Happy New Year to all — may 2021 be a better and brighter year for everyone.
It has been just over a year since I came to Japan Society as President and CEO, with a mandate to take the Society into the future while preserving its 113-year-old mission of building bridges between the U.S. and Japan.
The pandemic has accelerated the pace of change for everyone, globally, nationally, locally, and within our own workplaces and households. Change is hard, but it is also necessary. In a recent email, my friend Parag Khanna wrote, “Our global system evolves the way humanity does, not through grand design or random accident but by adaptation to changing realities. The faster we react to an accelerating world, the better our chances of shaping the future to our benefit.” I’d like to speak to Parag’s point personally rather than geopolitically. The experience of leading a New York nonprofit during this time — an institution that is both deeply and historically embedded in onsite programming and tradition — has both clarified and strengthened my vision for Japan Society’s future.
If 2020 has forced us to prioritize, 2021 will be the year of resiliency. 2021 represents the year of the Ox in Japan, where the ox is considered an industrious, cautious, and faithful friend that is always glad to offer help. After the 2020 we’ve all had, we could use more faithful friends like the ox in 2021. We are looking toward 2021 as a year in which we as a society ultimately overcome COVID-19 through the efforts of scientists, frontline workers, and governments around the globe. We hope to see the world come together in a big way for the first time at the rescheduled Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
In some ways, we have already seen the future in Japan and in Asia more broadly, with its successful response to the COVID pandemic. Japan also represents a recent example of how to bend adversity and bounce back, as it did from the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster of 3/11/2011. The entire country came together in solidarity to support the affected Tohoku region, including concrete measures such as limiting electricity usage at a national level to avoid rolling regional blackouts. A decade on, Japan still remembers, with the Olympic flame set to depart from Fukushima Prefecture in the torch relay that will cross the country before arriving in Tokyo for the Opening Ceremony.
Out of Crisis: Opportunity
Optimism and positivity are necessary to move forward. I’m optimistic not because I’m naïve about the challenges ahead as we continue to navigate these wild currents, but I am confident that we will find safe passage because of what we have learned collectively and adapted to over the past months. Japan Society’s Language Center had a record year in 2020 despite the pandemic as our teachers reached beyond our physical classrooms to virtual ones; more people joined us than ever before for our first-ever digital JAPAN CUTS, the largest festival of Japanese cinema in North America. We have opened possibilities far beyond our physical building, the original Japan House, designed by Japanese modernist architect Junzo Yoshimura 50 years ago, and named New York City’s youngest landmark in 2011.
In crisis comes opportunity, and from opportunity come the possibilities for our collective future. While we are hurting without our physical programs and admissions revenue, we’ve literally been able to connect across the world, and even beyond — from Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, who is currently on the International Space Station, to countless leading voices in Japan such as Olympics Director Nomura Mansai — to create unique experiences for our members. In this time, I return to the Japanese concept of kaizen (改善), continual self-improvement and change for the better. Regardless of the next challenges on the horizon, I’m committed to ensuring that we continuously improve and adapt in this spirit. I believe that our mission has never been more critical than in 2021 as we strengthen U.S.-Japan relations with new administrations in both capitals and seek opportunities to engage, explore, and educate our societies about our collective resiliency as we welcome the new year.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.
Joshua W. Walker, PhD President & CEO
Walker leads Japan Society to create deep bonds between the US & Japan through programs in culture, education, business, policy & technology