CULCON AT 60: Tracing Its History Alongside the Japan-U.S. Alliance

ITO Misako

On June 21, 1961, U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Japanese Prime Minister Ikeda Hayato met in person on the presidential yacht Honey Fitz, on the Potomac River in Washington D.C. It was sometime during discussions between the two leaders that the idea of CULCON (U.S.-Japan Conference on Cultural and Educational Interchange) was born.

By its name, CULCON may give the general reader the impression that we are concerned only with “culture” and “education.” However, our organization was formalized – and has continuously transformed – in response to serious political, economic and security questions involving the two countries. On each occasion, a group comprised of CULCON members from both sides of the Pacific has come together to tackle with their expertise and insights the challenges before them, addressing “hard” issues via the “soft” channels of culture, educational and intellectual dialogue. Indeed, CULCON was mutually conceived of by President Kennedy and PM Ikeda to promote mutual understanding and encourage the public to deepen their insights into the world’s most vital binational relationship. The powerful Japan-U.S. alliance has enabled us to realize their vision in extraordinary ways.

CULCON Arises from “Anpo”

The decade preceding the Kennedy-Ikeda summit is remembered as the period of most serious Japan-U.S. friction since World War II. During 1959~60, massive numbers of Japanese citizens took to the streets to demonstrate against the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the U.S. and Japan. This treaty’s name was shortened to the Japanese abbreviation “Anpo,” and it has been used in the larger context of national security matters ever since. This aroused deep concerns in the Eisenhower administration of a Communist conspiracy. Was Japan moving toward disengagement in terms of ideology and economic policy? The Anpo Protests ultimately motivated the U.S. government to understand Japanese culture enough to begin courting the support of Japanese intellectuals, whom it felt geopolitically crucial to the escalating Cold War.

The decade had actually started well. President Harry Truman had appointed John Foster Dulles as the head of a peace mission to Japan, and Dulles in turn invited John D. Rockefeller III to join the delegation. Rockefeller, together with his friend Matsumoto Shigeharu, had already been working tirelessly to support Japan-U.S. cultural exchange and diplomacy, and their efforts culminated with establishing the International House of Japan in Tokyo in 1952.

President-elect Kennedy went beyond merely reviving the Truman approach. Soon after his inauguration, he invited PM Ikeda to Washington, and the two immediately set about broadening the scope of binational relations. President Kennedy sent his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to Japan to try and foster pro-American sentiment among the Japanese people with his idea of “Equal Partnership.” The President also appointed as Ambassador to Japan Professor Edwin Reischauer, a scholar with a sophisticated understanding of the Anpo protesters and author of the famous opinion piece, “The Broken Dialogue with Japan” (Foreign Affairs, 1960).

Kennedy and Ikeda’s mutual vision acknowledged the need for stronger U.S.-Japan relations, based upon in particular a solid alliance. Concerned about the Soviet Union’s ideological impact on Japanese intellectuals, and with a common belief in advancing economic cooperation, they drafted a Joint Statement establishing three joint committees: Trade and Economic Affairs, Scientific and Technological Cooperation, and Cultural and Educational Cooperation. The third committee would go on to be renamed CULCON and it is the only one to have survived the past more than 60 years.

Starting with High-Caliber Members and Participants

The very first CULCON meeting was held in Tokyo in January, 1962. Members included U.S. Chair Hugh Borton, President of Haverford College, Japan Chair Morito Tatsuo, President of Hiroshima University, and U.S. Ambassador Reischauer, together with Takeuchi Ryuji, Japan’s Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs. The main topics of discussion were: language education, joint research and seminars, the establishment of institutions facilitating exchange, support for the arts and student exchange, and the translation of Japanese thought and academic research.

In the resulting Communique (now called a Joint Statement), the very first in the series of communiques over the years, the members stated that “exchange of persons are . . . of great importance in relation to all the subjects considered by [CULCON],” but “not an end in themselves.” Qualitative improvements, moreover, were to be valued over quantitative ones. CULCON today still believes in these fundamental principles.

The next meeting was held in Washington, D.C. in 1963 and attended by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Special Assistant to President Kennedy. Having such personnel involved in CULCON’s formative years helped the organization to clarify its purpose, as articulated in a summary statement published that year:

Mindful that knowledge and understanding breed confidence and friendship, just as ignorance and misunderstanding generate fear and suspicion, the Conference sought new approaches to broadening the spectrum of cultural and educational exchanges between the two countries.

Unfortunately, the intensity that characterized this meeting’s discussions was short-lived, in part because of the Vietnam War, but also due to the binational negotiations over the reversion of the Okinawa Islands to Japan. These more pressing international issues made cultural and educational policies less of a priority to both governments.

Topics for the fifth CULCON meeting, held in 1970, showcased trends of the time by proposing exchanges of information and strategy in the following areas: industrial activities, media, academia, and youth issues.

The “Nixon Shock” and the Birth of Two Institutions

In 1971 and 1972, President Richard Nixon gave Japan increasing cause for concern, first with his visit to Beijing, then with the economic measures known as “Nixon Shock,” and with the Nixon Doctrine, which signaled a U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. To counteract such negative momentum, Foreign Minister Fukuda Takeo decided to establish The Japan Foundation, with the mission of expanding funding for cultural and people-to-people exchanges. Welcomed by the U.S., it ignited the idea of creating the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission (JUSFC), and ultimately resulted in the passage of the Japan-United States Friendship Act of 1975, which stated that a Japan-U.S. partnership would provide a model for “peace, prosperity, and security in Asia and the World.”

In CULCON’s Final Communique of 1976, both The Japan Foundation and USJFC were heralded as “valuable new contributors to the expanded cultural relationship between Japan and the United States,” and acknowledged as official platforms for implementing CULCON policies.

Shared Values, Economic Friction

U.S.-Japan relations improved in the 1980s during the Nakasone and Reagan administrations. Despite their cooperation in matters of defense, concerns over the U.S. trade deficit with Japan became a pressing issue. This topic was chosen for CULCON’s 1982 meeting, which titled the symposium “Cultural Factors in U.S.-Japan Economic Relations: In Relation to the Future of U.S.-Japan Cultural and Educational Exchanges.”

The U.S. Congress voiced skepticism regarding JUSFC’s capacity to help resolve trade and economic issues with Japan, and the U.S. Chairs of CULCON and JUSFC tried to meet these concerns by emphasizing our bilateral economic and military bonds. Over the following years, CULCON’s discussions tended to focus on educational and cultural exchange as a means of curbing the politicization of trade frictions.

After the Cold War ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, conflict erupted in the Middle East. The U.S. expected Japan to contribute beyond the parameters of the alliance, which led to Japan deploying her Self-Defense Forces to the Persian Gulf – though not without reservations. This happened during the same period of time when the two CULCON U.S. Chairs of the 1990s, John H. Makin of the American Enterprise Institute and Professor Kenneth B. Pyle of the University of Washington, were both advocating the idea that Japan was emerging as an economic threat to the U.S. Their stated views made things particularly awkward for CULCON because the Japan Chairs during this period, Masamune Isao of the Industrial Bank of Japan, and Saba Shoichi of Toshiba Corporation, held that the partnership was as strong as ever.

In response to these rising tensions, CULCON members discussed ways of implementing expanded cultural, educational, and people-to-people exchanges. The 1993 and 1995 Plenary Sessions focused on undergraduate student exchange, media cooperation, and reciprocal information access, which culminated in the Japan-U.S. Joint Declaration on Security by PM Hashimoto Ryutaro and President Clinton in 1996.

Re-evaluating CULCON and its Mission

Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, our two nations’ military cooperation expanded and deepened through the Iraqi War and the war on terror. Still, the 2001 (Los Angeles) and 2003 (Sendai) Plenary Sessions made no mention of 9/11 or the security developments between us. Chaired by established academics, these sessions’ focal topics were digital culture, digital information, and student exchange. The 2003 session’s unique point of discussion was “cultural fluency” necessary to nurturing the next generation of U.S.-Japan leaders in a globalizing world.

Starting in the 1990s, CULCON had seen a drift in the intensity of the intellectual exchanges among its leadership. And so, at the 2006 Plenary Session in Montana, co-chaired by Dr. Iwao Sumiko of Keio University and Dr. Richard Samuels of MIT, CULCON Panelists frankly re-evaluated the organization’s raison d’être. They concluded it should once again, as in its early years, serve as a vital advisory board making substantial policy recommendations to both governments.

To this end, a breakthrough was made by Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and President George W. Bush when they discussed the question of re-defining CULCON during their Camp David summit on April 27, 2007. In a joint statement afterwards, they recommended the following principles:

  1. To nurture next-generation leaders toward greater mutual understanding;
  2. To facilitate intellectual communion between universities and think-tanks;
  3. To promote and deepen regional/local exchanges;
  4. To collaborate with private and public partnerships through outreach to the business community.

Consequently, the CULCON 2008 Plenary published the report, “Re-defining the Japan-U.S. Relationship,” jointly penned by Dr. Michael Green and Dr. Kubo Fumiaki. This document was epoch-making in the sense that, for the first time since CULCON’s inception, redefined the organization, returning its mission to the original principles defined by its founding fathers, President Kennedy and PM Ikeda: the word “partnership,” first used at its inception in 1961, was to be understood as “alliance,” and CULCON’s mission was to strengthen its foundation. The revised Mission Statement reads, “CULCON is a binational advisory panel. It works to ensure that the best of new ideas for cultural, educational and intellectual activity and exchange are implemented as operational programs.” This statement has remained a lighthouse for CULCON meetings ever since.

Attainable Programs Accompanied by Action Plans

Since the decline in bidirectional student mobility was the top priority issue discussed at the 2012 Plenary, CULCON formed the Education Task Force (ETF). The ETC members reconvened in 2013 and set the goal of doubling the number of exchange students in both countries by 2020. The two chairs of CULCON at this time were Mr. Makihara Minoru and Mr. Thiery Porte, Harvard alumni businessmen who shared personal concerns about the decline in student mobility and of their countries’ roles on the world stage. Thus, it was natural for them to be proactively involved in ETF, and to help realize its goals, so that they oversaw the crafting of concrete Actions Plans – six for Japan, six for the U.S., and seventeen for joint endeavors.

PM Abe Shinzo and President Barack Obama mentioned the ETF in the Joint Statement from their summit of April 2014. During the Plenary in November of that year, CULCON members agreed to form a new Committee to review ETF’s progress – the Education Exchange Review Committee (ERC). Its “Final Report 2020” was submitted by Japan Chair Kato Ryozo to former Prime Minister Abe and Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide in April 2021. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic had made it impossible for us to achieve our primary goal. Nevertheless, we succeeded in completing many important Action Plans items and have every reason to feel positive about an increase in bidirectional student mobility in the coming years.

At the 29th Plenary in 2021, CULCON members agreed in the Joint Statement to explore the following six points: 1) nurturing next generation leadership to support the Alliance, 2) developing local and regional interchanges and new platforms for subnational diplomacy, 3) promoting shared values, 4) creating momentum in people-to-people and educational exchange, 5) building economic resilience, and 6) advancing digitization and broadening information exchange. Then, at the occasion of in-person joint meeting held in Kyushu, Japan in October 2022, we agreed to start with the following two priorities out of the above mentioned six: (1) Subnational Diplomacy/Local and Regional Exchange, and (2) Information Sharing and Access in the Digital Age. The unprecedented COVID-19 global pandemic has been impacting many phases of the society, but it also brought the consequences to CULCON’s discussion points just like these two. Specifically, regional connections around the globe became tremendously important during the pandemic, and so did digitization and its innovative use especially when the in-person interchanges have been limited globally. By the time of our next 30th Plenary Session which will be held in 2023 in the U.S., we hope that we can see the outcome from the working group discussions on these two topics on how to advocate these two critical issues to this bilateral relation and beyond.

Of our recent activities, I would like to highlight the following two examples of good practice as valuable outcomes out of our advoc1acy missions. One is a formation of our Next Generation Task Force in 2016. CULCON had always invested in nurturing our next generation, but now the impetus was stronger, more focused. Ultimately, the 2019 Plenary launched a new non-profit organization named Anniversaries, Inc., whose mission is to identify future leaders in a wide variety of fields. The other one is Mr. Koyamada Shin’s entrepreneurship in establishing a new organization, Japan-United States Sister City Association (JUSSCA) in 2022.

On my personal note, I would also like to touch upon this subcommittee, Arts Dialogue Committee (ADC) which was launched in 2010, which finished its goals in 2020. To be able to take part in person in its legendary programs such as JAWS: International Workshop on Japanese Art History for Graduate Students, Curatorial Exchange Program for Japanese Arts Specialists, and International Council of Museums (ICOM) Kyoto 2019 became memorable treasures for me. Among more than 90 American curators that the Japan Foundation has sponsored and invited to Japan, I am blessed to meet and work with some of them. It is truly a joy to establish visible and valuable connections through arts and culture whose values both Japan and the U.S. treasure.

With Long-Term Goals in an Age of Uncertainty

As we move through the third decade of the 21st century, we find the world in an age of uncertainty. Divides continue to grow wider in many facets of both national and international society, necessitating strong leaders in all arenas, from academia to politics, defense, economy, arts and education. Their frequent, rigorous sharing of wisdom and experience is more important than ever. Having looked back at the six-decade history of CULCON, we can see that their powers of innovation and mutual understanding have often saved our bonds of friendship and goodwill from falling apart in times of crisis.

It is one of Japan CULCON Chair, Ambassador Kato’s regular discussion points that human beings prefer to focus on concrete, direct and short-term issues that promise quick results, rather than abstract, indirect, and long-term ones whose outcomes are less certain. However, can we afford to stay as we are in this age of uncertainty?

While the organization’s activities are not always in the public eye, we pour constant care into all our endeavors, just like “gardening” requires constant care and nurture under any kind of weather. CULCON, as a unique advisory group to the two leaders of Japan and the U.S., will not only continue to serve the alliance, but hopes to provide models for other nations who wish to play similar roles in the world.

About CULCON, please see for Japan CULCON and for U.S. CULCON

ITO Misako currently serves as Secretary-General of CULCON Japan, and member of Boards of the International House of Japan (IHJ) and Kasumigaseki Foreign Service Association (KaFSA). She formerly served at the Embassy of Japan in Washington, D.C. and Singapore as Director of the Japan Information & Culture Center (JICC) and the Japan Creative Centre (JCC).