Japan House: Fifty Years Ago Today

Japan House: Fifty Years Ago Today

October 12, 20214 min read
Joshua W. Walker, Ph.D., President and CEO, Japan Society

This September we're celebrating the 50th anniversary of Japan House, Japan Society's landmarked headquarters building. Let's jump in our time machine and go back to 1971, when Japan Society was only 64 years old. At that time, U.S.-Japan relations were deeply embroiled in trade frictions while the ending of the U.S. embargo of China had just begun to impact East Asia.

1971 snapshots

In the United States: Richard M. Nixon is President; Apollo 14 lands on the moon; massive protests are held throughout America against the Vietnam War; Walt Disney World opens in Orlando, Florida; Joe Frazier defeats Muhammad Ali in 15 rounds at Madison Square Garden; the first Starbucks opens in Pike Place Market, Seattle.

In Japan: Eisaku Sato is Prime Minister; the U.S. and Japan sign an accord to return Okinawa to Japan; NHK TV implements colorization of all programs; Kamen Rider TV series begins broadcasting; the 48th reigning Sumo champion Yokozuna Taihō announces his retirement; McDonald's opens its first store in Ginza, Tokyo; Nissin creates the first "cup noodle."

Japan House

Meanwhile in New York City, Japan Society had occupied eight different locations since its founding in 1907, and by the mid-1960s, a dedicated building had become necessary to house the Society's rapidly expanding initiatives. Japan Society President John D. Rockefeller 3rd made a very generous pledge by donating the land for the building site and Japanese modernist architect Junzo Yoshimura was confirmed to design the building.

On September 16, 1969, John D. Rockefeller 3rd and Japanese Foreign Minister Kiichi Aichi broke ground at a formal ceremony. Construction proceeded on schedule and staff moved in during the spring of 1971, with Executive Director Douglas Overton noting, "Each day we have found some new and delightful feature which has come off the drawing board as an unexpectedly brilliant success. Japan House will be a national important building worthy of its high purposes."

Opening Week—five star-studded days of celebratory events—began on September 13, 1971 with Their Imperial Highnesses Prince and Princess Hitachi at the ceremonies. The Prince brought Japan's best wishes to the Society "for a new chapter, both rich in content and wide in scope." The Gallery opened its first exhibition, Rimpa: Masterworks of the Japanese Decorative School and the Tokyo String Quartet performed in the new auditorium. Junzo Yoshimura wrote about Japan House, "People the world over used to build their houses with local and traditional materials. Today, however, contemporary buildings all over the world use the same basic materials—concrete, steel and glass—yet different characters and nationalities can still be perceived among them. In designing Japan House I have tried to express in contemporary architecture the spirit of Japan." With the formal opening of the Society's headquarters a new era had begun.

Their Imperial Highnesses Prince and Princess Hitachi and Japan Society chairman John D. Rockefeller 3rd view the first Japan Society Gallery exhibition Rimpa: Masterworks of the Japanese Decorative School. Photo © Thomas Haar.

The next 50 years

Fifty years later, we are at another inflection point. The novel coronavirus pandemic has taught us just how interconnected we are as a global community while placing new importance on our homes and transforming the nature of work. This unprecedented global crisis has also illuminated the strengths and weaknesses of our organization, providing new opportunities for envisioning the future. Just as the opening of Japan House shaped the Society's last 50 years, today we are reimagining how we use our space, from the physical to the digital, forging broader connections or kizuna for U.S.-Japan and for the world. We embrace our mission for the years to come, reaching out far beyond our building, to our city, country, and world as we seek to connect American and Japanese people, cultures, and societies through a global lens.

Like a hike up Mt. Fuji, Japan Society’s nearly 115-year-long journey itself defines us far more than our current destination. Beginning in 1907, the first iteration of Japan Society focused on business relations between the U.S. and Japan. For its 1952 post-Occupation reconstitution under the leadership of John D. Rockefeller 3rd, the Society dedicated itself to arts, culture, and education, with an emphasis on supporting Japanese students in New York as well as spreading the word about Japan through significant cultural milestones such as partnerships with The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Lincoln Center, with traveling exhibitions and outreach on both sides of the Pacific. With the opening of Japan House in 1971, politics was reintroduced into the mix, the business and policy communities energized, and Japanese popular culture landed large—nearly 50,000 people came to the Grand Sumo Tournament at Madison Square Garden co-sponsored by Japan Society and the Asia Society in 1985!

Today at Japan House we present Japan and U.S.-Japan as a way to engage with history and tradition, on the one hand, and innovation and the future on the other. As in 1971, the time to act is now and our opportunities are as great as the challenges of 2021. It's up to us to work together on new, critical connections to take us through the next 50 years. I'll be there with you.

Joshua Walker (@drjwalk) is president and CEO of Japan Society. Follow Japan Society on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.

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  • Joshua W. Walker, PhD
    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

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