Long before Abenomics or his first stint as prime minister, long before he’d risen through the ranks of the Japanese government, there was once a reserved 24-year-old young man who drove through the streets of Los Angeles in search of cultural illumination. It was 1978, and Shinzo Abe was a student at the University of Southern California, following in the footsteps of former Prime Minister Takeo Miki, who took classes at USC in the 1930s.

Shortly after graduating from Seikei University in 1977, Abe moved first to Hayward, California, a city south of San Francisco. Needing a more culturally diverse experience, he then relocated to Long Beach and home-stayed for a stretch of time with an Italian-American family. Soon after, Abe was admitted to USC.

Professor Thomas Johnson of the Naval Postgraduate School was one of Abe’s professors at USC, and he can still recall certain aspects of Abe the student.

“I remember that he was very proud of the Ford Mustang that he drove,” says Johnson, who recently reconnected with Abe after the prime minister visited the USC campus on the final day of his one-week visit to the United States in May.

Back in the fall of 1978, professor Johnson faced a class of 25 students, one of whom was Abe.

“He was real laid back, and not pretentious,” says Johnson. Mainly, Abe “kept to himself. … He had a dedication and maturity about him that spoke well to his eventual success and ambitions.”

The class was officially titled, “New forces in world politics”, and was held in the early afternoon. Topics ranged from the “international politics of food, nonstate actors, terrorism,” to “the end of colonialism.” Heavy topics for a second-language student. At times, the lessons proved quite challenging.

“He was somewhat quiet in class primarily because he was still learning English. He used to regularly come to my office after class to discuss the class lecture and class discussions,” says Johnson. “He wanted to make sure that he correctly comprehended the class. … I was thoroughly impressed.”

Although there was no way Johnson could foresee this quiet student becoming the leader of Japan, he did notice an air of confidence hidden beneath a sheath of humility.

“I knew of the importance of his family to Japanese politics, but he acted like any other student.” Johnson could not recollect any class papers that may have foreshadowed his current policies, but in the young Abe, Johnson says he “had a feeling that (Abe) had a clear idea of what the future held for him.”

The class was located in the Von Kleinsmid Center for International and Public Affairs. For three semesters — the spring, summer and fall of 1978 — Abe could have called this building a second home, taking classes dealing with history, politics, international relations and public administration. His official status was a “graduate visitor.”

At the same time, Abe grew fond of American football, and often kept track of the USC Trojans. In the same class was then-USC defensive back Jeff Fisher, now coach of the St. Louis Rams in the National Football League. That year the USC team earned a share of the national championship.

But it was his friendship with professor Johnson that has remained, 37 years later. Six weeks before his diplomatic trip to the U.S., Abe reached out to his old professor through USC, who then contacted Johnson.

“The university did suggest that Abe wanted me to attend his visit to the university,” he says.

As expected, details of the trip were kept quiet. “Classified,” as Johnson puts it. “I wasn’t supposed to mention it to anyone.”

Johnson then flew from Washington to Los Angeles to meet up with Abe. After meeting and shaking hands, they took a walk down to the VKC building, where the “New forces” class had been held. During the walk, Abe mentioned that he still “follows Trojan football,” and that he could still remember his days driving his Ford Mustang through the thick Los Angeles traffic.

The visit was brief, between the hours of 10 a.m. to noon — perhaps just enough time to walk down memory lane with a professor he greatly respected.

“He was a delight to have in class,” Johnson says.

Patrick Parr (www.patrickparr.com) is a lecturer for the University of Southern California’s International Academy in Los Angeles. His work has previously appeared in The Humanist, USA Today and The Writer, among others. You can contact Patrick at pdparr14@gmail.com. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.