Finding intentionality in tea, gardening, yoga, and a career in US-Japan relations

“I love tea,” said Paige Cottingham-Streater, “not just as a beverage, but because of the relationships that you can have and the conversations that go around tea.”

Though she claims she doesn’t have the patience to sit through a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, she identifies with other aspects of intentionality inherent in Japanese tea culture. “There’s different types of tea, you pay attention to where it’s grown, which season of the harvest, and you think about the cup,” said Cottingham-Streater. Different cups are for different occasions and each lends a different feeling to the experience.”

It’s a perfect passion for the head of not one, but three interrelated organizations dedicated to advancing and strengthening the “vital educational and cultural foundations of the US-Japan relationship” — the Japan-US Friendship Commission (a longtime funder of The Congressional Study Group on Japan), the US-Japan Bridging Foundation, and the US-Japan Conference on Cultural & Educational Interchange.

Cottingham-Streater’s interest in Japan began as a child. Born into a New Jersey household with a love of learning and travel, her childhood was filled with conversations about other countries, other parts of the world, and her father’s experience serving overseas in the Korean War, including in Japan.

In 1970, Japan hosted the World Expo. Her father was curious to return to Japan all these years later, and off they went. “As a fifth grader who was taking social studies at the time and learning about other countries this was sort of the perfect time to learn that there’s a lot beyond my New Jersey environment!” said Cottingham-Streater. “It just sort of was this “ah-ha moment.”

This experience of international exchange and her drive to become a lawyer combined to set Cottingam-Streater’s course for her academic studies. Even when other interests and opportunities threatened to crowd out her ties to Japan, she has always found a way to maintain her connection.

As an undergraduate at Connecticut College, Cottingham-Streater majored in Government and French. But the chance to take an Asian Studies course arose, and she jumped at the opportunity. “Here’s the secret,” said Cottingham-Streater. In high school she had also taken an Asian Studies course, which used the famous book by Edwin O. Reischauer. In her freshman year at college, she found a course using the same book. “Well, I’m no fool! I’m going to take this class!” admitted Cottingham-Streater. She did and loved it, eventually dropping the French major in favor of Asian Studies.

After law school, Cottingham-Streater went to work as a staff attorney for the federal government, but continued taking Japanese language classes. There she learned about the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. “I thought, So the Japanese government’s going to pay somebody to go teach English in Japan? I can do that!” said Cottingham-Streater. She applied, almost forgetting she had immediately after, but was then invited for an interview and accepted the offer as a way to live in Japan and practice Japanese — a dream come true in a way, as she surprisingly never studied abroad in college (she was elected president of student government her junior year, when most students study abroad).

Upon her return to the United States, Cottingham-Streater committed to connecting her professional interest in law and academic studies in US-Japan relations together. “I was more interested in the public policy side of things because the experience in Japan just really reaffirmed, there is more than one way of looking at things and it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum outcome,” she said.

Cottingham-Streater went to Capitol Hill to work for US Representative Donald M. Payne, who served on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. From there she moved into US-Japan relations full-time. She first became the Director for the US-Japan Project at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, then joined the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation, where she worked for sixteen years, eventually becoming the Deputy Executive Director, and in 2011 took on her current positions.

I asked her if she thinks about gender in these roles she has working with Japan, a society traditionally dominated by male leaders. She does, and points out further that being an African-American woman in her position is unique in both a Japanese and US context.

“And frankly in Japan I feel youthful as well!” said Cottingham-Streater, who is 54. “This has conundrums sometimes because I’m relatively young and female in a society that really makes extra effort to convey respect on elders and is more accustomed to dealing with men. In the last six years, I’ve found myself needing to establish my position — not that people aren’t respectful, but they’re just not always accustomed to dealing with someone that looks like me.”

Supporting diversity is more than just having numbers that look good. It’s about the improving content and results of the conversation. This takes commitment and thoughtfulness to create a group of people who represent a wide range of opinions and set this as the standard. “I think it’s a learning experience for all of us.”

Aside from tea, Cottingham-Streater loves yoga. “I really find yoga wonderful because it is both physical and it’s also a chance to relax,” she said. She takes time for yoga as much as possible both “on the mat” and “off the mat,” finding her practice beneficial both personally and professionally. “Yoga gives me that opportunity to just sort of slow down and literally be intentional. You literally have to be in the moment because if you’re not, it all falls apart. You will fall on your head!”

“I also love gardening when I have the chance to do it and pottery and ceramics for the same reason: you use your hands,” said Cottingham-Streater. “The nature of the work that we do — you’re planting seeds in a relationship, whether the US-Japan relationship or professional development for young people who participate in our exchanges, but we don’t really know the outcome until years off.” With gardening, and her craft at the pottery wheel, she has the luxury of seeing tangible results much sooner.

Tea, yoga, gardening, her views on diversity, following her passions to build a meaningful career in US-Japan relations…There’s a common thread here in the value Cottingham-Streater places on intentionality. Indeed, said Cottingham-Streater, “I’m a focused person.” It shows.

One more question…What is your favorite Japanese word or phrase?

It’s related to tea a little bit — en (縁). We don’t have it in English, some would translate it as fate. It describes the moment in time of an encounter, sort of like the meeting with you is meant to be now and at this moment. That’s my interpretation, and that’s the way it was explained to me. I think that’s really nice, that the people who we meet, we’re meant to meet them at the time that we do.