Kenji Suzuki

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Circumstances, Luck and Sweden’s Diversity that Guided the Career Advancement of My Partner and Me

Kenji Suzuki
Professor of Grobal Japanese Studies

“The Confluence of Fortunate Circumstances that Shaped My Life”

 As a student at Meiji University Meiji High School, I aspired to be a diplomat. In university I continued to study for the civil service exam, but increasingly realized that I was better suited for a profession that would allow me to freely advocate public policies, and instead of joining the Foreign Service I went to work for Fuji Research Institute Corporation (currently Mizuho Information and Research Institute Ltd), a think tank. I was happy with the job, but decided a few years later to study at the London School of Economics and Political Science, heeding advice from my senior colleague at the institute, Professor Hiroo Ichikawa (currently a professor of the Graduate School of Global Governance, Meiji University), to pursue a degree overseas. Completing the master’s program in a year, I proceeded to a doctoral program at the University of Warwick in my second year in the U.K. Not long after that, I ran into financial hardship and was at a loss as to what to do, when my academic advisor suggested I take a position at the European Institute of Japanese Studies, Stockholm School of Economics (SSE), in Sweden. Enticed by free housing, I took the job although it was unpaid. I called my girlfriend in Japan (whom I later married) to join me and we settled in Sweden. Reluctant about moving to Sweden at first, my wife nonetheless came to love living there, perhaps even more than I did. After obtaining my Ph.D., I was officially hired as the institute’s Assistant Professor
 Ten years passed, and we were ready to live in Sweden for the rest of our lives when one day, out of the blue, the European Institute of Japanese Studies was significantly downsized, with almost all staff made redundant overnight. The notice came as a complete surprise, even if I appreciated that the extensive social security schemes with generous safety nets made firing staff easy for companies and organizations in the Scandinavian countries. It was such an enormous shock that even today I sometimes have nightmares about it.
 At the time, my wife was a student studying for a doctoral degree. Sweden offers not only tuition-free university education, but also salaries for Ph.D. students, who are treated as researchers. The income was a big help for our family. The external examiner of my wife’s doctoral thesis was from Oxford University, and the connection landed her a job at the school. Then I myself became a visiting scholar there. This was when our child was three years old. I feel fortunate that a confluence of luck and circumstances enabled us to walk through life together, sharing important life events and a career. And I am grateful to Sweden for graciously accommodating an immigrant like myself and providing career advancement opportunities.
 Later, another turn of circumstances brought me to Meiji University, where I took a teaching job at the newly established School of Global Japanese Studies.

“Descriptions of My Research”

 Previously, my research was focused on comparing the political decision-making processes in Japan and the U.K. I studied how public policies are formed and in what ways companies and politicians are involved in the policymaking process. My current field of research is political sociology, an area of study concerned with how fundamental social backgrounds and social psychology are reflected, and affect each other, in the formation of public policies and social systems. I examine and compare the dynamics in Japan and other countries, particularly Sweden, and investigate what causes the differences between these countries.
 At present, I have strong interest in social capital, which refers to the idea of building social networks based on trust. Japan and Sweden are very much alike in this aspect, having many common attributes such as low crime rates and a sense of mutual trust underpinned by belief in the inherent goodness of humankind. Absence of trust generates setbacks, such as having to take extra security measures. Trusting relationships, on the other hand, are free from such setbacks, and can turn into strengths. In an increasingly globalized world, it has become ever more important to make a conscious effort to maintain things like trust and networks.

“Creating a Society that Embraces Diversity and Accepts Different Values”

 I am currently working on a Japanese translation of a Swedish elementary school textbook, and was surprised to find poverty as the first topic appearing in the chapter on economy. A textbook for children in fourth to sixth grade proclaims that disparity and poverty are problems not only for those affected but for society as a whole.
 Many of us in Japan categorize ourselves as ordinary middle class and take this status for granted. We tend to label any people outside the mainstream as “others.” This mentality is manifested, for example, in the alienation of immigrants, single parents and LGBTs, income gap issues, challenges of generational divide, and the rift between parents and people without children. All these divisions stem from an attitude of viewing those different from us as “others.” This kind of thinking creates distrust and fragments society. While the recent trend of embracing diversity and the notion that we should accept different values is a sign of progress, Japan is only in the early stages of developing ways to put diversity into practice. As an immigrant, I have had first-hand experience of Sweden’s tolerance of diversity. Sharing this experience with my fellow countrymen in Japan is my way of returning the favor to Sweden.

“Fathers Don’t “Help” with Child Care”

 Every year, I take a group of seminar students to Sweden for on-site training. Once, a student asked a Swedish woman if her husband helped her take care of her children, only to be met with a blank look of astonishment. Why? She was puzzled by the word “help.” It is only natural for a father to play an active role in raising his child, and in Sweden, where policies and programs to encourage fathers to participate in child care activities are in place, men pushing baby strollers in the middle of the day on weekdays are a common sight. I myself took three months’ paternity leave and am proud to say that I actively engaged in child rearing in the years that followed.
 There is a perception in Japan that having children negatively affects one’s career, but I believe raising children helps enhance time management skills. Now that my child-rearing days are behind me, I feel my on-the-job performance has improved. The plus side of raising children—the opportunity for personal growth—is no doubt a huge blessing.

“Messages to Students and Young Researchers”

 Know that there are many alternatives to what you have right now, be it your research or your current social environment like your workplace. By staying in Japan, you can easily develop a false sense that what you have is the universal norm, so I encourage young people to get out more and to always keep a flexible mind.