The decade that economist Satoshi P. Watanabe (Ph.D. ’00) spent earning his doctorate at Teachers College – the 1990s – during his long odyssey from being the son of a police officer to a small city in Japan to an international career in academia overlapped with a pivotal period in his native country.
While studying on the Columbia campus with his academic adviser – current TC president Thomas Bailey – Watanabe also watched Japan’s post-war economic boom back home turn into a long period of fiscal stagnation. He said he became determined to use his upbringing to solve societal problems, and he credits his work with Bailey with opening his mind to possibilities.
“He really broadened my horizons and gave me a lot of advice on becoming an economist,” Watanabe – married to his wife Nicole with two sons, Daichi, an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley and Sean, a high school student at Hiroshima International School – said said recently in a phone interview from his current hometown of Hiroshima. With an ambition that was no longer to make his mark in academics, Watanabe “wanted to be someone who focused on policy solutions, whether in the United States or Japan.”
Earlier this year, Watanabe launched a project that could fulfill this graduate student’s ambition beyond his wildest dreams – to work as a political adviser to Japan’s energetic new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on his vast program to remake the economy of this country by tackling income inequality and wage stagnation. for workers.
Watanabe – whose government portfolio also includes Kishida’s cabinet service as a senior researcher for science, technology and innovation – said he had been tasked with boosting Japan’s moribund startup culture, working with experts from both sides of the Pacific on the possible possibility of a large new campus.
“Global competition is really tough,” Watanabe said, referring to Japan’s rivalry with powerful Asian neighbors such as China and South Korea. “Japan had no economic investments when I arrived, and I worked with the government to figure out how to change that status?”
It was a different economic confrontation – that between the United States and Japan in the late 20th century, when the industrial culture of Watanabe’s homeland challenged American supremacy – that sparked his youthful interest in come to study in the United States.
Watanabe – the son of a police officer in Fukushima, then a quiet coastal town in northern Japan, now famous for the nuclear accident in 2011, recalled his youthful vision of wanting to learn how to reduce tensions between the two nations that he saw on TV, maybe as a diplomat. “People in Detroit were smashing Toyota cars and Toshiba boomboxes,” he said. “I really wanted to do something about it.”
His odyssey began in the unlikely high-sky country surrounded by mountains of Ogden, Utah and Weber State University, where he honed his interest in the ways technology and economics could improve people’s lives. In 1991, he arrived on the TC campus to earn his master’s degree in economics, education, and philosophy while working closely with Advisor Bailey on his doctoral dissertation, which focused on the relationship between post-school education young workers and the growth of their incomes.
“It was a fun time,” recalls Watanabe of studying economics with the future TC president, who is still a friend and mentor who instilled a lifelong lesson in how academic research can influence businesses. public policies. “He really broadened my horizons.”
Since obtaining his doctorate. on 120th Street, Watanabe continued to keep a foot planted in the United States and Japan. He was a senior analyst at a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, held a full professorship and a senior administrative role as Executive Vice President of Global Strategy at Hiroshima University, and also served on the faculty of Arizona State University, where he remains a consultant.
Now Watanabe spends a lot of time on the bullet train between Hiroshima and Tokyo as he works closely with Kishida and his cabinet, which took over the reins of the nation and his Liberal Democratic Party in the fall. 2021. The new prime minister promised “a new capitalism” that relies more on government intervention, with the aim of reducing income inequality in Japan by raising wages at the bottom of the pyramid.
The economist’s work on revitalizing an innovative start-up culture in the style of America’s Silicon Valley or Kendall Square also brings the widely traveled Watanabe back to the United States to meet entrepreneurship experts from schools like Stanford, MIT and Carnegie Mellon University.
“We want to bring bright minds to Tokyo,” Watanabe said of the goal for a new startup campus, still in its infancy. It is, in many ways, the defining job of his career of uniting the brains of two nations that he could only imagine as a teenager.