Yuriko Minamoto

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Career History and Present Situation: Steer Yourself towards the Interest of the Moment

Yuriko Minamoto
Professor, Graduate School of Governance Studies,
Professional Graduate School

“The Starting Point: The Experience that Set the Direction of My Career”

 Over the course of my professional life I have worked in four different types of organizations. In my mind there is a common thread running through my thirty-some year career, but the workplaces are varied, from an international cooperation implementation agency (Japan International Cooperation Agency), a training and research institution, to a consulting firm catering to organizations such as the World Bank and NGOs, and now a university. It may sound cliché, but having experienced the role of both sides of a contract, so to speak, I have learned firsthand how being in one role or the other can affect your position in working relationships. I think of my current role as the bridge between research and practical interests.
 What inspired me to develop an interest in international cooperation in my twenties was the one-year study exchange program in the United States that I experienced as a high school student. I spent a year in the mid-1970s American countryside where not a single Japanese person was to be seen. My stay was a mere one year, but to this day I consider it the most profound experience of my life. I was deeply struck by the generosity of my host family, who took me in as a member of their family sight unseen. As much as I still cherish my time in America, I remember detecting something resembling a sense of superiority over Asia, a sense that was prone to lead to racial discrimination. The opportunity to live outside of Japan and observe my own country from afar gave rise to the contemplation of a number of things. For example, I asked myself if that sense of superiority was not something we in Japan feel towards other countries in Asia. I also wondered what causes people to discriminate against others when no one can choose where we are born. These thoughts and questions led me to study Japanese history of political thoughts and Japan’s policy towards Asia in university and eventually to taking my first step in the working world in the area of international cooperation in Asia.
 After gaining some practical work experience in implementing Japanese Official Development (ODA) programs, I went to work for a training and research institution where I was involved in program and project evaluation research. Through my work I had the opportunity to network and engage in collaborative research and presentations with overseas researchers and consultants. This experience steered me towards evaluation research and social development studies, which are my current areas of research.

“My Approach to Teaching”

 I now teach at the Professional Graduate School of Governance Studies, a public policy graduate school with 70% of the Japanese students being either legislators currently in office or public servants. Its English track serves about 40 students, mostly central government officials from Asian countries. These are the very people in charge of implementing policies and programs, and I struggle everyday trying to figure out how best I can be of use to these experienced professionals. Unconsciously people working on the front lines are constantly reflecting on their performance. This indicates that they understand what the issues are. To frame the issues in a structured, organized way and take the next step to make improvements, they need to develop objective perspectives and an understanding of theories and concepts. It is this kind of applied social science approach that I hope to offer in my course.

“The Highlight of My Current Research: Evaluation Theory as a Tool for Improving Society”

 Only a limited number of undergraduate or graduate programs in Japan offer courses on evaluation research. As the study of theory and methodology of evaluating social interventions, evaluation research has proliferated in the United States since the 1960s and is undertaken in fields as varied as education, health and medical services, welfare, employment, and urban planning. Thus it is crucial for anyone engaged in evaluation research to forge connections with experts from many different fields. The themes of research of which I am a part range from policy evaluation of municipalities and welfare sector to the non-profit organizations and social impact investment (the use of private-sector finance for public needs). Each project aims to examine the evaluation approaches in its respective area. The evaluation discussions involving researchers and professionals in fields distant from my own are as stimulating as they are appealing, and indeed provide a great learning opportunity on matters outside my specialty. At the same time I see them as an endeavor with the potential to establish and promote evaluation research in Japan in the future.
 My current focus is on collaborative or participatory evaluation, where stakeholders of the program or project being evaluated participate in the evaluation process. Unlike the traditional evaluation approach in which the evaluator and the evaluated have separate and distinctive roles, in collaborative evaluation evaluators and program staff determine the evaluation criteria and conduct the study and evaluation as a joint effort. The intended results of this approach are stronger relations and a better understanding of issues among the participants, fostering a sense of ownership, and contributing to the betterment of society, which is the ultimate goal of the evaluation. It is precisely this type of approach that is called for at times like the present, when a variety of actors, including private companies and NPOs, are involved in activities to address society’s problems.

“Messages to Students and Young Researchers”

 As I mentioned earlier, my career path that included stints at four different organizations is not something I had planned from the start, nor did I have anything like a 30-year vision. I built my career by following my interests and passion, and that is how I arrived at where I am today.
 With regards to gender equality issues, I can recall few instances where I was disadvantaged for being a woman. One reason for this may be that I deliberately avoided workplaces that treated women unfairly, as I belong to the generation of women that entered the workforce before the Equal Employment Opportunity Law was passed. Another is that English-speaking jobs in the field of international cooperation, for reasons that escape me, tend to have a high proportion of women. So I have been blessed with good work environments as far as gender equality is concerned.
 One thing I have realized throughout my career is that when you apply your best to the work in front of you, whether it is an invited research project or a job that just lands in your lap, you will discover a new path in your career that corresponds to your own areas of interest. That is exactly what happened to me. I started late as a researcher, and I dare say I am just now enjoying the pleasure and thrill of a career in research.
 It is more important, in my view, to follow your interests and strive to address the issues that you yourself have identified, not those imposed by others, than it is to have a dream. It is much more fulfilling to live in the moment than to chase after some distant dream. You can “steer yourself towards the interest of the moment,” as the title of this article states, when your “antennas” of interest happen to catch the right signals from others. I look forward to enjoying my work as I struggle ahead, always keeping my antennas up and steering myself towards my latest passion.