By Joshua W. Walker, Ph.D., President and CEO, Japan Society
Thanksgiving has always been among my favorite holidays, with its particularly American history but universal focus on giving thanks for the many blessings in our lives. 2021 has been a mixed bag from the elation of COVID vaccines to the advent of Omicron and the other variants that have continued to shape the ongoing pandemic. Now is the time to reflect and take stock, with gratitude, along with the ritual turkey dinner. It seems only appropriate to publish this piece on Giving Tuesday, which began in 2012 at the 92nd Street Y here in New York and, in less than 10 years, has become a global movement for people to give back to and support the many organizations that improve the city, state, and world in which we live.
A history of philanthropy
At Japan Society, there’s certainly a lot to be grateful for, as the gifts we’ve received have nourished, inspired, and sustained us over nearly 115 years of institutional history. There are far too many to credit properly, but let me start with the history of our first endowment. In 1920, Masanao Kobayashi, the New York manager of Mitsui and the head of the Society’s Japanese Advisory Committee, was instrumental in securing $74,000 in securities from Japanese sources for what would become the corpus of the Society’s first endowment: the Townsend Harris Endowment Fund. Its purpose was intended for special projects, including the publication and distribution of significant books on Japan. After Japan Society reopened following the end of the Occupation of Japan in 1952, the Townsend Harris Endowment Fund was formally merged into the rest of the Society’s endowment, making a significant contribution to our financial sustainability in the early postwar years.
We owe the gift of the land that our own Japan House stands on—for 50 years now—to the generosity of John D. Rockefeller 3rd, who guided the Society in its postwar incarnation as President and Chairman until his untimely death in 1978. Mr. Rockefeller deeded the land to Japan Society in July 1968. At the building’s opening ceremony in September 1971, he declared, “The hopes and labor and generous support of many, on both sides of the Pacific, have gone into the completion of this handsome and practical new home for the Japan Society. Japan House is a visible expression of our faith that the communication of understanding between peoples is the creative art which underlies statecraft, commerce and world peace.” Not coincidently, Mr. Rockefeller also donated the land for the headquarters of the United Nations in 1947, stating in a shining example of global philanthropy that he made the gift based on the conviction that “peace must finally be built on the foundation of well-informed public opinion.”
Generosity of spirit and a legacy for the future
For sheer generosity of spirit, nothing can beat Japan Society’s collection of artwork by Shikō Munakata (1903-1975). Munakata gifted us with many of his works in appreciation of his longstanding relationship with the Society and a lifelong friendship with Beate Sirota Gordon, Japan Society’s first Director of Performing Arts and a significant contributor to Japan’s postwar constitution, who served as Munakata’s interpreter and muse during his visits to the United States. Their friendship represents the truest form of deep bonds or kizuna, examples that continue to inspire our mission of connecting the U.S. and Japan. In celebration of this spirit, we’re delighted to be opening Shikō Munakata: A Way of Seeing on December 10, with nearly 100 path-breaking works from Japan Society’s collection, including a complete set of prints for his 1964 Tōkaidō Series, last shown by Japan Society in full in 1965, set within an original, experiential exhibition design by New York- and Barcelona-based MAIO Architects.
This spirit of generosity and thanksgiving is especially critical today. Japan Society represents the best of our community as we continue to engage, inform, educate, nourish and inspire through programs in the arts, culture, education, business, and policy that touch the lives of children to adults. Though our doors are once again open, and live programming has returned, we are leveraging our expanded digital presence and technological capabilities to bring the beauty of Japan to an even larger, international audience. Our commitment is inspired by our forebearers and we are privileged to deliver on this mission.
Just as Shikō Munakata’s love for the traditional Japanese woodblock inspired him with new ways of creating art, you too can be part of fortifying our legacy for future generations. Won’t you consider supporting us with an end of year gift, or by joining as a Member? The returns on your investment will pay dividends for generations to come.
Joshua Walker (@drjwalk) is president and CEO of Japan Society. The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.