School friendship sparked career

01:00, Jun 05 2012
AMY CATALINAC: She graduated with a PhD in Political Science from the Department of Government at Harvard University.

When Henley School pupil Amy Catalinac was seven years old a Japanese family moved into her neighbourhood, a change that ultimately led to her graduating with a PhD in political science at Harvard University.

Miss Catalinac recalls the little girl in that family, Sakiko, was having trouble adjusting to life in New Zealand; she couldn't speak English and used to cry every day while eating her lunch.

She liked the look of the girl's lunch and decided to help her with English, and from there she and her sisters asked their parents if they could be a host family for Japanese students.

They did, with many students coming to stay for short periods of time, and when Amy began at Nelson College for Girls she began learning Japanese.

She also went on two exchange visits courtesy of Richmond's sister city Fujimi-machi and Nelson's sister city Miyazu, and after college went to high school for a year in Osaka.

She then went to Otago University and became fascinated by Japanese politics and foreign policy, but did not buy some of the conventional beliefs such as that its politicians were more corrupt.


After university she won a scholarship to do a PhD in international relations at Oxford University, but she turned it down, instead choosing a Japanese Ministry of Education scholarship to spend two years at the University of Tokyo.

She spent two years immersed in Japanese politics, and from there was accepted to pursue her PhD in political science at Harvard. There she figured out what was wrong with Japan – its electoral system.

Japan's parliamentary democracy differed from New Zealand's in that from 1947 to 1994 it had multi-member districts, she said. Rather than each district electing one candidate, each elected between three to five candidates. That meant parties had to run more than one candidate in each district.

She said: "Candidates competing in this system only care about policies they can target back to a small group of people in their district. They don't have any incentive to care about policies that target large groups of people such as women or consumers, and they need lots of money to compete because they cannot campaign as members of a political party.

"We know that the electoral system mattered because like New Zealand, Japan reformed its system in 1994. And since 1994, policies have changed."

Miss Catalinac's PhD was conferred last year and last month she proudly walked in the graduation ceremony.

She said being at Harvard was nothing like the New Zealand universities she had been to.

"People fight to speak up in class. Everybody is `on' all the time.

"Everybody is articulate and capable of speaking volumes about a topic even if they did none of the reading for it. People had an extraordinary amount of confidence."

From next month she will be Assistant Professor at Australian National University.

While teaching courses on foreign and security policy, she is working on her book, Pork to Policy: Electoral Reform and National Security Policy in Japan which will be published next year.

"I hope to be able to encourage my own students to get their teeth into something they enjoy and stick with it, as I have with my study of Japan," she said.