the students.

What if students feel too scared to try?

I remind them that they belong just as much as the next person, and that everyone wants to hear from them. People who charge down the path thinking they know everything are often missing important details—and quieter students can be the ones to bring that knowledge to the table. 

Diverse viewpoints are so important in every context, and boards of directors in particular come up with better decisions if varied perspectives are represented. You never want group-think, especially at the National Security Council level. So I encourage students to always speak their minds and remind themselves that they belong at the party. They’re never imposters, even if they sometimes feel like ones.  I hope that by the time Tower Scholars graduates they have found their voices and how to use them effectively.

Do you learn from your students during these exercises?

Absolutely, because their perspectives and viewpoints are different from mine. They’re digital natives. They’ve grown up in a world that uses social media in ways that I never will. And they bring fresh opinions to the table with the perspectives of their generation.

What advice could you offer to readers who want to hold government roles like you did—especially when it comes to getting security clearances?

When you’re being checked for a clearance, it’s unlikely that anyone is going to care if you had fun in college. It’s okay to make silly mistakes, like teenagers and young adults often do. But you can’t have significant drug use or criminal acts in your past. I tell my students this all the time—the secret to success is hard work, in my opinon. I come early, I stay late, I’m reliable, and I’m always going to do what I say I will. I may not have the amazing Einstein light-bulb idea every time, but I’m going to work hard to get the group’s project done, whatever our goal is. If you’re that kind of person, I would expect you to pass a background check with flying colors. You’re also going to find mentors who like you, and a career that’s meaningful.

What advice could you offer to readers who want to seek out fellowship opportunities like the ones you’ve been part of?

Fellowships are amazing and there are more out there than you may think. They offer terrific opportunities to pivot in your career and try new things. Winning fellowships comes down to preparation and doing a lot of research. Call up the fellowship administrators and ask to talk to people who’ve been successful. Then reach out and ask what past fellowship winners loved about their fellowship year, or what would they recommend that you include in your proposal. 

Lots of people don’t get fellowships the first time they try. Reapplying shows that you have interest and dedication and increases your chances. Getting a fellowship can be great—it’s like going back to graduate school without paying tuition. You connect with whole new groups of peers, mentors, and leaders. It’s also mentally fulfilling as you explore new ideas and research.

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

The relationship the U.S. and Japan have built since World War II is multi-dimensional and has been important in situations around the globe. Strategically and in terms of security issues, Japan is vital to the United States, especially for freedom of navigation in the Pacific, peace on the Korean peninsula, and balancing China. It’s also vital because America couldn’t find a better friend than Japan. Japan has been there for the United States through thick and thin, and the U.S. has been there for Japan, too. There have been hiccups along the way on both sides, but it wouldn’t be a normal relationship if there weren’t. In a tough world, it’s good to have a friend who you can count on—and the relationship with Japan is a friendship the U.S. should never take for granted.