Japan Society chief: COVID is a chance to rethink ‘who we are’

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It was a hot summer afternoon at Japan Societys headquarters near the United Nations in midtown Manhattan, and the president of the nonprofit organization had a question.

“Our mission is to connect American and Japanese people, cultures and societies,” said Joshua Walker, president of Japan Society.

He stopped himself.

“How do you do that when you can’t travel?”

Walker sitting in his office, a bright and airy room with 50-year-old wooden furniture designed by George Nakashima.

Paintings and prints covered the walls, and there was a round window overlooking a small pond and a bonsai tree in the hall below. He wore a suit and tie with a small red Japan Society pin on his lapel.

Walker is the 20th president and the youngest in the company’s 115-year history. He grew up in Sapporo, the son of American missionaries, and moved to the United States when he was 18.

He took over as head of Japan Society – which connects the United States and Japan through exhibitions, performances and lectures on arts, culture, politics and economics – in December 2019, at age 38.

Since taking office, Walker has led the company through the COVID-19 era – through travel restrictions between Japan and the United States, which have made working difficult and complex.

“COVID has forced us to really consider the core of who we are,” Walker said.

The pandemic also meant that in-person events at headquarters were untenable for many months, and border controls and quarantine requirements in Japan made events in New York with Japanese politicians or artists difficult to organize.

But amid this era of restrictions, the mission of the Japan Society took on a newfound importance and urgency – and the institution adapted and changed.

Its staff shifted to working remotely during the peak of the pandemic: Lectures, performances and other events were also moved online, allowing speakers and guests in Japan and the United States to communicate via Zoom and to reach a younger generation.

In recent months, the company has also taken over some in-person events, including a recent performance and exhibition of works by artist Kazuko Miyamoto.

“We need to find new ways to engage audiences, new ways to express Japan’s abundance to an American audience, and help people understand that U.S.-Japan relations aren’t just about our two countries.” , Walker said. “I think the United States and Japan are totally global.”

But many of Japan’s border restrictions are still in place, limiting trade between the two countries, preventing foreign travelers from visiting and harming Japan’s place in the world. Walker expressed the need for the country to facilitate access.

“I think Zoom and things like that are very good at maintaining relationships and exchanging information, but they don’t deepen our relationship and don’t deepen our experience in many ways,” he said. declared. “If you’re trying to learn Japanese and want to visit Japan, how are you going to experience that? »

JAPAN’S GLOBAL ROLE

Walker returned to Japan for the first time in two and a half years in May. It was the longest time he had been away from his “heart”, where his parents still reside.

It arrived during US President Joe Biden’s first trip to the capital as president, with US and Japanese flags waving together in the streets of Tokyo’s Nagatacho. The Prime Minister of India and the recently elected Prime Minister of Australia were also in Tokyo at the time for the Quad Leaders’ Summit.

To Walker, it felt normal, celebratory and global.

“Tokyo was the right place to have this coming out party,” he said. However, as he added, “Japan didn’t feel like they were fully back. I felt like Japan was in the process of recovery.

But he also left with a clear idea of ​​Japan’s role in the future.

“Japan must be reminded of its global role. We must remember why this relationship (between the United States and Japan) is so critical, he said. And I think, in particular, there’s a role for New York in that.

New York, like Tokyo, is a financial capital of the world. It’s “a global stage,” Walker said, and the city where many Japanese companies have their global headquarters.

And in New York, like everywhere in the United States, Japanese culture is everywhere: Japanese food, clothing, cartoons, video games, movies and other cultural elements are part of the daily life of many.

“I think Japanese culture has really taken hold in New York,” he said.

Walker sees Japan Society as helping to shape this bond with Japan across the United States. For many, the society is a “trusted guide,” a place to study a language or watch a Japanese movie or show, and to learn more about Japan beyond the superficial.

Through it all, however, Walker wants to preserve the best of the legendary organization, the oldest of its kind, devoted to the United States and Japan.

He said sharing Japanese culture with Americans requires people to be present and on-site at the New York headquarters, just as learning about Japan requires visiting the country.

“When you look over there,” he said, pointing to a yellow painting with black dots on a wall in his office, “you see Yayoi Kusama’s first painting that she did as a member of the Japan Society.”

He pointed to the side of his desk, where there is a framed print of Shiko Munakata, who gave it to the company decades earlier.

Walker then looked down a shelf behind him towards a board with the kanji for Reiwa, given to him when he became company chairman by former chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga, who later became prime minister. .

“These are all artifacts of moments in time, but they all speak to the lasting legacy and importance of our mission,” Walker said. “I would say our mission has never been more critical than it is today.”

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