I am an American citizen, but I did not grow up in the United States. I spent my middle and high school years in Tokyo, where I attended the American School in Japan (ASIJ). My experience living abroad has played a significant role in motivating my interest in Asia-Pacific political issues and the United States’ relation to them. More than that, I have come to understand my former high school’s symbolic role as an institution that represents the United States to the Japanese community surrounding it. Such a cross-cultural responsibility is not one that any teacher or student or administrator at ASIJ might ask for, but it has nonetheless been thrust upon our community by virtue of the school’s very existence.
I was disappointed, then, to learn that Reince Priebus, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and White House chief of staff under President Trump from January to June of 2017, would be visiting ASIJ on January 12. In my view, ASIJ’s decision to embrace a visit by Priebus severely damages the school’s exceptional cross-cultural position between the United States and Japan, and compromises the school’s core values—which are an extension of American values.
One of ASIJ’s stated core values is its unique heritage, which draws on both the United States and Japan. ASIJ is cognizant of its position as an American educational institution in Tokyo. Many of its students are either Japanese or Japanese Americans. In August 2015, ASIJ even launched a Japan Center “to serve as a bridge between the school and the local, broader Japanese community.” Japanese people recognize ASIJ’s cross-culturalism and ASIJ, as a result of its name and its location, is a representation of the United States and the value of American diversity.
ASIJ also has a history of American Republican visits to campus. Nearly two years ago, when I was a high school senior, I was surprised to hear that former US President George W. Bush would be addressing the school at a mandatory assembly. The news reminded me of a day two years prior to that, when Bush’s former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice also visited and engaged in a Q&A with our senior class president. In the more distant past, President George H. W. Bush, former Florida governor Jeb Bush and former secretary of state Colin Powell had also visited ASIJ. Although the Bush administration was very controversial, as many ASIJ students’ childhoods were intimately bound up with the consequences of Bush’s tenure (most notably the Iraq War and the 2008 Recession), these were exciting opportunities to engage with prominent American political figures.
That being said, the circumstances of Bush’s visit felt uneasy. ASIJ has historically courted visits from famous American Republicans primarily because of alumnus Roy Ryu’s connections to the Bush family. Ryu is CEO of Poongsan Corporation, a Korean company that manufactures weapons—some of which, like cluster munitions, flout human rights standards. Bush’s team had also agreed to take questions from select students, but only if said questions were censored by Bush’s team and the high school administration. Although I was able to ask Bush two questions myself, I could not help but feel that that his outing to our campus was orchestrated in a manner that called into question ASIJ’s commitment to “developing compassionate, inquisitive learners prepared for global responsibility.” That sentiment was shared by many students and faculty alike.
The Bush visit was understandable and acceptable, even if the circumstances surrounding it were less than desirable. Priebus’s visit is not. The Trump administration has undone (or is still in the process of undoing) many of our assumptions about a number of things: traditional liberal-democratic standards, transparency and accountability of government, common human decency and sensibility, and so on. In fact, the list of previously upheld values that Trump has brought to the forefront of American social and political discourse is simply too long to delineate here. That alone should have made ASIJ pause when considering whether or not to invite a former Trump administration staffer to visit—yet Priebus’s visit was allowed.
An argument could be made against my position that it is worthwhile for ASIJ’s students to hear from guest speakers in general, and that Priebus's visit is not an endorsement of him but rather a rare listening opportunity from an individual with intimate knowledge of the current state of American and world politics. It is reasonable, I think, to assume that this view played a significant role in making Priebus’s visit happen. However, the manner in which Priebus’s visit appears to have been handled and communicated by ASIJ’s administration does not support that rationale.
According to a student flyer distributed in opposition to Priebus’s presence, the event was announced three days before his arrival. Little to no explanation was given as to why Priebus in particular had been invited to visit. Students were purportedly sent a casual email by the administration about the visit that portrayed Priebus as a typical visitor to the campus. The email reportedly did not provide the appropriate context about the extent to which Priebus was involved with the Trump campaign and the Trump administration—which is significant, given that not all high schoolers are well informed about political or social issues. If ASIJ’s leadership was serious about the potential learning experience Priebus's visit afforded, they should have treated it as such instead of downplaying the gravity of the event.
Thanks to the admirable efforts of students and alumni alike, Priebus’s mandatory assembly meeting was made optional and it was agreed that questions would not be censored (though they would have to be known by Priebus’s contingent, which is bad enough). A student protest was planned where students could wear all black clothing and Queer Equality Alliance pins to respectfully voice their “opposition to the way [Priebus’s] visit has been handled and the way it has been presented” to the student body.
It was also encouraging to hear that many older ASIJ students took it upon themselves to explain the controversial nature of Priebus’s visit to their younger, more impressionable peers. I would say that they did what the ASIJ administration perhaps should have done but actively chose not to by initially making the assembly mandatory. It was less encouraging to hear that another group of students participated in a counter protest by wearing all white clothing. Such a response could be praised as an open clash of diverging ideas, but in reality, it reeks of white supremacism. Indeed, this development only further underscores the depths to which ASIJ has miscalculated the Priebus visit.
ASIJ’s decision exhibits flagrant disregard for the school’s ability to help shape present and future ties between Japan and the United States. This is strange because ASIJ is deeply committed to interacting with Japanese culture; I believe that ASIJ as an institution is aware that it is part of the bond between the United States and Japan. Yet by allowing Priebus to come to ASIJ’s campus, ASIJ has, in effect, forfeited an opportunity to affirm that its values are the same fundamental American values that Trump and his allies neglect: an embrace of diversity, tolerance and respect for others, and upstanding citizenship, to name a few (right from ASIJ’s stated core values).
It is unfortunate but accurate to say that ASIJ has contributed to the normalization of Trump and of the political forces that surround his image by allowing Priebus to visit the campus. One could argue that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has helped to normalize Trump too, but the parallel to ASIJ is not the same. Abe has a geopolitical responsibility to maintain the US-Japan Security Alliance; ASIJ has an educational and institutional responsibility to impart its professed values to its students and to demonstrate to the Japanese people that Trump does not represent those values. ASIJ has failed in that responsibility.
An educational institution that calls itself an “American school” should have the character necessary to recognize when an opportunity, intriguing as it might be, contradicts its stated values and harms its ability to perform a unique duty. Students and faculty at ASIJ and alumni from the school such as myself deserve better. More importantly, Americans deserve better from an institution that necessarily represents them to a foreign people.
Even if ASIJ’s leadership did not intend to endorse Priebus by allowing this visit, they have undoubtedly helped to legitimize what he represents, regardless of intention. To quote Kathy Krauth, one of my social science teachers during my senior year at ASIJ: “Giving Reince Priebus a forum is not giving someone of a different political view the stage: it is legitimizing and normalizing what the Trump administration stands for. And what the Trump administration stands for is antithetical to everything ASIJ stands for. And [ASIJ], ultimately, will be held responsible for that legitimization and normalization.”
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