Matthew Wilson, 50, is the newly appointed dean of Temple University Japan Campus (TUJ). He was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, but was drawn to a career in international law centered around Japan after first visiting the country as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1989. He attended TUJ’s law program and was its director until 2009. After a decade of academic leadership back in the U.S., he has returned to his alma mater. Wilson is also widely published on the subject of the Japanese legal system.
1. How did you first get interested in Japan? Growing up, I had no interest in anything international. In fact I tried to stay away from it. Then right before I turned 19, I volunteered to do missionary work for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. My brother ended up in Minnesota, my sister in Texas and I was sent to Japan — Hokkaido, in fact. I instantaneously fell in love with the culture and knew I wanted to find a way to combine my interest in law with my interest in Japan.
2. Has the country changed much? The past 11 years have been my longest time away from Japan. The biggest change is just the astonishing growth and change. It’s amazing going around Tokyo and saying, “Huh, well that wasn’t there.”
3. Why did you take on the role of dean at Temple University Japan? I took this job because of the difference this school made in my life as a student. I remember thinking I would really love to have my professors’ jobs at some point. There are so many students out there that could use the same boost that I received, so I wanted to be in a position where I can stand as an example and assist students.
4. Do you have a personal philosophy toward education? Students need to come first. Within that is the fact that students need to be challenged, because education is more than just the transfer of information. It is for developing analytical skills, the ability to communicate and problem-solving. Saying “students first” really means to open their horizon.
5. How has the student body changed since your student days? I would say the biggest difference is the student and faculty diversity. When I directed the school’s law program in the early 2000s, I worked closely with the Japanese government to make Temple the first school to gain the newly created status of Foreign University, Japan Campus, which allowed us to start sponsoring visas. After that, diversity skyrocketed. I challenge anyone to find a more diverse school.
6. Was it challenging to move during a global pandemic? I was coming from Missouri with my wife and our kids, and there were times we didn’t know if we were even going to be able to come, but just seeing the differences between the two country’s policies and all the uncertainty on both sides was … interesting.
7. Interesting how? In the U.S., there is a big debate about masks and the feeling of “nobody is going to force me to do anything.” Whereas, here in Japan, probably 99.5% of people are wearing masks. Japan has far fewer cases, and yet everyone is far more cautious. I don’t want to generalize and say this is purely cultural, but I still see this as the biggest difference.
8. What measures are you taking to ensure student safety at TUJ? Seventy-five percent of our classes are online, we have social distancing spaces and hand sanitizer available, everyone gets a temperature check and we do ID check-ins, so we can do contract tracing if needed. We also ask that students and faculty wear masks. We really take it seriously, and encourage everyone to follow good protocol.
9. How are TUJ students impacted by COVID-19? Their flexibility and performance have been impressive while facing challenges such as limited personal interaction, smaller study areas at home and internet outages. Some students learn fine in an online setting while others struggle.
10. What is the best way to approach an online class as a teacher? Professors need to encourage the students to interact more deeply with them and use the platforms for clear communication. Professors need to be a resource for interaction and engagement, especially given the isolation some students may be feeling.
11. Have any TUJ students been affected by the Japanese government’s entry ban? We have had about 100 incoming freshmen students who could not enter, and several others that were already taking classes in Japan, but could not re-enter. It’s unfortunate, because they are missing out on their study destination of choice. Luckily we are hearing that the government will be letting foreign students enter and re-enter soon.
12. What advice do you have for students studying law? Find an area of the law where you can find self-satisfaction and make a difference. In order to do that, you need to constantly be learning about the legal landscape for professional options, and also consistently be learning about what is really important to you, personally.
13. And for students studying abroad for the first time? Take advantage of the network you can build with people globally. You can create bridges that will change your life. Also, I highly suggest that students be culturally sensitive. Japan has a phenomenal culture, and you should learn about it, watch, observe and take it in. No culture is perfect, but in this peaceful world known as Japan, there is a lot you can learn that will enrich your life.
14. How did you learn cultural sensitivity? Engaging with people, and not making my time here be about me. I remember being told that if I was ever invited to someone’s house, I needed to make sure I ate every single bite. One night, a sweet old lady in Hokkaido wanted to make “American spaghetti” for me, but she used thick udon noodles. It wasn’t the best dish, but I ate the whole thing.
15. What’s one interesting difference between the legal systems of Japan and the United States? We could talk for three years on this. But one quick point I would say is the politicization of legal processes is different. For example, if you asked somebody to name one person on the Japanese supreme court, I wouldn’t be surprised if most people would need to look it up on their phone, but in the U.S., every nomination is a major societal event. Supreme Court vacancies are comparatively quiet here in Japanese society.
16. How do you approach the role of law? I look at the law from a stabilization standpoint, where you have courts that need to transcend politics. So I reflect on a case like Marbury v. Madison, which looked at what powers the Supreme Court in the U.S. has in reviewing the legislation that is passed by Congress, so that one stands out. And there is the impact that courts can have on society, such as with Brown v. Board of Education, which mandated schools should be integrated. So I would say both adding to stability and positively shaping society is my take on the role of law.
17. What’s your biggest tip for learning Japanese? Never be embarrassed. Throw fear out the window. Look away from the smartphone so you can listen and watch.
18. How long did it take you to become fluent? I had a really intensive learning path because of the mission experience. I felt one level of fluency happen around three months, another level around one year. And then to really say that I felt truly fluent was about two to three years.
19. Do you have a favorite Japanese word? Genki. It is so much broader than similar words in the English language when needing to describe your overall condition or level of happiness. I really like ganbaru as well because it encompasses so much more than just “trying hard.” It’s useful when encouraging and uplifting others.
20. Some people made sourdough, others took up jogging in the pandemic. Have you taken up any new hobbies? All I can say is that my golf game has been the best it has ever been in my life.