It is hard to say goodbye to an organization I care so deeply about, with donors, Board Members, Council Leaders and staff from whom I have learned so much over the last decade. While I will miss the many interactions as part of my daily work, I am grateful that I will be able to remain engaged with everyone as an active USJC Member and a member of the Development Committee next year. When I first joined USJC in Japan in December 2011 to be the founding Executive Director of the TOMODACHI Initiative, I had no idea where this journey would take me or the Council. The TOMODACHI Initiative was still only a concept then – we had not raised any money, had not announced any partnerships, nor run any programs.
I had moved to Tokyo in January 2011 (my first visit to Japan) on a Council on Foreign Relations-Hitachi fellowship, arriving just two months before the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crises. Following the triple disaster, in addition to engaging in hands-on volunteer work in the region, I had the privilege of working closely with a team of inspiring leaders, including U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos, USJC President Irene Hirano Inouye, and Senior Advisor to the U.S. Ambassador Suzanne Basalla. Among our goals was to find a way to leverage the common interest and goodwill of the public and private sectors to make a difference in the lives of young people in the disaster-affected region.
What followed with the TOMODACHI Initiative became an incredibly challenging and rewarding career journey, working to develop the partnerships and the programs that would send over 10,000 young people on exchanges and provide life-changing experiences for participants on both sides of the Pacific. Getting to know the young people impacted by our programs has been one of the most memorable aspects of my job. Today, the TOMODACHI Initiative is one of USJC’s signature programs and is one of the most important contributions we have made to the next generation.
As the first USJC employee in Japan, I was fortunate to be joined by some great team members in Tokyo who are still with us. In those early years, we also navigated a complex bureaucracy to establish ourselves as a koeki zaidan hojin in Japan, roughly equivalent to our 501c3 non-profit in the United States, which importantly allowed Japanese companies to receive tax benefits for their gifts to us.
In 2015, I moved back to the U.S. with my husband for his work in the U.S. Navy, and soon thereafter I joined the Office of Global Partnerships in the U.S. State Department to build other public-private partnerships similar to TOMODACHI. This was a great opportunity to build upon my prior government experience, and to apply the lessons I’d learned working alongside the private sector in Japan. When my role ended at the end of the Obama administration, Irene asked me to return to USJC. Since then, I’ve worked to develop and deepen USJC’s relationships with private sector and government counterparts, and to ensure that our programming, engagement and communications are the best they can be to enhance the bilateral relationship. I am especially proud of what we achieved during the past two years – a period of dramatic change, with Irene’s passing, the pandemic, the onboarding of Suzanne as the new president and CEO, and the launch of our focus on climate and sustainability.
It’s been a privilege working with such outstanding Board Members, Council Leaders, donors, partners and staff members in the U.S. and Japan, as well as a distinct honor to serve the Council under Irene and Suzanne. The USJC family truly has been a family to me, cheering me on through the births of my three children, and being incredibly supportive when I lost my husband in 2017. Being a part of USJC has been a journey of great significance in my life and career, and I leave knowing that together we have made a positive impact in the lives of tens of thousands of people, recognized and reinforced the leadership of Japanese Americans, and strengthened connections between the United States and Japan for the future.
I would like to thank everyone for their support and friendship over the years, and look forward to staying in touch!
Laura Winthrop Abbot