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Japan Society: A Call to Action

by Joshua W. Walker, Ph.D. President & CEO, Japan Society

America and Japan in many ways are mirror images of each other. One embraces the future as one of the youngest nations in the world, the other honors the past, with the oldest dynastic imperial family in one of the most ancient civilizations in the world. Both nations need each other, whether they emphasize the strength of their differences by individual choice or collective willpower. The trajectory of the world’s first and third largest economies in the most critical region with two of the world’s leading democracies traces in many ways the last few centuries of global relations.

The early years across the Pacific

From the time that the United States forcibly helped reopen Japan to the outside world, thereby sparking the Meiji modernization period through the Russo-Japanese war, U.S.-Japan went beyond the two governments to the people and societies themselves. In the aftermath of President Theodore Roosevelt’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning mediation efforts between Russia and Japan in 1904-05, industrialists and leaders in both nations agreed that a society to help foster better U.S.-Japan relations was needed—ultimately leading to the formation of Japan Society in 1907.

In Japan Society’s early years, the business industrialists headquartered in New York who had founded the organization saw Japan as a nation and partner fundamentally complementary to America’s commercial interests in the world—even as fighting spread across Europe, leading to World War I. World war accelerated the rise of these two nascent transpacific nations onto a collision course. Japan’s 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor brought America into World War II, with the U.S. and Japan becoming the bitterest of enemies. As each nation and society mobilized its full resources against the other there was still healthy respect for the dedication and honor that each side fought with, culminating in Japan’s defeat in 1945 after two atomic bombs, before the Soviet Union could take control of more of northern Japan.

Reawakening and expanding U.S.-Japan relations from New York to the world

The way that Japan embraced defeat and America’s investment in rebuilding the country set the stage for a new relationship of mutual respect and, in 1952, after the end of the Occupation, Japan Society was reactivated under the leadership of John D. Rockefeller 3rd. It was a perfect match. The New York-based Rockefellers, leading industrialists of the time who believed in the need to invest in the future and in global institutions, had recently donated the land for the United Nations. After spending many years in Asia and Japan thinking through how an American-led world could incorporate former enemies as pillars of a new international order, John D. Rockefeller 3rd focused his efforts on the societal level. Japan Society, and many of the other institutions that the Rockefellers founded or funded, focused on the human elements of arts, culture, and education—the soft power that could unite East and West.

Having outgrown its shared space with the Asia Society—also founded by John D. Rockefeller 3rd—Japan Society formed a Building Committee in 1967. Land for a new building was donated by John D. Rockefeller 3rd, with a successful fundraising campaign split equally between American and Japanese, private and public, individual and corporate interests that financed the opening of a permanent—now landmarked—headquarters for the Society in 1971. Opening Week in September 1971 was graced by the presence of His Imperial Highness Prince Hitachi, who gave opening remarks along with Japan Society Chairman and President John D. Rockefeller 3rd. The patronage of the Imperial family since Japan Society’s founding allowed the Society to play a critical role in U.S.-Japan relations, and made the new Japan House a premier destination for U.S.-Japan relations along with its already august history and storied leadership. In addition to office and meeting space, the Society’s building included a gallery for visual arts exhibitions and an auditorium for performances and film screenings. The Society was now fully committed to presenting Japanese arts in New York, America’s center of culture and finance.

Japan House: New York’s central place in U.S.-Japan relations

With the opening of Japan House a new chapter began in Japan Society’s history. The pioneering work of the Society’s dedicated staff led to blockbuster programs such as the Grand Sumo Tournament at Madison Square Garden, Nomura Kyogen Theater at Lincoln Center, a star-studded gala for the Tribute to Toshiro Mifune film series, and an exhibition of samurai swords, Nippon-to: Art Swords of Japan, along with other national treasures from Japan that captivated the American imagination. From the global stage of New York, Japan’s abundance shone through the Society’s endowed gallery and performing arts programs—the crown jewels leading to the heyday of Japan’s economic miracle of the 1970s and ’80s. A formal business and policy program was established to compliment the already significant corporate interests and networking power of the Society. The Society’s Annual Dinner fundraiser and accompanying Japan Society Award presentation became the main stage on which business and cultural leaders were recognized along with attracting prime ministers, presidents, and every leader in-between.

Education, which has always been a pillar of the Society’s programming, was institutionalized in 1972 with the first course offering from a Language Center that subsequently blossomed into the premier Japanese language instructional program outside of Japan. Complementing the Language Center were educational offerings for families and children, the Japan Society Junior Fellows Exchange Program, and school partnerships to give back to the New York community and build a living bridge between generations and nations.

The March 11, 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster led the Society to once again mobilize in service of U.S.-Japan relations, culminating in the largest single donation by a private American entity, with over $14 million raised for the Japan Earthquake Relief Fund—100 percent of which went to grant recipients. From this endeavor grew further networks in the affected regions of Tohoku, and lasting connections were made across the U.S.-Japan space between entrepreneurs and leaders with the help of the Society’s Innovators Network.

After the global COVID pandemic shut the Society’s physical doors in March 2020, programming pivoted from in-person to online initiatives, reaching international audiences for the first time and bringing the best of U.S.-Japan from New York to the world. It was another turning point for Japan Society, and one that is still evolving.

A call to action: opportunities and challenges that are uniquely the Japan Society’s to lead on

Throughout war, financial crises, and a global pandemic, Japan Society has stood as a beacon to the resiliency of U.S.-Japan relations, strengthened by diverse programs and initiatives from arts and culture to business, policy, and education. A focus on the quality of the programming and the characteristic omotenashi or Japanese hospitality of the Society’s convenings—with the additional priority of enhancing onsite programs within the capabilities of an online world—has reinforced Japan Society’s mission of creating deep connections or kizuna between Americans and Japanese. To accomplish this mission for the next century and to thrive as we have in the past we must embrace the future, which is uncertain and full of change.

Japan Society’s operating structure was strained throughout COVID restrictions and the closure of our headquarters building, but after reopening to the public in March 2021 we have emerged more confident than ever. New York remains a global hub for finance, culture, and global diplomacy alongside Wall Street, Broadway, and the United Nations. Just like our building, which must evolve to accommodate the changing use of physical vs. digital spaces, Japan Society’s mission is more relevant than ever as severe challenges confront our two democracies and economies. There is an urgency to the mission of connecting American and Japanese people and societies which is even more difficult to realize than government or business relations.

We at Japan Society have an enormous opportunity and responsibility before us that can only be accomplished by hard work in the service of U.S.-Japan relations. We must mobilize and inspire the next generation of U.S.-Japan relations just as our original founders did over a century ago, and as John D. Rockefeller 3rd and Prince Hitachi brought about with the opening of Japan House in 1971.

We are privileged to serve such a venerable institution, but we also must align around our strategic priorities and cultural values to work together toward advancing Japan Society’s future. It is impossible for any one of us to accomplish this work alone, but together, as cultural ambassadors, we can create the same shared sense of urgency that drove our forebearers to embrace the opportunities before them. We must evolve to embrace the future, because it promises opportunities and challenges that are uniquely the Japan Society’s to lead on.

Joshua W. Walker, Ph.D., is President and CEO of Japan Society and has held positions of leadership at Eurasia Group, the USA Pavilion of the 2017 World Expo, the APCO Institute and APCO Worldwide. He has served in the State Department and the Defense Department; co-founded the Yale Journal of International Affairs; and attended the University of Richmond, Yale, and Princeton Universities.