Faculty Spotlight

Yumi Shimabukuro Talks Social Policy and Teaching Philosophy

By Aastha Uprety MPA '21
Posted May 24 2023
Professor Yumiko Shimabukuro
photo illustration / photo courtesy Center on Japanese Economy and Business


“I’ve always been drawn to the paradox of poverty amidst plenty.”

Professor Yumiko Shimabukuro MIA ’03 was born in Okinawa, one of the poorest prefectures in wealthy Japan. She moved to the Philippines at age 3, where every day she witnessed poverty right outside of the affluent gated communities. In her adolescence, she returned to Okinawa to complete Japanese compulsory education, continuing her secondary education on the island’s US military base before immigrating to the United States. Again, there was a visible contrast between the base and the local population outside it.

It was this experience growing up that fostered her interest in political economy and social welfare.

“The Philippines was advancing” when she lived there, Shimabukuro says, “but you still saw dire poverty existing amid economic progress and democratization. It was even more apparent in Okinawa — Japan is one of the richest countries but it still had poverty, high unemployment, food insecurity, child abuse, and neglect.”

Literature about “poverty amid progress” dates back to the late 19th century, Shimabukuro observes. “So it’s nothing new,” she says. “It’s just disappointing that it continues.” 

‘The darker, harsher reality’

An expert on East Asian welfare systems, Shimabukuro teaches Comparative Social Welfare Policy — a requirement for any student focusing on social policy within the Urban and Social Policy concentration — as well as classes on political economy and global leadership development. Known colloquially as Yumi, she also serves as the director of the USP concentration for SIPA’s Executive MPA program.

Recently, her ongoing research on the subject has culminated in a likely publication, Misery Beneath the Miracle: The Pitfalls of Social Investment and the Political Economy of Productivism. The manuscript — coauthored with Arvid Lukauskas, who among other positions at SIPA is executive director of the Picker Center for Executive Education — is currently in the final stages of review at a major university press. 

“Arvid and I seek to revise the commonly told East Asian miracle story,” she says, “by illuminating the darker, harsher reality that lurks beneath the region's economic success.” 

Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and China are all known for their rapid economic growth in recent decades and prosperity today. The region’s devotion to productivism, explains Shimabukuro, means that production and growth are often elevated above other goals. But each country still grapples with underlying social ills, from deficient housing in Hong Kong, to stagnating wages in Taiwan, and precariously high elderly poverty in South Korea.

The existing literature, Shimabukuro explains, is one-dimensional and glosses over important trends in the region, like urbanization, skill-biased technological change, and demographic shifts that have increased socioeconomic risks. Misery Beneath the Miracle uses an interdisciplinary approach to account for policy dimensions often ignored, such as child welfare, labor, and housing.

The very means by which East Asian countries achieved economic success is at the heart of their poverty and other social problems. 

“What we found was that the very means by which these countries achieved their economic success,” Shimabukuro says, “is really at the heart of the problem.” 

In other words, the countries’ pro-growth, pro-productivity policies sacrificed social welfare for economic outcomes. Governments left safety nets purposefully threadbare and relied on private investments in education, Shimabukuro explains, “to sustain that economic miracle.”

East Asian countries enjoyed some success in dealing with COVID-19, especially in comparison to the United States, but Shimabukuro says the region is in no position to take a victory lap when social problems like persistent relative poverty, domestic violence, suicide, and child abuse are on the rise, and countries have not started significant discussions about political restructuring and expanding the welfare state.

Through this work, Shimabukuro also wants to plug East Asia into the conversation about social welfare policy, which today is often dominated by Western case studies. In fact, she says, there are many commonalities between East Asian productivism and US capitalism, including weak safety nets, distressed democracy, and a reliance on civil society to maintain social welfare.  

Achieving teaching success

An outlier among faculty, Shimabukuro first experienced SIPA as an MIA student, studying international economic policy from 2001 to 2003. After graduating, she worked on Wall Street — but quickly realized it wasn’t her calling. 

So Shimabukuro returned to her academic roots and pursued a PhD at MIT, where she fell in love with the field of political economy of redistribution. When she ended up at Harvard for postdoctoral work, Shimabukuro was extremely grateful and thought it would be the launching pad for her dream career.

But the outlook on the academic job market was grim. “I believe at that time there was only one Japan-related position,” she said. “That was it.” 

Professor Yumiko Shimabukuro presents to a class.

In 2014, Shimabukuro finally got a job — as a part-time lecturer at SIPA, which hired her to teach a 1.5-credit course on East Asian welfare policy. It was one of the School’s first classes focused on social policy, and she didn’t think many people would want to take it. 

“I was terrified the course would be canceled if enrollment was too low,” Shimabukuro said. “I walked through every floor at SIPA and I put flyers on the walls soliciting registration.”

The course ended up with about eight students, she recalls. “That’s how my teaching career began.”

“I've always feared that the fact that I don’t look and sound like a professor could hurt my teaching,” Shimabukuro says. “I am a short Japanese woman with a high pitched voice and a spunky, semi-bubbly personality!”

But Shimabukuro dove into the literature on cognitive science and education psychology early on, and gradually became a self-taught expert.

The effort paid off: Less than a decade after first teaching at SIPA, Shimabukuro is a full-time faculty member and a winner of SIPA’s Outstanding Teaching Award and its Top 5 Teaching Award. She’s known by SIPA students for her effective, energetic, and empathetic teaching style and her courses are among the highest rated.

A growing, diverse portfolio

Her interest in her students and the stories they shared about challenges and aspirations inspired her to publish Dream Rut: Navigating Your Path Forward (Wise Ink Creative Publishing, 2023). She has signed a contract with Oxford University Press for a book tentatively titled Transferable Teaching Skills: The Science and Strategies for Increasing Adaptive Instructional Capacity in Higher Education. 

Shimabukuro has also expanded her portfolio to teach workshops on effective instruction to executive education circles and at Columbia Business School. She serves as an educational consultant to USAID, the US Agency for International Development, and has worked on curriculums in the countries of Egypt and Georgia.

A final current project, coauthored with Ryoko Ogino of the the Business School, looks at gender inequality. Rising Above Inequality: Global Lessons from Japanese Women in Leadership (under contract with Columbia University Press) contributes to the intellectual diversity of leadership studies by incorporating the perspective of Asian women into the East-West dialogue. Shimabukuro received a SIPA faculty research grant for the project, which also draws on her work at the Center on Japanese Economy and Business, where she cofounded the Japanese Management Leadership Program. 

“What I tell my students is that you want to grow multi-dimensionally,” says Shimabukuro. “You can work on more than one topic, and have more than one role. Being an effective teacher is more than just lecturing in class – it’s book writing, it’s consulting, it’s leadership development programming.

“I like to grow this way, and I’m grateful to SIPA for giving me a chance to do that.”