Bridge-Building as a Career Path

Bridge-Building as a Career Path

May 11, 20214 min read

Yusuhara Wooden Bridge Museum / Kengo Kuma & Associates. © Takumi Ota

For my entire life I’ve imagined myself as a bridge between the U.S. and Japan. I grew up in Japan from ages one to eighteen — my parents are Southern Baptist missionaries who have lived in our heartland now for over 40 years. As an American growing up in Hokkaido, I often found myself in the position of explaining to Japanese why Americans do certain things and act certain ways, and then trying to tell Americans why Japanese or people outside of the U.S. saw the country in a particular way. This dialogue became an extension of who I am. Of course, like many children growing up, I wanted to be like my dad, who is a gifted pastor and long-term missionary. But, along the way, I realized that the role of a missionary is actually very much like that of being an ambassador or bridge-builder who represents their country, alliances, and traditions.

As reinforced recently by Prime Minister Suga’s visit to the White House, the first of any international visitor for the Biden administration, the alliance with Japan is our single most strategic international relationship. Walter Russel Meade laid this out eloquently in the Wall Street Journal, “For the foreseeable future, the U.S.-Japan alliance is likely to remain the cornerstone of American foreign policy. Building the social and cultural ties that can support that relationship is an urgent task for both countries.” In my lifetime, and perhaps never before, has there been a moment like the present where the U.S. and Japan are mutually reliant to such a degree. Therefore, my personal commitment to being a bridge-builder, and our mission at Japan Society, have never been more critical.

Finding my path

After college I went to Turkey as a Fulbright Scholar, where I worked with the State Department through the Ambassador’s Office and the Embassy, enriching my understanding of foreign diplomacy. As I explored my interests in other parts of the world, I didn’t intend to pursue a career in U.S.-Japan relations. However, all that changed on March 11, 2011, when the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster devastated the Tohoku region of northeastern Japan. At that moment, I felt a deep personal mission to help bring people from around the world together and realized that I was uniquely situated to build bridges with Japan.

I had the opportunity to serve three different times in the State Department along with the Defense Department and on various Commerce Department advisory boards as I completed my academic degrees culminating with a PhD from Princeton. My time in academia and government service taught me the important skill of storytelling. When I left the State Department, I joined the strategic communications company APCO Worldwide, where I helped establish their Japan office and became immersed in Japanese public relations. Next, I had the privilege of running the USA Pavilion at the World Expo in Kazakhstan in 2017, telling America’s story from the ground up. That led me to Eurasia Group, the foremost geopolitical risk consultancy group, where I led the largest geopolitical risk summit in Japan, the GZero Summit, taking my academic, government, and public relations experience and putting it into a practical context.

Embracing my ikigai

Today I’m the President and CEO of Japan Society, working to take the Society’s mission into its second century, to be the deep connection, or kizuna, that brings the United States and Japan together through its peoples, culture, businesses, and societies.

One of the greatest things that I see these days is concepts from Japan that have been adapted into the English lexicon — like ikigai, the idea of life’s purpose, which has become a catchphrase in our pandemic world’s search for meaning. Ikigai resonates deeply with me, because it is about finding your reason for being, your passion and calling. For me, this means being dedicated to promoting global understanding and helping make the world a better place.

I don’t think I would have told you two years ago that I would be the President and CEO of Japan Society. It is an opportunity that caught me by surprise in some ways. But in other ways, now that I am here, it feels like the most natural job I’ve ever done, and I cannot think of a better place I would rather be or a better way to live out my ikigai.

At Japan Society’s founding luncheon on May 19, 1907, the guest of honor, General Baron Kuroki “wished the new organization a long and successful health.” As The New York Times reported, “The object of the new organization will be the promotion of friendly relations between the United States and Japan.” Now in its second century, our work of bridge-building continues today.

Joshua Walker (@drjwalk) is president and CEO of Japan Society. Follow @japansociety.

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.

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  • Joshua W. Walker, PhD
    Joshua W. Walker, PhD President & CEO

    Walker leads Japan Society to create deep bonds between the US & Japan through programs in culture, education, business, policy & technology

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