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Revolutionizing Public Diplomacy: U.S. Embassy Tokyo in the 1970s

The goal of public diplomacy (PD) is defined as supporting the achievement of U.S. foreign policy goals and objectives, advancing national interests, and enhancing national security. It is done by informing and influencing foreign publics and strengthening the relationship between the people of the U.S. and citizens of the rest of the world. In Washington, the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs is in charge of the bureaus of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Public Affairs, and International Information Programs.

There has been an evolution in the practice of public diplomacy over the years since the State Department created the Office of International Information and Cultural Affairs in 1946. This office was replaced in 1953 by a separate foreign affairs agency, the United States Information Agency (USIA), whose officers managed press, cultural relations and exchanges at U.S. embassies and consulates. USIA’s offices overseas were called the U.S. Information Service (USIS).

The continuing changes in Public Diplomacy are the subject of academic scrutiny, with advanced courses notably at the University of Southern California, George Washington and Syracuse. This marks a transformation from the days when communicating with foreign audiences was done in a rigidly structured way. One of the first U.S. embassies to revolutionize its approach was in Japan. In the mid-1970s, under the leadership of Alan Carter, Public Affairs Officer in Tokyo, programming in Japan shifted away from historical lectures toward two-way discussions on contemporary issues with targeted audiences.

Robin Berrington served as the Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer in Tokyo from 1973-1975. Speaking with Charles Stuart Kennedy in April 2000, Berrington recalls the nuanced challenges of putting on Carter-style events. To read more about public diplomacy, USIA, Japan, or to read about the challenges of being lost in translation, please follow the links.


“I used to call it…the Mount Everest approach”

Robin Berrington, Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer, 1973-1975

BERRINGTON: In effect [my] job was the ACAO, Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer, for [United States Information Services (USIS)]’s program development. What that meant was organizing the speaker programs, the seminars, developing what Alan [Carter, Public Affairs Officer (PAO) in Tokyo,] liked to call a packaged program…[and identifying] say four or five program themes for the year. (Berrngton is seen at left.)

Say, one was “opening the Japanese market to American investments.” Let’s say another was “maintaining the U.S.-Japan security treaty.” Let’s say another was “demonstrating American achievement in science and other domestic activities.” Let’s say another was showing to the Japanese the “innovation and imagination of contemporary American art.” Let’s say another might be proving to the Japanese the value of a democratic society, what is happening in American society in terms of civil rights, human rights, all of that.

Now, I picked those out of the air, but those were concrete examples of some of the things we were trying to make a central part of our program in USIS Japan in the early to mid-1970s.

The concept was that the program development office, of which I was in charge, would identify the ways in which we could support those program themes; i.e., getting speakers, getting presentation books to give to people who might or might not have participated in the speaker program on the same themes…perhaps even books written by the speaker.

Not just taking any old speaker that USIA [United States Information Agency] would send down the pike but actually identifying the best people in those fields, requesting them by name to USIA in Washington, having them come to Japan, not just for one or two days, but often for two or three weeks to go around to all of the six USIS centers.…

In other words, it was sort of a multi-pronged approach in which we would try to support or promote that program theme through a variety of program tools. I would work with the press office to make sure that they would be trying to place items in the papers or provide opportunities for interviews on television on the same theme.

I used to call it…the Mount Everest approach. A month or two before the arrival of the speaker and the big seminar, maybe a whole daylong seminar, we would have small events, kind of preliminary events. These events were the foothills of the Himalayas.

Maybe a month or a couple of weeks before the event, we would be doing something a little bit bigger or splashier…leading up to the big thing, the Mount Everest, the big seminar which might have been in Tokyo. It might have been in Osaka. It could have been in any one of our center cities.

We would usually invite two or three people, specialists from the selected field. All two or three would participate in the seminar or big event or whatever it might be, but then after that, they would go around. The team would break up, so to speak, and they would go around to the other center cities speaking on the same topic but maybe being a solo performer instead of the whole team….

In that way, we would kind of get a national impact, because very often [we would invite] Japanese people working in print journalism or television or scholars who had some caché. There would be these people from our target audiences from each of these center cities. So, a national conference like that would ensure that the theme message would get out. Then, we had an angle to all of this as well.

Very often that person, if he or she had been invited in to a big seminar in Tokyo or Osaka, by the time the team of speakers split up and went out to the various center cities to do their solo performances on this issue, that person might then be the moderator for the program in the city when that person came through.…

I must say I think we set the standard for a lot of USIS posts in presenting a full program like that, a well-rounded approach to what USIS posts for many years had been doing but not in quite so planned and organized a fashion.

 “We were making it a much more contemporary and focused operation”

We were also…being much more attentive to the audiences we were dealing with. In the old days, we were sort of happy to have almost anybody come into the [American Cultural] Center. We were happy to be giving out our policy paper to almost anybody. You know, you work for the newspaper, fine let’s give it to him. Now if he was in the distribution office of the newspaper, so what? He didn’t have much to do with policy issues, but because he was with the newspaper, we would give it to him….

[Before Alan] Carter really instituted some of these reforms, too many American Centers in Japan had sort of relied on what I used to call the camp followers, the people who would just come to the American Center because it was heated in the winter or air conditioned in the summer. You got a free drink after the program was over. You know, the sort of people that would just hang around embassy or consulate operations like that….

Well, we were much more focused in our efforts, so as to get things into the hands of the real political, economic, cultural, military movers; those kinds of hands rather than just, what I called, the “Friends of America.” We were more purposefully going out and looking for target audience members, particularly those people who were not true believers necessarily.…

We used to really anger USIA in Washington because we kept insisting on really high level, important speakers. We wouldn’t settle for just the familiar name and face. We often used to joke that there were a lot of kind of old time speakers who had been at the trough of USIA for years and years.

Whenever Joe Blow wanted to take his trip to Europe or Asia, he would just call up USIA, and they would send out cables and arrange for speaking programs and what, you name the issue. Whether it was relevant to their country plan or not is something else. We would not settle for that. We had to break a few eggs to make the omelet that we were trying to make.

We had senators, we had congressmen. We had for example Herb Stein from the council of economic advisors in one of our economic programs.…The more [the Japanese] became familiar with the idea that we were bringing in not just well-known name people but people who were extremely knowledgeable and accomplished in their fields, the more the word got around that you had to be at the American Center to find out what was going on, [and] the less problem we had getting the kinds of quality audience we wanted….

In a way, we were making our own lives more difficult because we were trying to do more than we were doing when we were the old American Cultural Center and just sort of dealing with whatever came in off the sidewalk. So, it was a much more aggressive, strident, focused, targeted kind of program. For example, (Herman) Melville…[we] didn’t do anything about Melville. We stopped doing nice, comfortable things like Melville. Instead, we started doing things like Saul Bellow.

The idea was to make the program as contemporary as possible. We figured everybody already knew about the Civil War or knew about Nathaniel Hawthorne and that sort of thing, but how many people knew about the current developments in American dance or how many people knew about those American writers who were getting the book awards and all of that, probably not so much. So, we were making it a much more contemporary and focused operation in our programming, as well as our audiences.

That was a major change because for many USIS people, this meant change. It meant getting off your can, getting out with new material and doing something; and we were instituting some accountability as well. I mean, if you didn’t deal with some of these people, you weren’t doing what you should be doing. We were actually recording the idea of putting this in quantifiable terms….

It was a major institutional change for USIS Japan. This was a change incidentally which then kind of set the mark for many other USIS programs around the world….

[The drive for change] was coming from the PAO in Tokyo, Alan Carter, who was one of the great thinkers and kind of conceptualizers of USIS. A man who created a lot of enemies because he did upset apple carts.

He was somebody who had never had any Japan experience before he got that job, the senior USIS job in Tokyo. Many of the kind of old Japan hands were immediately against him because they didn’t like what he was doing. So in their criticism they tried to use the idea that he was inexperienced in Japan.

Many of us were unsure about what was happening. I think many of the younger officers were quickly won over. Carter did a fantastic job of turning that post around and making us the kind of vanguard of what USIS should be doing worldwide….

“Exchange of ideas? Forget it! It is just not part of the Japanese system”

[First] of all, there are potential problems on both sides. Fortunately, the Japanese are very much into what you call a study type of activity. They are used to coming to a lecture or a speech by somebody with their little notebooks and pencils ready to take notes. It is almost as if they never left college or the university. They are always in a note taking mood….

Now, the problem…is that most of our invited American speakers, not all, but most of the people we had come in couldn’t speak any Japanese. Of course, the audience was largely a Japanese speaking audience. Some of the people in the audience could speak some English, but not well enough to really engage in a high level discussion on say arms control or trade negotiations or whatever. So everything had to be done through interpreters…

The simultaneous [interpretation] certainly provided a better flow and more spontaneity, except there was always that issue of how much accuracy because of just the need to keep up with the speaker and occasionally making an error, and how much would sometimes get left out. Sometimes the real flavor of it might not be there because the speaker was a fast talker and it was difficult for the interpreter to keep up.

Consecutive was probably much better for accuracy and reliability, but it did break up the flow of conversation and for those people who might speak some English, they might tune out for two or three minutes. It was a little bit more awkward. So, from the Japanese side, there was always that problem of interpreting.

Another problem for the Japanese side is that we were interested in dialogue. Now Japanese from high school, university days on, the whole idea is for the lecturer, the professor, the teacher, the sensei in Japanese, he or she. I shouldn’t say she, it is usually he. He would come in, give the lecture; the students would take the notes, lecture is over; students leave the hall, end. Questions? No way! Exchange of ideas? Forget it! It is just not part of the Japanese system.

What we were trying to do with the American Center programs is to encourage that kind of dialogue. In fact, we made a point of not calling these things lectures. We had another Japanese word that we used which was more an exchange of ideas rather than lecture. For many Japanese, it took them awhile to get used to this.

The idea of the speaker speaking for maybe 15-20-30 minutes and then the next hour and a half – for a two hour program, for example, the next hour and a half would be Q&A (questions and answers) or commentary from the audience with the speaker responding. For many Japanese that was never done.

Once they got used to it, it was okay. But the kinds of audiences we would bring together, well occasionally, it might be a media only audience or an academic audience or a “politician only” audience. I mean, one time I brought Mayor Koch (seen left) out from New York. We just got him together with a bunch of young politicians. So…we might do a very specialized audience for something like that. But most of the time it was a mixed audience of all of these categories.

The Japanese are very conscious about who in the audience is, well, getting back to hierarchy, who is the sort of a senior group, who is the junior group, who is the in between group, who is higher than me, who is lower than me. It would be seen as very unsettling or rude if maybe one of the junior persons was the first one to speak up, to raise his hand and say “Mr. Professor, I would like to ask you about…”

So whenever the presentation part of it was finished, there was always this, you could see a kind of rustling in the audience. People would kind of be nervously looking around in their seats. Everybody is trying to figure out who is the most senior, most respected person to kind of break the ice and get the discussion going….

I would pull somebody aside and say, “Make sure you ask about this or don’t hesitate to sort of get things going.”

So those were the kinds of challenges in organizing presentations for a Japanese audience. First of all, to engage in dialogue, secondly, to break through – with our assistance of course the interpreters – the language barrier as well.

“People in this culture don’t make jokes”

On the American side, there were always the problems…just in dealing with Japanese behavior at events like this. Now this may sound rather silly, but the Japanese have a habit of when they are at a program like this, even though they have got their little notebook and pencil or pen ready, very often they will sit there with their head down and their eyes closed, and it looks like they are falling asleep. In fact, they are not. I guess it is just a way for them particularly they are listening to interpreters. I guess it is a way for them to kind of really concentrate and get the message.

Frequently, after the presentation, American speakers would talk to me and say “Oh boy, did I bomb. I mean, look, they are all asleep in the program.” As a result, one of the things I would always do in advance of the program, and this was a very important part of the planning kind of preparation process, is I would brief the speakers on just how the Japanese behave in these kinds of programs.

Another problem for me and the speakers was the Japanese seldom asked a direct question. That is almost considered rude. So, what they would do is they would make usually a long winded statement about something, and maybe there would be a slight question at the end of this. If you were lucky, there was something with a question mark at the end of this.

But more typical would be this kind of long winded statement, and the implication would be what do you think of what I have just said… A lot of the Americans would find [it] difficult to kind of figure out what the speaker was really after.

The Japanese as a people are not given to much public displays of emotion or feeling or anything like that. So it would be hard to get any kind of feedback from the audience if you were really doing well.

I would tell the speakers don’t even bother with the jokes. I know that these things go over well in America, but I assure you here most jokes just won’t make it. Some of them would take my advice and wouldn’t bother, and others would brush me off.

My point was maybe the audience wouldn’t understand the joke because of the interpreting, but more importantly, this was supposed to be an educational serious occasion. Professors, learned people in this culture, don’t make jokes. So … it just wouldn’t go over. People weren’t expecting it and didn’t know how to react to it.

This would often discombobulate the American speakers. If they weren’t getting any feedback from the audience that things were going well and that there were some kind of response. So, there were those rough edges….

[These American speakers] were all very specialized, accomplished people in their fields…[but] before they came to Japan, we would send them a list of things they might want to read and familiarize themselves with. Even if they did that before they came to Japan, once they got there, they would find the real Japanese attitudes and feelings about things so different from what they had expected from the papers that often they would have to totally tailor their remarks or change their presentations….

[The] briefing was a very important part of this whole preparation process. I don’t mean just the briefing a half hour before the program begins, which we did of course. Also, we would arrange briefings with embassy officers in the various fields literally within a day after these people would arrive and got over the jet lag; we would schedule a full day of embassy briefings or briefings from other American and Japanese specialists in the country who would kind of bring them up to a kind of working level of how the Japanese understood or regarded these issues or how the American government wanted the issues presented.

Of course, the speaker was then free to use or disregard any of that information as he or she saw fit. But probably as much as that, even more important was the eventual feedback they would get from their first presentation or two. They would figure out, “Gosh, they really do think that” or “they really don’t understand that.”

It wasn’t just at formal presentations because we would always, as part of this package program process… arrange media interviews before or after a major seminar. There were always representation gatherings, maybe a lunch or a dinner or a reception, where the drinks and the food would certainly be abundant….[Things] always worked much more smoothly with a few drinks. [The Japanese] relax; they kind of let their hair down. It just is a much more sociable and candid occasion if there is a bit of liquor around.

“We weren’t just trying to get the toadies or the kind of knee jerk U.S. policy supporters”

In fact, let’s face it, these programs, even though it was allegedly bringing in the Americans to deal with the Japanese—to give them our views about positions, to present them with the latest information about X or Y—a lot of this was [to] allow the Japanese [to give information] back to the Americans for the Americans to take back to the United States to their various constituencies there.

So we saw ourselves very much as conduits for a two-way exchange of information, and given the high level and influential nature of the people who were participating on both sides, this was a significant learning experience….

One of the big things we used to astonish our Japanese audiences with was that, let’s say we did a program on arms control and we brought out three speakers. One of the speakers might be opposed to U.S. government policy. We would purposely go for a range of views. We weren’t just trying to get the toadies or the kind of knee jerk U.S. policy supporters. We wanted the specialists in the field….

[We] did this in cooperation with a very important institution so that they would be our co-sponsors, our co-hosts. It would give it more credibility to do it that way. But…the Japanese audience would then be very surprised that people, organizations as important as the embassy and our co-hosts, would literally sponsor a program featuring people that were opposed, that were critical.

I must say, it was not infrequent that our embassy colleagues would have snit fits about this as well. And people back in Washington would say, “Are you really sure you that?’

We’d say, “Yes, we were really sure.” We had done our homework. We had decided these were the people we wanted, and we were looking for a presentation that reflected the range of views in the United States.

You can’t understand the political debate in the U.S. unless you know what is happening on both sides of the issues. This seems common sense. This is basic to the whole process of learning….

“America in the 1970s looked like a very fractious, divided place”

[We] did not program specifically on Watergate. I mean there was really no need to do something on that issue per se, because it was being treated daily in the papers. There was a certain amount of Watergate fatigue setting in. But what we would do is we would program on the more fundamental idea of impeachment, how the impeachment process works or on some of the issues in constitutional law that would affect the whole Watergate process.

And people knew what we were doing. It wasn’t that unclear to them. There were certain issues that quite frankly there wasn’t much point in programming. For example, violence in America, the drug scene, why all of that is the way it is—there wasn’t much we could do with that because there is not much way you can come out looking good or providing any answers that the Japanese don’t already have. And besides it was only those issues that directly affected the U.S.-Japan relationship that we were most interested in….

I guess even crime would fall into this category [of affecting U.S.-Japan relations] as well, but nevertheless, we felt there was nothing we could say about crime that would make people feel better about it. I mean, it is there, and there is not much you can do about it.

Something like women’s rights or civil rights…yes, we could say something about it. We could demonstrate not only governmental outrage and support for progress in these fields, but we could also demonstrate a kind of local level support and reasons for this.…

In women’s rights, we brought out both Betty Friedan (seen right) and Gloria Steinem separately. They were fantastic, you can just imagine. On African-American issues, we had Mrs. Martin Luther King. .

This period coincided with the Vietnam War, and we would often have problems…. [To some of my speakers,] I would say “Look, you are here to talk about women’s rights or African-American civil rights” or whatever. I said, “If somebody raises their hand and asks you a question about American relations with China or Vietnam, that is your business whether you want to answer it or not. We recommend you don’t because it just opens a can of worms, and you are not a specialist in this field, and that is not what the point of this program is about, but you are free to do whatever you want to do.”

Some of them would take that advice and would say, “Look, I don’t know a thing about Vietnam. I am not going to get into that.” Others would suddenly say, “Well, now that you mention it, yes, I think the Americans are mad dog imperialists, suppressing the Vietnamese,” or whatever it was.

We would think “Oooh.”

But most of the Japanese realized that they have their people in Japan that are specialists in economics or maybe foreign policy but know nothing about issue X or Y and say silly [things here and] there, so it didn’t do much damage….

The whole point of it was we found there was a potential problem of losing confidence in America as a nation, its ability to hold together as a nation. If you realize, this was a time when there were a lot of conflicting constituencies: the women, the African Americans, the pro-war, the anti-war, the abortion, the anti-abortion and all of that.

America in the 1970s looked like a very fractious, divided place. Our concern was that the Japanese would lose confidence in our ability as a nation to govern ourselves and to remain a leader throughout the world. So there was a need to show that some of these issues, like the women’s issue or the black issue or whatever, were part of an ongoing process of achieving greater rights for all of our citizens and providing more democratic opportunities.

If the Japanese thought “Gee, we could use some of the same thing here,” that was their conclusion. We did not make that leap. We did not say we are doing this and you ought to be doing it here, too. Of course not; that would have been interfering in domestic affairs.