The Long History and Deepening of USC-Japan Relations

C. L. Max Nikias presents Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe with a USC letterman jacket inscribed with his name during his visit to USC in May 2015. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

USC is gearing up to host its 2017 Global Conference in Tokyo, but the connections between USC, Japan and Japanese students date back nearly as far as the history of the university itself.

In 1889, just nine years after USC opened its doors, the university graduated its first Japanese student, K. Wada, from USC’s college of medicine. By 1910, as the university was quickly becoming a magnet for international students, USC’s first Japanese Student Union was formed. Among the university’s international students in the 1930s was Takeo Miki, who in 1974 became Japan’s 41st Prime Minister. Since those days, the bonds between Japan and USC have continued to grow.

USC’s first ever Global Conference was held in Tokyo in 2007, attracting industry, government, and academic leaders to discuss issues of importance to Japan, the US and the entire Pacific Rim. Bobby Valentine, field manager of Japan’s Chiba Lotte Marines baseball team, was a keynote speaker.

In 2011, USC established the Center for Japanese Religions and Culture to foster the study of Japan at USC and in the broader intellectual community. Initially funded in part by the Japan Foundation’s Institutional Project Support (IPS) Grant Program, the Center got a boost in March 2014, when the Shinnyo-en Buddhist organization provided a $6.6 million gift to name the Center in honor of Shinnyo-en’s current leader, Her Holiness Shinso Ito. To this day, the gift represents one of the largest ever to a center dedicated to the study of Japan in North America.

The USC Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture is one of the most active of its kind for Japan studies in the nation, hosting weekly events and seminars that bring scholars from Japan and around the world in dialogue with students, thought leaders and the general public. Current research projects directed by the center focus on Japanese religions and culture, as well as Japanese American communities, mixed-race studies, diaspora literature, and Japan’s global role in the 21st century. Every year, the center supports faculty and graduate students through research grants and funding proposals for visiting speakers, and enhances the educational experiences of over 1,000 students taking courses related to Japan studies, and the nearly 400 students taking Japanese language courses every year.

Duncan Williams, the founding director of the USC Shinso Ito Center, also serves as Executive Vice President of Japan House Los Angeles, a new public diplomacy initiative launched by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Japan House Los Angeles is slated to open at its Hollywood Boulevard & Highland Avenue location in October 2017, with two other locations, in London and Sao Paolo, also in the works.

Both the Japan House initiative and the newly named Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture were topics of discussion in May 2015, when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe added a stop to his US itinerary to visit USC’s campus. It was Prime Minister Abe’s first time on campus in almost 40 years. He spent three semesters at USC in 1978 studying English and taking courses in political science, international relations and history.

In honor of Prime Minister Abe’s visit, USC president C. L. Max Nikias presented the Prime Minister with a USC letterman’s jacket inscribed to ‘Shinzo Abe.’ “We are so proud to count Prime Minister Abe among USC’s most illustrious alumni, as his many accomplishments bring tremendous honor to the university,” Nikias said at the time.

Later in the summer of 2015, President Nikias chaired the 19th annual president’s meeting of the Association of Pacific Rim Universities (APRU) in Osaka. Nikias then traveled to Tokyo, where he met once again with Prime Minister Abe, where the two discussed the need to strengthen academic ties across the region and increase the two-way flow of students between the U.S. and Japan.

It is against this backdrop, exactly 10 years after USC’s inaugural Global Conference in Tokyo, that USC returns to Japan’s capital. Under a theme of ‘Creating the Future’, USC will showcase, together with Japanese industry and academic leaders, the university’s approach of turning creativity into reality through the sciences, humanities, engineering, medicine, entrepreneurship, and arts and entertainment. We hope you will join us there.


The 2017 USC Global Conference will be held in Tokyo, Japan, at the Grand Hyatt Tokyo from Sept. 21-23, 2017. Advanced registration is highly recommended as the conference is expected to sell out.