President Jimmy Carter is honored at the civic center in Kurobe, sister city of Macon, Ga., which each year hosts a marathon in honor of the former president's visit in the 1980s. Mr. Carter's work building ties with Japan was the basis on which the Japanese consulate in Atlanta bought him the Peace Bell which now hangs on the site of the Carter Center. CULCON is convened every year to focus on furthering people-to-people exchanges. Credit: Trevor Williams / Global Atlanta

Reasons abound to host a conference on cultural and educational exchange The Carter Center, from the gravitas of the Cyprus Room to the legacy of the former president’s work “waging peace” and building friendships around the world.

But one new factor drew the attention of the Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida: the Peace Bell, newly installed in a traditional Japanese bell tower on the grounds of the Atlanta nonprofit.

“I would like to extend my most sincere congratulations on the occasion of the 30th plenary session of the Japan-U.S. Conference on Cultural and Educational Exchange, which is being held today here in Atlanta, Ga., where the Peace Bell from my hometown, Hiroshima, rings.” 

The mention from the prime minister in a statement read at the Carter Center by Masaaki Kanai, assistant minister and director-general for cultural affairs in the foreign ministry of Japan, shows that the bell, unveiled officially almost exactly a year ago, is resonating for its intended purpose as a tangible reminder of U.S.-Japan friendship and the nations’ shared desire for peace.

Those ideals have also driven the conference known as CULCON for more than 60 years. 

The biennial conclave kickstarted in 1962 by then-President John F. Kennedy and Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda convenes both sides to discuss ways to enhance people-to-people ties. 

Chaired by representatives from each country and attended by government officials and stakeholders from across business, academia and civil society, the group’s goal is to provide policy recommendations to keep the longstanding friendship humming along. 

“We can shine spotlights on opportunities, we can define issues that we think may be the added attention, and we can also bring resources — the resources of all of you, but also of both of our governments, to task of people-to-people exchange,” said Sheila A. Smith, the chair of this U.S. panel and the John E. Merow Senior Fellow for Asia Pacific Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, in opening remarks. 

Sasae Kenichiro, president of the Japan Institute of International Affairs and former ambassador to the United States, serves as the Japan chair of CULCON and was in attendance at the event.

Atlanta played host to the 30th plenary session — a departure for a conference that rarely deviates from Washington and Tokyo. The 2021 event went virtual for the first time in its history during the pandemic. 

Ms. Smith noted that getting back to in-person dialogue is key for an alliance that U.S. President Joe Biden said is growing increasingly relevant in a time of uncertainty.

“Our world stands at an inflection point. The decisions we make today will determine the course of our future for decades to come, from promoting nuclear nonproliferation to working to ensure the Indo-Pacific region remains free and open,” the U.S. president said in a statement read to the group by Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Scott Weinhold of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational Affairs. “I am proud that Japan and the United States are working together to set our world on a stronger, safer and more secure course guided by our shared values of freedom. democracy and equality.”

Mr. Biden added that the U.S. and Japan were stepping up collaboration in high-tech arenas like quantum computing and artificial intelligence, both of which are growing more vital to national security.

Before reading the president’s remarks, Mr. Weinhold said the issue of U.S.-Japan ties was “deeply personal” to him.

He was posted at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo during the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that claimed tens of thousands of lives in the Sendai region. He visited the area with Mr. Biden, then vice president, in the months following the devastating event. 

Ten years later, Mr. Weinhold was also in charge of the evacuation of Afghans and Americans from the Kabul airport as the U.S. pulled out of Afghanistan. Japan’s Self Defense Forces, diplomats and aircraft were essential to the effort. 

“So in my career alone, I have two reply memorable and valuable experiences of how the U.S. and Japan have supported each other in crises, and CULCON is the type of organization that lays the groundwork, that bedrock, that underlies the relationship that allows us to step up in these moments of crises,” Mr. Weinhold said.

Mr. Kanai happens to have had a similar assignment from the Japan side in Afghanistan. 

“Usually it was nearly 20 or 30 minutes’ drive, but during that time, it took hours,” he said. “Without close air support provided by U.S. forces headquarters, our convoy would not have been able to get to the airport.” 

Mr. Kanai also noted his fondness for Atlanta, where he was later assigned to attend a dialogue on deterrence with U.S. forces. 

He went on to read a statement from Prime Minister Kishida, who said Japan and the U.S. are “bound by the strongest and deepest partnership we have ever seen in our history.”

“We share a vision of strengthening a free and open Indo-Pacific and bringing peace and prosperity to the international community. The foundation of our relationship is unwavering, thanks to the rule of law and common values,” Mr. Kishida’s statement read. 

WIth the conference focused on two tracks: enhancing access to information and subnational diplomacy, the prime minister said he was confident that the conference would produce productive recommendations that 

Japanese Consul General Mio Maeda, who was in attendance at the Friday plenary, hosted a dinner with the group at his official residence in Buckhead Thursday evening. 

YKK Corp. of America Vice President Jessica Cork, who has been an outspoken supporter of U.S.-Japan exchanges, was slated to speak to the group on Friday. 

The conference took place less than a week before a large Georgia delegation will travel to Japan for the Southeast-U.S. Japan Alliance conference — a prime example of a successful subnational exchange program on trade and investment that has persisted for nearly a half-century. 

While on the trip, representatives from the state will host a reception in Tokyo marking the 50th anniversary of its investment office there. 

Sign up for Global Atlanta’s Japan Channel to get daily updates from the conference and the trip. 

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...