Jin Sato is a professor in the Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia at the University of Tokyo, where he researches state-society relations through natural resources and environment and the long-term impact of Japanese foreign aid in Asia. Since 2017, he has been a Global Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. In 2014, he was awarded the Japan Academy Medal, the highest academic honor awarded annually to outstanding young scholars under the age of 45.
1. What inspired you to become a professor? I did not have any plans to become a professor. I was rather interested in becoming a practitioner working in developing countries or in international organizations. When I had my internship at the World Bank as a graduate student, I realized that everyone had a doctoral degree there. That’s when I thought I should study further. A teaching opportunity came unexpectedly after my doctorate, and here I am.
2. Are there any major differences teaching in Japan compared to the U.S.? I think the students in the U.S. are more demanding in a good way. They also talk a lot in discussion, which is also good. I think, in general, at Princeton University where I teach, there’s more energy intensity in the classroom. But you have to remember that their tuition is much higher, too.
3. The zemi (Japanese-style seminar where a small group of students works under a professor) is a central part of higher education in Japan. How do you go about creating a harmonious group? I do not have deliberate plans to make it harmonious. What I have been doing is to host home parties occasionally at my place, and offer up my cooking and also enjoy the cooking of my students. We also go for a zemi trip. These extracurricular activities may help nurture our bonding.
4. Now that classes have all moved online, how has the University of Tokyo handled the challenge of going digital? I only teach graduate students so the class size is limited, but other faculty members must be going through a lot of hardship. It is difficult to teach when you don’t get the feel of how the students are responding.
5. What was the most memorable lecture or seminar you ever gave? A public lecture I gave at the local elementary school in Princeton, New Jersey, immediately after the 3-11 tsunami in 2011. There were many people who had never been to Japan interested to learn what a tsunami and its devastating impact on people was, and what they could do to help. I was touched.
6. How would you describe your topic of research to someone outside of your field? I am involved in the study of how people have struggled to improve their lives and how outsiders played a role in either helping or harming such efforts, particularly in the context of Asia.
7. What are you studying right now? I am now studying the long-term impact of notorious projects funded by Japan in the 1980s in Southeast Asia and what happened to those projects since then. I am also working on the role of intermediary organizations as a buffer against state domination in resource governance.
8. What are Japan’s key tactics for facilitating multinational cooperation? Its nonmilitary and nonpolitical approach has been relatively consistent. However, there is some development assistance that now ventures into the area of national security (such as donating patrol ships to the Philippines in response to threats from China).
9. Are they successful? It has been successful for a long time since Japan does not impose any conditions like other donors from the West. But that principle may be undermined if Japan turns its orientation more toward its own national interests.
10. What’s the biggest challenge to international diplomacy? The biggest opportunity? Challenge: The “my country first” approach to a problem that really requires global cooperation. Opportunity: There is no single superpower that dominates the earth, and that forces some countries to cooperate with others.
11. In your experience, how do local communities usually react when governments strive to better allocate resources? They welcome such input as long as there is flexibility for the locals to customize and make adjustments to the initial allocation. Resources will be wasted if there is not prior consultation with the locals.
12. What’s the best way to provide international assistance while preserving local autonomy? To question whom the assistance will serve, and then have the courage to stop unnecessary assistance. We need to focus on what brought about the need for assistance to begin with.
13. What was running through your mind when you received the Japan Academy Medal in 2014? How lucky I was, especially given the fact that my academic discipline is so ambiguous and unconventional.
14. Are we actually headed for a “Mad Max” future? I am not too pessimistic. Many people are rediscovering the meaning of work and family time. I hope society will build back better after coronavirus.
15. How is the COVID-19 pandemic impacting resource distribution? We are unintentionally saving a lot of fossil fuel by not traveling. Orientation is toward the local. I saw a local bicycle shop very crowded with repair requests. People are now spending more time in their vicinity.
16. What can the average person do in their daily life to minimize their waste of water? Probably shorten their shower time.
17. What three things are always in your fridge? Seltzer, okazu rāyu (flavored chili oil, available in the U.S., thank God) and ponzu. Seltzer is my recent discovery, as recommended by my daughter. I like the black cherry flavor.
18. Do you collect anything? I used to collect old maps from places I actually visited. The problem is that there is not enough wall to hang them on.
19. What advice would you give your 10-year-old self? I would tell myself to relax and be more outgoing. I was rather shy in my childhood.
20. When you’re based in the U.S., what Japanese food or drink do you miss most? I would say unagi (eel) and good Japanese anko (red bean paste). Good unagi is very difficult to find even in New York City.