What Can We Learn from the Okinawan Civil Service?
You probably didn’t know that the Okinawan government has an office in DC. Their main mission is to inform American federal staff, Congress, and the American people of what is happening regarding the relationship between Okinawan people and the U.S. military bases on Okinawa. Okinawa represents 0.6% of Japan, but hosts over 70% of the U.S. exclusive military bases in Japan. The office also has been building closer ties with Okinawan communities in the U.S. The Okinawan communities were present at the Cherry Blossom Festival and performed on stage.
Looking back to his early career, Takao Aharen, Deputy Director of the Okinawa Prefectural Government Washington, D.C. Office, said that if he could go back in time and give advice to his younger self, he’d say to study more history, since it so often informs the problems he is asked to help solve. The usual advice for young Japanese professionals in government is to avoid maintaining the status quo. Find a problem and solve it for betterment of your work. That means it’s critical to develop a solid problem-solving process. The Japanese civil service rotates employees between divisions every three years, so his previous assignment included promoting tourism and investment, as well as promoting relations with Okinawa’s sister state Hawaii.
I asked Takao what he’s learned from his time working with U.S. government staff. His initial ideas about what Americans would be like were based on books and movies, like a lot of other Japanese people, but he was fortunate to stay overseas and form friendships with new people, including Americans. He had come here with the idea that Americans placed a high value on hearing new and different ideas and always striving to improve, which is what he’s experienced since arriving. One key difference between the U.S. and Japanese government models is that you don’t see Japanese government staff staying in one field for 10 or 20 years, where Americans prize experience in one field more. He says this might be worth trying in Japan, though there is an advantage to the Japanese model as well. Seeing many areas gives them a fuller picture that they can use when they reach a senior level and are focused on one area. It also allows fresh ideas to come to every department every three years.
If he was mentoring an American young government professional, Takao’s advice would come from a Japanese proverb: “Fall down seven times, get up eight.” He believes the early career is the time to be willing to take risks and make mistakes. We can learn from mistakes. He says he may be able to use his experience in the U.S. for the rest of his career. One difference he’s noted is that Americans tend to speak more directly and are always clear what they would like to achieve. He said that he might try to be more direct, in a respectful way, when he returns. Though, he says with a laugh, he’d do that little by little. He doesn’t want his colleagues to think he came back a cowboy.
Joseph Maltby is the director of research for Young Government Leaders, an association of young leaders in government which seeks to provide an authentic voice for that generation in public service. He is a federal employee working on federal retirement issues.
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