Just a few minutes’ walk from Tokyo’s Roppongi nightlife district and surrounded by a surprising amount of greenery stands an East-meets-West home where Japanese and overseas intellectuals can deepen exchanges over a glass of brandy after dinner, and stay overnight.
International House of Japan Inc., or the I-House for short, was founded seven years after World War II ended. The building opened next to a 10,000-sq.-meter garden in Tokyo a few years later.
“The war obstructed cultural communications with overseas, and Japan became isolated,” said 75-year-old Hiroshi Matsumoto, whose father, Shigeharu, was one of the founders of the house. “It was necessary to set up a place to coordinate international exchanges on a private level.”
Matsumoto, now adviser to the I-House, said that just after the war there were few places for foreign intellectuals to stay in Japan and little information available for scholars to learn about their counterparts overseas.
In fact, about a month after Japan surrendered on Aug. 15, 1945, the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo was occupied by high-ranking officers of the General Headquarters of the Allied Forces. The occupation continued until April 1952, when the San Francisco Peace Treaty took effect.
According to the Imperial Hotel, about 90 hotels in Japan were regarded as suitable for foreign guests by the Japan Hotel Association in the early 1950s, but most of those in the major cities and sightseeing spots were fully occupied.
“Defeated Japan was in extreme confusion mentally and materially,” Shigeharu Matsumoto wrote in his autobiography. “The United States that Japanese saw with their own eyes was the GIs of the Occupation troops.
“I was considering seriously what I should do now to deepen real understanding between the United States and Japan,” wrote the elder Matsumoto, who was a journalist in Shanghai during the Sino-Japanese war that eventually widened into the Pacific theater of World War II.
In 1951, John D. Rockefeller III arrived in Japan on a U.S. government mission to improve bilateral cultural relations with an eye toward preventing Japanese intellectuals from becoming pro-Soviet, Matsumoto recalled in the autobiography.
The two men, meeting after about 20 years of separation, made for such a good team that the I-House was set up the following year.
The private, nonprofit organization comprises places to sleep and eat, as well as conference rooms, a lecture hall and a library of about 25,000 books, mainly in English, about Japan. It also offers seminars, lectures and other exchange programs.
Historian Arnold Toynbee, poet Edmund Blunden, philosopher Gabriel Marcel, Japanologist Donald Keene, and the late U.S. Ambassador to Japan Edwin Reischauer all spent time at the I-House. Eleanor Roosevelt also came on an I-House intellectual exchange program in 1953.
The elder Matsumoto declined ambassadorial positions in the United States, Britain and the United Nations offered by the late Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, and chose to be the I-House “innkeeper,” believing the job to be his “divine vocation.”
One of the house’s key achievements was providing the chance for the first step toward establishment of diplomatic ties between Russia and South Korea, according to the I-House.
A few years before the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1990, a South Korean diplomat and a scholar from the Russian Academy of Sciences became acquainted over breakfast while staying at the B&B-style I-House.
They later held several informal preliminary meetings there, which led to the start of government-level talks, according to the house.
But with the management having been inactive in increasing memberships and also due to the aging of members, the number has gradually fallen from the peak of around 5,500 in the early 1990s to 4,000, and corporate members have decreased from the peak of 550 to 430.
Special committees are now reviewing the house’s exchange program activities, library and other operations to keep up with the changing times, which have made transportation and communications across borders much easier compared with when the I-House was set up.
Takashiro Furuhata, executive director of the I-House, said the organization was initially a front-runner among Japanese private organizations for cultural interchanges. In the years since its establishment, however, similar nonprofit organizations have been set up and Japan has changed in many ways.
“The committees are considering whether the direction of our operations to date, including the current membership system that was set up 50 years ago, is still appropriate,” Furuhata said. “I think there may be some parts that do not match the present reality.”
A main change the I-House is carrying out is a renovation of its 50-year-old building that will equip each bedroom with a bath, toilet facilities and refrigerator, and provide better access to the Internet in response to the needs of today’s users.
The yearlong renovation started in April, with funds raised by selling a portion of the house’s property in one of Japan’s most expensive areas. The facility will remain closed excluding the library until next spring.
After the renovation, the I-House will reopen a restaurant, the house’s main dining room, which the founder frequently used for talks with prominent overseas experts in their fields. The restaurant closed some five years back because it was losing money, but longtime fans have called for its reopening.
The I-House will also outsource management of its accommodations facilities to Royal Park Hotel Co. of the Mitsubishi group in a bid to become more efficient and concentrate on its mainstay operations — promoting cultural exchanges and intellectual interaction.
I-House officials said the organization is exploring avenues for responding to changing social and other needs to remain a house where people return for frank exchanges of views, instead of being merely a “hotel.”
“With Japan expected to become culturally more pluralistic . . . we need to consider what kind of opportunities for intellectual exchanges we can offer going forward,” Furuhata said.
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