Academic career in Japan served as vital lesson in culture, says dean


Bruce Stronach, current dean of the Japan campus of Temple University, has a career in academia that spans two countries and over three decades. Sixteen of those years were spent with schools in Japan and have taught him much about Japanese society.

Stronach holds a Ph. D. in international relations, a master’s degree in arts and an M.A. in law and diplomacy at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University and Harvard University. He worked for Keio University from 1976 to 1985, and was an assistant professor of political science at Merrimack College, Mass., from 1985 to 1990 as well as dean and professor at the International University of Japan, Niigata, from 1990 to 1997. He then returned to the United States to work at two universities and came back to Japan as president of Yokohama City University in 2005.

“My base bedrock experience in Japan was at Keio University, but my experience as the president of YCU was very rewarding and enlightening,” says Stronach.

“It was stressful and many other things, but it taught me not just about Japanese universities. I came to know Japanese society so much better after the job.”

His work at Yokohama City University was a first for both Stronach and Japan. His post marked the first time a non-Japanese was to head a public university in Japan. Stronach himself had never worked with Japanese bureaucracy before.

His situation, indeed, seemed to be a draw for many surprising experiences, but, putting the frustrating ones aside, he likes to remember one enlightening experience in which he felt he finally understood the depth of Japanese society.

That is when he attended the event at Yokohama City Hall to celebrate his appointment as the YCU president and the school’s becoming an independent administrative institution.

Stronach felt the event would be boring for most who had to stand and listen to the speeches. But, he was instead surprised when every attendee stood and bowed to Hiroshi Nakata, the mayor of Yokohama.

“In some other part of my life I would have looked at that and burst into a laugh and said ‘this is absolutely ridiculous.’ But at the time I recognized what it means. Not just for me, but everybody in the room,” he said.

“A bunch of people acting out a form in front of the mayor — (for) my appointment by the mayor, it becomes kind of a contract between everybody in the room and a recognition of the responsibility. And I hate to say this, as this is terribly not modest, but you really have to be in Japan a long time to understand it, not just understand it, but feel it.”

While he cherishes his YCU experience for teaching him something of the depth of Japanese society, he owes it to Keio University for giving him the opportunity to work in Japan for the first time.

Still, in the early years of his work at Keio, he faced difficulty with the language and some discrimination, he said.

When Stronach first took the job at Keio, he was 26 years old, a bit old to be learning a new language, he felt. He still feels his Japanese, though satisfactory, is not as good as it should be.

Though with time he was able to become comfortable with the language, such was not the case with Japanese society and his feeling at home with it. He believes it was also more difficult for foreigners to assimilate into society at the time, as opposed to now.

“At Keio, I was expected to behave like a foreigner, and sometimes like a Japanese, but nobody ever told you when,” he said.

He was first confused how he should fit into Japanese society, but later realized that one needn’t try to be “overly Japanese.” Instead, he says, one only needs to respect the country’s customs and manner of its people.

“For me, it was important to come to an understanding of who I was. I really liked Japanese people and Keio, but I don’t want to be a Japanese,” he said. “I understand how they think, but I don’t try to be a Japanese.”

Such words, coming from a 58-year-old American man who has spent a third of his life in Japan and two-thirds involved in study about Japan, may serve as good advice for non-Japanese younger than himself.

He also remembers words of advice from those who had come to Japan before him. “An interesting thing for me and people in my generation is that my (American) senpai were people who came here during the Occupation. When I was a young guy at Keio, I had the great pleasure of sitting around, drinking with and listening to these guys and hearing great stories about the war and the Occupation,” he says.

Now, “I have the pleasure to be a senpai to younger people who have come to Japan when (Tokyo) is really a global international city.” Because of his senpai’s reminiscing, Stronach says he now feels his “life has spanned the whole period after the war from 1945 to whatever Japan is going to be in the 2000s.”

With all these experiences in work and life in Japan, he is also confident he can benefit Temple University in Japan.

“What I like about being here is that I can blend all of the years of experience I have in American universities and Japanese universities. There are not many people around who have as much administrative experience as I have in both,” he proudly points out.