Paige Cottingham-Streater leads the Japan-United States Friendship Commission (JUSFC), an independent agency of the United States government devoted to strengthening ties between the two countries. Under her supervision, JUSFC broadens and sustains the Japan-U.S. relationship by issuing grants, developing artistic and cultural exchanges, supporting policy dialogue and expanding educational opportunities.
Cottingham-Streater first became fascinated with Japan after traveling there with her family as a child, and her interest expanded through participation in the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme. She earned a degree in Government and Asian Studies at Connecticut College and studied to be a lawyer at George Washington University; before assuming leadership of the JUSFC, she held a diverse range of public service-related positions including staff attorney at the U.S. Department of Treasury, law clerk at the U.S. Department of Justice, counsel and legislative assistant for New Jersey Congressman Donald M. Payne, Director for the U.S. Japan Project at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, and Deputy Executive Director for the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation.
Nichi Bei Connect recently sat down with Cottingham-Streater to discuss the challenges and opportunities inherent in the multi-faceted friendship between the United States and Japan—and how readers can become part of that vibrant dialogue themselves.
How did you first become interested in Japan?
I was introduced as a young person growing up in New Jersey. In 1970, when Japan was hosting the World Expo and advertised it in the New York Times, my father wondered what Japan was like at that time, since he studied history and spent time there during the Korean War. I was fortunate to have parents who were curious and thought it worthwhile to bring children to a far-off place that not many Americans—certainly not Black Americans—were visiting at the time.
What do you remember about your first visit to Japan?
Being in cities like Tokyo and Osaka felt similar to New York City, which was twenty minutes from where I grew up in New Jersey. But the people in Japan looked different and spoke different languages, and it all made me want to know more.
How did you become interested in a career in law and public service?
I was drawn to law growing up because I was interested in problem solving, and thought that I could be a good advocate for causes I believed in. Originally, my interest was to be in international relations and specifically international law, but I didn’t really know what that looked like, since I didn’t know anybody who did it. I had family members who were lawyers, but not in the international space.
When you were thinking of a career in international law, did you know you wanted to specialize in Japan?
In college, I originally planned to major in French and study abroad in France, because I felt that would set me up for the career I wanted in international law. But I also took an Asian studies class in college, loved my professor and the study, and took more and more classes in the field. My shift to Asian Studies was a disappointment to my French advisor [laughs] but I am satisfied with the decision I made. I also studied government in college and became active in student government—I earned a leadership position during my junior year, which meant I had to make the choice not to study abroad. But as a member of a student government committee, I was able to help push my college to offer language instruction in Japanese, which they hadn’t before.
How did your training in law prepare you for your career in Japan-U.S. relations?
The training gave me the skills I use every day to solve complex problems, and it put me in a good position to advocate for a wide variety of issues. There’s a lot I’ve been able to do with the analytical thinking that a background in law can develop. Studying law gives you important skills that help even when you’re not in the courtroom or actively practicing.
Your current position is very much a public service role, but not one that necessarily calls for a formal law background.
It’s important to know that we all pursue different paths. If you decide to study law, there are many good ways to apply those skills. My decision to study law is one I’ve never regretted, and along with my subsequent work in public policy and public service, it positioned me well. My background in law helped when I began working for the U.S. government, and it also helped when I decided to go all in with Japan and be part of the JET Programme. I found that being a practicing lawyer was a credential that helped me gain acceptance in Japan. When it became clear that I had something to offer, people were happy to engage.
What was your experience with the JET Programme like?
The Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme is over thirty years old and invites people from English-speaking countries to live in Japanese communities and teach English. I was there for one year and it was a wonderful opportunity. The best part was building relationships with my students, peer teachers, and people in my community. I also enjoyed practicing Aikido and learning about the culture through martial arts. I traveled around Japan and it confirmed for me that I was indeed interested in this country, that I wanted to be a bridge between Americans and Japanese, so I could perhaps help Americans know more about Japan through my experience, and vice versa.
Would you recommend JET to Nichi Bei Connect readers?
It’s a great opportunity and I do recommend the program for anybody who wants first-hand experience learning about Japanese language and culture. It can be a challenge, since cultural norms and daily life are different, but you can learn so much about yourself in the process of handling that uncertainty. It also creates a bit of empathy, by reminding us that all humans have similar goals and needs, even if we go about meeting them in different ways. It doesn’t mean one way is right and one is wrong.
Did you face challenges related to being American, and Black, while you were teaching in Japan?
In Japan, there were lots of stereotypes about Americans, and at that time, also about Black Americans. I had to challenge a lot of presumptions that people had. They may have seemed like small matters—even things like me being left-handed, or the assumption that Americans ate hamburgers—but it took lots of long discussions to work through them.
Have you faced challenges as a Black American as your career has progressed?
There’s an assumption that the world of Japanese relations is not a space for Black people. Earlier in my career, I had experiences going into meetings where somebody would say “we’re still waiting on the U.S. government representative”—and the representative was me. It just never occurred to anybody that the government representative could be a young Black woman.
As Black people, we tend to be put in a box that does not include anything international, and certainly not something perceived to be as different as Japan, so it can be uncomfortable. But I can take care of my own comfort, and frankly, I encourage discomfort, since it can be a great growth opportunity. Working with Japan is wonderful. It’s an incredibly hospitable country and, when interacting with people as individuals, I often find that I’m more respected as a professional there than I am in the U.S.
What advice could you offer to Black Americans who want to go into U.S. Japan relations?
A sense of self and competence is really important, and if you have the passion, go for it. Don’t let others define you or dampen your ambitions. Know that there will be naysayers and people who doubt you, but for each of them, there will be cheerleaders to support you. Align yourself and surround yourself with those people. This is one reason why I’m excited about Nichi Bei Connect—since it shares opportunities to find support and see a career pathway—as well as resources like the newly formed National Association for Black Engagement with Asia. Finding people who can share your passion, point you in the right direction, and introduce you to somebody, can be really encouraging.
It’s also very important to build your credentials, so nobody can doubt you. Do the work, have the experiences, study academically, participate in programs, and develop expertise in your field so your credentials can speak for themselves. Strong credentials can help you be accepted—if it’s clear you have something to offer, people are often happy to embrace you and engage.
Was mentorship a big part of your career development?
I found people in my academic and professional lives who were supportive, though they weren’t always in my field. It was helpful for me to be involved as a high-school student in programs like Model United Nations to build leadership and communication skills, and internship opportunities offered by my college helped me get a sense of what the practice of law might look like. I was able to cobble together what I learned from all of those experiences and decide where I wanted my career path to go.
The advantage of having a platform like Nichi Bei Connect is that it’s a buffet, if you will, where everything is laid out and someone can pick and choose a pathway that fits their interest, wherever they are at that stage in life. “If I pursue this major, where might it lead?” or “I’m an attorney and recent participant in the JET Programme, so what opportunities are available for me?” I’m hoping we can offer answers, so each individual doesn’t have to start from square one.
How can people established in U.S.-Japan relations be good mentors to the next generation?
There are a variety of roles mentors can play. Be available as a sounding board to somebody who has dreams and an idea, but may not be able to see the path yet. You can also be a cheerleader, broker new relationships, and help mentees connect with the right people for information gathering. We tend to think about these relationships as serving the mentee, but they have value for mentors as well, helping them think about their own career choices and what they might want to do next. Mentors can also consider volunteering, writing, and speaking publicly about their areas of expertise.
How much Japanese do you speak?
I have what I’d call “survival Japanese,” which is conversational depending on the topic. My college didn’t offer Japanese and I didn’t study it formally until I graduated from law school. But when I was in Japan, I had the chance to use the language—which is why my listening skills are stronger than my speaking.
How important are Japanese language skills in your work?
I use my listening and speaking skills to follow conversations, and to not burden my conversation partner with only communicating in English. Also, communicating in at least some amount of Japanese shows goodwill and effort. There are often interpreters in formal meetings, but it’s still very helpful to follow conversations and understand what people are saying.
For those who want to work in the world of U.S.-Japan relations, how important is it to be fluent in Japanese?
It depends on the nature of your engagement. For some areas like scholarly work and research, fluency is important, so you can read documents in their native language, conduct interviews, and so on. You can still do your work without it, but fluency can help you gain more.
In many other areas, fluency is not necessarily a prerequisite for success. For journalists, scientists, policy makers—it would be lovely to have Japanese language training and background, but there are often interpreters available to help. More important is having interest, openness, and a genuine desire to be directly in conversation with your international colleagues.
Where do you see the biggest opportunities to become involved in the world of U.S.-Japan relations?
At this moment in time, diplomacy is certainly an area for somebody interested in politics, economics, or cultural exchange, and the Foreign Service could be a great opportunity. There’s lots of work to be done right now reestablishing the U.S. on the international stage with the new administration’s priorities. There are also areas of opportunity for careers in the sciences, arts, design, and engineering, that relate to how we build our infrastructure and how we manufacture goods. The auto industry is one industry in which having technical expertise, as well as a Japan-related background, can be useful and valuable. Climate change and global health are also areas of opportunity.
In general, why should people care about—and get involved with—the relationship between the U.S. and Japan?
When I use the language “U.S.-Japan relationship,” I use that intentionally. It’s a partnership between two countries, but it’s also a treaty arrangement that establishes a strategic alliance that helps protect not only Japan, but also American and Japanese interests in the Asia-Pacific region. So when I’m back in New Jersey talking to friends and family, when they ask what I do, I answer lightheartedly but with all sincerity that I am promoting peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region. Neighboring countries are not democratic and have historical tensions with the U.S. and Japan, so it’s very important to have a strong and reliable partnership with Japan. The whole thing may seem a bit abstract, but it’s something we should never take for granted.
There’s also the larger importance of working together to solve problems. We’re in the middle of a global pandemic. It’s helpful for both countries to be able to share information and learn from experiences and successes, and beyond the pandemic, to work together on global issues like climate change. When we collaborate, we have a stronger chance of overcoming whatever challenges we face.
Paige Cottingham-Streater is the Executive Director of the Japan-United States Friendship Commission. Learn more about her work at jusfc.gov/about/staff-bios/paige-cottingham-streater/