Sunday Tangent: America’s Japan Society now led by a Japanese


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Hi Blog.  As a tangent for this Sunday, consider this degree of open-mindedness:  a major cultural institution being run by a foreigner.  It’s a little tough to see this happening in Japan.  But one can hope.  Those out there who know domestic institutions here being run by NJ, please let us know.  

Gotta love the stereotypes also being perpetuated by this article as well.  Ah well.  It’s a cultural thing, I guess.  Arudou Debito in Sapporo


Seeing Japan from US — through Japanese eyes
  by Shaun Tandon

  NEW YORK, May 4, 2009 (AFP) – As Japanese culture seeps into the  American mainstream, a key US institution devoted to Japan has crossed a threshold — its new head is Japanese. And he is out to make sure Japan’s influence gets noticed.
  Motoatsu Sakurai, a former executive and ambassador, took over  last month as president of the Japan Society — founded in 1907 by  members of New York high society intrigued by a nation then completely foreign to most Americans.
  He conceded that his appointment presented an intriguing cross-cultural question — while plenty of Japanese and Americans study each other’s country, how does a Japanese lead Americans in their dealings with Japan?
  “I don’t think it would be unnatural,” Sakurai said with Japanese understatement when asked whether it made sense for a Japanese to run the Japan Society.
  “In many ways, Japanese and Americans see the same things in a different way,” he told AFP.
  “I think it is good for the Japan Society — since its inception  an American institution — to have an injection of new ideas, especially as the Japanese are one partner in this bilateral relationship.”
  At a time when a growing number of Americans are interested in  China, Sakurai sees his role as pointing out to the US public the  Japanese lurking in their day-to-day lives.
  The Japan Society’s latest exhibition, which organizers say has  drawn a large turnout, features quintessentially Japanese “manga” cartoons, but also a room of video-game machines from Pac-Man to Nintendo immediately familiar to most Americans under 40.
  “Much of the Japanese creativity has been, so to speak, embedded  into American society,” Sakurai said. “Japanese things are rampant,  but people are not aware that they’re Japanese.”
  The Japan Society, a stone’s throw from the United Nations in a  sleek building with an indoor waterfall and other Japanese touches,  holds a variety of artistic performances and lectures, besides  offering language instruction.
  “Whenever I’m asked at colleges to give speeches, the majority  of students come simply because they like manga,” he said. “I don’t  know whether that will connect into a broader interest in Japan, but  first at least you have to increase the audience.”
  Sakurai, who turns 65 this month, spent more than 40 years in  the private sector, rising to be chief executive of Mitsubishi International Corp., before serving as Japan’s consul general in New York.
  David Heleniak, vice chairman of Wall Street giant Morgan  Stanley and a board member of the Japan Society, said Sakurai was  chosen on his merits.
  “This was not a political statement saying, ‘Gosh, what an amazing thing, we’re picking a Japanese as the head of the Japan Society,'” Heleniak said. “New York is an international city so nationality doesn’t matter.”
  Sakurai will have a tough job on the financial front. Like many  non-profits, the Japan Society has watched its endowment dwindle due  to the economic crisis. It has cut back one-quarter of staff to  about 45 full-time employees now.
  About one-third of the staff is Japanese. Sakurai said one of  his missions will be to encourage them to speak up more, as Americans by nature are more assertive.
  But he doubted he would suddenly shake up the organization.
  “I’m Japanese, and as you know the Japanese don’t make very  hasty decisions,” he said with a hearty laugh.


7 comments on “Sunday Tangent: America’s Japan Society now led by a Japanese

  • As a longtime member of that organization, I was also surprised to see that the head is now from Japan. But what has been more shocking is the number of presidents Japan Society has had just in the last ten years! It has been quite a revolving door, and I’m not sure that it’s good for the organization. There was Wheeler, then Ellsworth, then Wood, and now Sakurai. (I am still trying to figure out why they weren’t satisfied with Wheeler.)

    If New York’s Nippon Club is still struggling a bit to get members, they should really combine the two clubs.

    I would like to see Mr. Sakurai stay in for a long time, and build some stability back into the place.

  • What a strange article. To me it seems automatic that you’d want someone from the relevant culture leading your culture organization, at least some of the time. It seems like it would be obvious that both those who were born and raised in the culture and those who have thoroughly studied the culture with an outside perspective would be useful. The benefits of leadership by those not raised in the culture are that they can perhaps more easily identify the aspects of the studied culture that might be most interesting or most similar to and different from those of the dominant culture that the organization is located in, and can also look at those aspects with perhaps a more objective eye. The leadership by those from the studied culture can offer a potentially deeper perspective of the culture, as well as allow the leader to more easily dispel myths about the studied culture. One would hope, anyway. Which brings me to a few other complaints I have about this article (issues which, I’m sure, Mr. Arudou has already considered far more deeply than myself. Still, here goes . . .)

    For one thing, what’s with the ready promotion of stereotypes about Japan by the new leader? First he comes out with the half-complaint about people coming to his lectures in the States often just because he’s Japanese and ‘Oh, hey, that dude’s from Japan and so is manga!’ Which, apparently, he uses as an opportunity to introduce other sides of Japan to those kinds of people. Good for him. But then he comes out with things from the article like ‘Sakurai said one of his missions will be to encourage them [the Japanese employees of the Japan Society] to speak up more, as Americans by nature are more assertive’ and ”I’m Japanese, and as you know the Japanese don’t make very hasty decisions.”Perhaps if you look at general cultural personality trends and you *really* need to make sweeping generalizations for the sake of some point, those things can be said. But I think that one of the first things you say as the new leader of a cultural organization in a short news article shouldn’t be reinforcements of the same, tired stereotypes.

    And also, speaking of stereotypes: the article states that the Japan Society’s headquarters are “a sleek building with an indoor waterfall and other Japanese touches.” Since when have those been exclusively Japanese touches? Or even part of basic Japanese architecture at all? Aside from the downtowns of the big cities (and actually, even there), ‘sleek buildings’ are pretty hard to come by. And as for indoor waterfalls – I honestly don’t know about other readers’ experiences, but from my personal experience I can think of 4 indoor waterfalls I have encountered in the States and zero in Japan. I’m sure there must be some, somewhere in Japan, but those are the results of the random sampling my life has brought me.

    And lastly (and I’m sorry for turning this into a rant), talking about the recent exhibition at the Japan Society: ”

    The Japan Society’s latest exhibition, which organizers say has drawn a large turnout, features quintessentially Japanese “manga” cartoons, but also a room of video-game machines from Pac-Man to Nintendo immediately familiar to most Americans under 40.
    ”Much of the Japanese creativity has been, so to speak, embedded into American society,” Sakurai said. “Japanese things are rampant, but people are not aware that they’re Japanese.””

    Indeed. From manga (or anime – the article says ‘manga cartoons’) to video games. Usually the form ‘x to y’ is used when illustrating that there’s a broad range of something. In my mind, at least, those two are pretty close together on the cultural variety index. And really, for people who are into video games or manga (or anime), who doesn’t know that those things are from Japan (I feel pretty confident making the blanket statement that most average video game players would either be able to accurately guess or already know which games, especially classic games, come from Japan)?

  • to Methodic:

    I’m not an expert of Japan Society. But what it seems to me is that the group lost its way somehow in the Heisei era, and the article is shedding some light.

    I think a lot of the members who were in the group but not in-in, didn’t really know the troubles.

    I think the Japan Society building was the first modern Japanese design building in New York, and maybe America. This building has to be about 40 years old, but was something for the late 1960’s. It got rave reviews architecturally, but yes, it would sound like praise for putting man on the moon now.

    You are correct that it’s a surprise the club was never headed by a Japanese, but considering the history, maybe not. The Rockefellers (Standard Oil and Chase Manhattan Bank) were the ones to breathe life into the organization after World War II, and the focus was as a club for businessmen (and the New York metro community) with an interest in Japan. I don’t think the postwar Japan expat community around New York–and it was there–factored into the consideration. Plus, there was Nippon Club, which catered to Japanese expats and their families.

    So there were dedicated and well meaning people interested in Japanese culture, and economic and political ties. And no doubt a handful of sh*ts who wanted to show off how international they were as well.

    Before the explosion of media, and worldwide immigration to America after the 1965, Japan Society was quite a resource.

    I think what happened was the postwar generation passed away or moved on. And the Society didn’t adopt a program to be relevant to contemporary times. In a way, like the UN right down the road, it became a group living off the Rockefeller legacy whose role wasn’t all clear.

    Now, it’s taken some serious hits to the endowment, like most colleges and public-benefit organizations. It’s had quite a turnover of staff IMHO. And the new leadership is making efforts to put in a program to make the group relevant to America-Japan relations.

    If for now manga is the outreach, I say, great! Maybe point out that sushi and sashimi are originally Japanese as well. And many cars people are driving. The idea would be to be a physical presence to Japan that the New York metro community could connect to, without pretension and pre-conceptions.

  • “…Sakurai sees his role as pointing out to the US public the Japanese lurking in their day-to-day lives…”

    1)OK, well what about the Irish, English, Scottish, German, French, Italian etc that is “lurking in American society?..lot more of it and has been for years, but so what?

    2)Can you image if a NJ set up a society in Japan. Pointing out all the “modernisms” of Japan that are not Japanese….i don’t think it would be viewed/welcomed in the same way!

    “…”Much of the Japanese creativity has been, so to speak, embedded into American society,” Sakurai said. “Japanese things are rampant, but people are not aware that they’re Japanese.”

    Like 2) above….hmmm…soft, ops, software, pass-com, ..ops personal computer….pan…ops, bread, and so on and so forth!

    Again, so what?…does anyone care?

    — Yeah, Japanese care (it’s part of the identity/religion). And so do the culture vultures that groups like these cater to.

  • The Shingetsu Institute, which is a Japanese “cultural institution” dealing with Middle East issues is headed by a foreigner. It is not a minor institution either. Keiko Sakai, perhaps Japan’s foremost scholar on Middle East issues plays a prominent role in the Institute and has mentioned it to me when I have talked to her.

    I doubt, however, you will find many (any?) analogous institutions to the Japan Society in Japan anyway – that is, large independent institutions set up by Japanese that specialize in looking at other nations or cultures.

    This is not because “the Japanese” are somehow xenophobic – there are a plethora of “cultural institutions” set up at universities in Japan, and many, especially those of the “U.S.-Japan relations” variety, are headed by foreigners.

    It is rather that independent institutions like the Japan Society are an American phenomenon, and exist because of non-profit laws. In Japan, the few large “cultural institutions” that do exist – for example, the Japan Foundation – are set up primarily to foster understanding of Japan abroad. This is fairly normal in other nations too, where “cultural institutions” are, like the Japan Foundation, at least partly sponsored by the government and act as entities promoting national culture abroad (Geothe, Confucious institutes).

  • Friend ZS sends me this link from the Huffington Post, article by Steve Clemons. Debito

    Excerpt follows:

    Now, the premier Japan Society of New York has allowed itself to be taken over not just by a leading former Japanese business leader — but also by an incumbent Japanese Ambassador.

    Whether intended to or not, this leadership transition appears to be the Japanese government’s acquisition of America’s top tier Japan organization — and this is quite regrettable and ultimately harmful to US-Japan relations.

    Again, I appreciate the service of Ambassador Sakurai and generally like him — but the symbolism of his ascendancy to lead the Japan Society of New York is very destructive to broad US-Japan relations and sends the signals that (1) no Americans care enough to lead the organization any more and thus “Japan Passing” has finally reached a very mature course, and (2) that the kind of robust debate that is needed to revitalize and challenge many anachronistic aspects of US-Japan relations may not happen in fear of offending either the Japanese government or the Japanese business community which each have stakes in Motatsu Sakurai.

    I do not know details of the “dissension and upheaval” since October 2006 at the Japan Society that this New York Times article refers to, but the board of directors of the Japan Society have in my view failed in their duty to assure solid American leadership of that organization.

    The Japan Society should be a manifestation of American interests in Japan — because of our respect for and our need to connect to things and culture and people Japanese. We ought not to be deferring in our end of the US-Japan relationship to Japanese management of that requirement.

    Full article at

  • I don’t know if I agree with the Huffington Post blogger.

    Again, from knowing a little bit of the inside at New York’s Japan Society, the issues seemed to be about money and about who-was-who. Additionally, what kinds of things the Society would do. (I guess that goes back to money, in a way.)

    Although the blogger concedes this, I think it is not exactly accurate to say that having a Japanese head who is attached to the Japan embassy is ceding anything to Japan’s national interests. At least, not any more than the States usually does when dealing with Japan.

    From my observations, MOST of U.S.-Japan relations over the last several decades has been America giving into the demands of Japan. And well-connected Americans rush to do this, because they forget who they are and, in a sense, “what side they are on”.

    These individuals are getting something from their personal relationship with Japan. They are happy to spout Japan’s “culture based” excuses for everything; and in fact, it makes the American-slash-tool seem all the more cultured to do this.

    In other contexts, this kind of transaction would be seen as bribery. In the extreme, acting like a traitor.

    But the rich honey of business profit that has been flowing between Japan and America since World War II tends to blur these distinctions among this group.

    If New York’s Japan Society just became yet another appendage of Japan’s Soft Power initiative, I am not sure that it’s such a great loss.


    the Japan lobbyist (bribe) money flows around Washington,

    the Pacific Elite get taken care of here at American Club,

    and the American Embassy drops the ball at protecting Americans’ interests,

    then if the Japan Society just became another mouthpiece for the LDP, well, eh!

    Personally, I think the real problem is that Japan Society doesn’t have the agenda and the dough to do the things they used to do. So no one on the American side wants the headache.

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