Brief History

Brief History

View Japan Society History and General Information in Japanese:

Japan Society of New York was one of the pioneers of cultural exchange in the early 20th century. Begun in a time when few Americans knew anything about Japan, it quickly reached a wider audience than the few learned societies that focused on Asia at the time. Japan Society not only hosted leading Japanese visitors to the United States, it sponsored the first important exhibitions of Japanese art, published important books on Japan written by American experts, and promoted the study of Japan in American schools and universities by distributing learning materials and providing funds for prizes at the collegiate level. Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, it became the leading forum for Japanese to encounter their American counterparts abroad.

Advertisement for Society-sponsored trips to Japan, circa 1913.

As political and racial tensions worsened between Japan and the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, the Society steadfastly refused to take a political stance, preferring education to advocacy. Nonetheless, Japan Society worked with other internationalist groups, such as the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace or the America-Japan Society of Tokyo, to increase contact between Americans and Japanese at all levels. The Society’s Annual Dinner became a venue for leading Japanese statesmen to give major addresses on the state of the U.S.-Japan relationship.

Despite the Society’s efforts, political crisis exploded into war in 1941. The Society closed its doors, as did all other Japan-American exchange groups. Yet the seeds of cooperation and goodwill were not extinguished by war, and in 1952, at the end of the American Occupation, the Society was reborn, largely through the efforts of President John D. Rockefeller 3rd and Executive Director Douglas Overton. The newly revitalized Society redoubled its efforts to educate Americans about Japan by expanding its lecture series, continuing to publish respected works on Japan, and by facilitating the study of Japanese students in New York.

The foresight of John D. Rockefeller 3rd resulted in the construction of Japan House in 1971 across the street from the United Nations. With a gallery, auditorium, library, and classroom space, the Society during the 1970s and 1980s expanded its programming to include groundbreaking exhibitions, sold-out performances of traditional and classical Japanese dance and music, major film series, a comprehensive language program, and a vibrant lecture series covering topics ranging from corporate and policy issues to Japanese popular culture.

Japan Society today continues to play a leading role in U.S.-Japan relations. Over the past decade it has continued to increase programming, reaching out to business leaders and school children alike. In the future, Japan Society will remain a trendsetter in examining Japan’s changing relations with its neighbors, the issues facing post-industrial societies in Asia and the West, and the emergence of a new Japan in the 21st century.

— by Michael R. Auslin

Scholar, historian and prolific writer, Michael R. Auslin authored Japan Society: Celebrating a Century, 1907-2007, commemorating the 100th anniversary of Japan Society's founding. View PDF of the publication below.

Japan Society: Celebrating 110 Years, 1907–2017
110th Anniversary Celebration in Tokyo
Interactive Timeline

Japan Society: Celebrating a Century, 1907-2007
Parts I & II (PDF)
Parts III & IV (PDF)
Timeline & Index (PDF)

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