Political scientist gained key perspective in Japan


On March 19, just hours before U.S. forces began their raids on Baghdad, more than 50 U.S. government intelligence experts as well as scholars and embassy staff from several South Asian countries assembled in a top-floor room at John Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies for a briefing on political Islam in India. The briefing was presented by political scientist Dr. Rollie Lal, a former assistant language teacher in the JET program.

Comfortable in Hindi, Chinese, Japanese and elementary Persian, Lal works in the Washington office of the Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Rand. She is one of two South Asia specialists at Rand Corp., the largest nonprofit think tank in the United States, which focuses on global defense and security-related issues. Lal’s field of research includes national interest and identity issues in a region that extends from North Africa to China and Japan. She is also active in counterterrorism research at Rand.

With the advent of the Iraq war, global intelligence experts were concerned about whether U.S. military action in the Arab world would provoke hostilities from India’s 140 million Muslims, the second-largest Islamic population after Indonesia. According to Dr. Lal’s findings, however, India’s Muslim communities present little immediate threat to the stability of South Asia, due to their politically moderate tendencies.

Lal says her experiences in Japan in 1991-92 deeply influenced her present work as a political scientist because they gave her an indispensable perspective on foreign cultures and people.

“It is important not to separate a country’s foreign policy from its people,” says Lal. “When I travel, it is not enough to focus only on a country’s social and political issues. Being able to empathize with the lives of ordinary people helps me to better understand a country’s national identity and interests. This is something the JET experience taught me.”

During her one-year stay in Tatsuno (population 41,000), Hyogo Prefecture, Japanese people often remarked on how comfortable they felt being with Lal.

“I think it has to do with the tea culture,” remarks Lal, who was born in India and grew up in the United States. “When a Japanese person invites you to share a cup of tea, it is a sign of friendship. Coming from an Indian cultural background, this was something I was at home with.”

Lal was the first JET in Tatsuno, and the local people strove to make her feel at home.

“They were so excited to have me there,” she recalls. “The city council found me a four-bedroom split-level house to live in.”

Besides her rent-free house, Lal was also presented with an expensive bicycle. Every morning, a beautifully wrapped lunch box was placed on her desk, prepared by the home economics teacher at one of the junior high schools where she taught.

Lal’s interest in national identity issues had already begun while in Japan. As part of her English teaching, she regularly polled her 2,400 students on their opinions on religion, their world views and their visions of the future.

“I studied the Japanese language one year in high school and took Japanese literature and art history courses in college,” Lal says. “There is this image of Japanese as uptight and stressed out, but I came to realize that any people that can come up with such wonderful literature and art cannot be as rigid as it is often perceived.”

Following graduation from university, Lal had been accepted to the Ph.D. program in economics at the University of Maryland. She had deferred by a year, however, to join the JET program.

During her first semester back at university, she quit the Ph.D. program, finding her studies too theoretical. Instead, she found an internship at the Washington bureau of the Yomiuri Shimbun. When a position as correspondent later became available, she started full-time work covering national and international news for both the Japanese and English editions of the Japanese newspaper. During her work as a Washington correspondent from 1994-96, Lal put together a popular series on U.S.-Japanese foreign policy issues based on recently declassified World War II documents she uncovered at the Library of Congress. This series — relating, among other things, to the Japanese experiments on the Chinese by Unit 731 and to the signing of the U.S.-Japan security treaty — led to her interest in national security issues.

To deepen her understanding of the subject, Lal decided to enroll in the graduate program at SAIS in 1996. “I discovered while working as a correspondent that I was good at forecasting security matters and came to believe I had to something to contribute to this area,” Lal says. I believe it’s important to decrease the chances of war and I was interested in finding ways to do that.”

At SAIS, she received a master’s degree in strategic military studies and went on to do a Ph.D. in international relations. Her thesis, an astute comparative study of national interests in China and India, established her reputation as a political scientist. Shortly after, Lal was appointed as associate director of South Asian Studies at SAIS. Three months later she accepted an offer to join Rand Corp.

Lal begins her day by reading through piles of newspapers and press reports from countries such as Libya, Pakistan and India and researching these subjects on the Internet. She also regularly interviews political figures, experts and other insiders on the subject she is researching.

“I try to look at regions as a whole,” Lal explains. “I’m interested in how the dynamics of each country affect the course of the entire region.”

Though her primary field of analysis is South Asia, Lal also provides analysis on East Asian issues. “In the 10 years since finishing the JET program, I’ve noticed a sense of malaise and a loss of confidence in Japanese people. There is a sense of doubt in the way things have been done until now. At the same time I see women becoming more independent and more Japanese people seeking greater personal life choices.”

Her interest in Japan continues. “I try to stop over in Japan whenever I can and visit my friends in Tatsuno. I feel very comfortable there.”