An interview with Makiko Deguchi, President, SIETAR Japan (since April 2017) by Liliana Tinoco Baeckert

What started your interest in intercultural issues?

I was born in Japan but I grew up as a third culture kid (TCK) in the U.S. and Canada, so I not only struggled between the values and ways of thinking of Japanese and North American culture, but also as an Asian person in a predominantly White environment. Once I discovered an emerging field called cultural psychology in graduate school in Boston, I was hooked, since it answered many of the questions I had while growing up. But I also found that the field of privilege studies and an understanding of the notion of White privilege became a source of empowerment for me, and I began studying about how to link pedagogy to social justice in Japan, as a privileged member of the dominant race in Japan.


How did you build this interest into a professional career?

While a doctoral student in cultural psychology at Boston College, I was teaching cultural psychology at the undergraduate level in various universities. It was the students that pushed me to consider incorporating issues around racism into my course. Students told me, “It’s interesting to understand cultural differences between Japanese and North Americans, but we want to learn how to have dialogue around race and racism in the United States.” Although I was hesitant to delve into race and racism (because I felt unprepared and uncomfortable), I began to learn about racism and privilege so that I could begin to teach about privilege and oppression. Since returning to Japan in 2009, I have been teaching similar courses but now with a shifting focus on Japanese privilege (instead of White privilege), since students at my university are extremely privileged and unaware of it. I was hired with tenure at Sophia University and teach about courses I am passionate about, including English Skills, such as public speaking and debate. in my career development I benefitted from being a native speaker of English as well as being a Japanese national.


How do you see the profession of intercultural training evolving in your country in the next 5-10 years?

I have always felt that I am not a typical interculturalist because of my psychology background and my focus on social oppression, but I do see that in the past, the field of psychology and intercultural communication often assumed that cultures were equal in power or else ignored power differences. I believe that this is not reflective of reality, and so I feel the need to incorporate the analysis of power differences into the field. I believe that more and more interculturalists will begin to integrate the issues around power, privilege, and social oppression in our work so that we can adequately address the issues in our global communities today.


Do you have an anecdote or a funny story about intercultural training or even something you experienced yourself?

I like to share this story because both sides were so well-intentioned. In the late 1990s, I was living in Boston with my American boyfriend when my mother called from Japan. I didn’t know who called since my boyfriend took the call. He was on the phone for quite some time, speaking in Japanese and I was wondering who it was. After a few minutes, he said, “Your mother is on the phone,” and passed me the phone. When I talked to my mother, surprised at the lengthy conversation, I asked “What were you guys talking about?” to which my mother answered, “What choice did I have? He wouldn’t give the phone to you!” In Japan, it is considered somewhat rude to make your caller ask for someone, especially if you know who the person wants to talk to.  You’re supposed to automatically say, “Hello! Good to hear from you—I’ll get your daughter for you” and pass the phone on to the person immediately. That is the polite and expected way. However, my boyfriend was also being very polite in an American way, which was never to assume and only to do what is explicitly expressed. He was waiting for my mother to ask for me, and so they were both engaging in a conversation neither of them wanted! I always tell this true story and find many Japanese people with American partners can relate to it.


Are there generational or gender issues that impact on your work in the intercultural field?

I personally feel that being an academic in a fairly progressive university has made gender issues not as salient in terms of barriers. Perhaps having grown up in North America and never fully internalized the standards of “femininity” (soft-spoken, polite, subservient, passive) in Japan has allowed me to find a way to be assertive while remaining “likeable”. Women always have to work hard to strike that impossible balance between being “liked” and being “respected.”



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