NEW YORK – As New York’s Japan Society approaches its 100th anniversary in May, its chairman, James McDonald, remarked on the institution’s growing impact on business, culture and U.S.-Japan relations since the group’s founding by influential Americans in 1907.
McDonald, the group’s chairman since 2005, called the simple fact of the society’s 100-year existence remarkable in light of the war once fought between the two nations.
“The continuity of the connection has been a major achievement,” he said. “Certainly, in the postwar time frame, for the last 50 years or so, it’s just very impressive how broad and deep the activities led by Japan Society have become in all of these areas of connection between Japan and the U.S.”
The society’s programming has evolved during the postwar period to fit the changing needs of the U.S.-Japan relationship, McDonald noted in an interview.
During Japan’s rapid economic growth of the 1960s and 1970s, he said, business discussions between prominent U.S. and Japanese business leaders were “extremely important in idea-sharing and in creating connections between capital and business opportunities in both directions.”
After the economic bubble burst, the Japan Society became a central public forum for talks between prominent Japanese business leaders and their U.S. counterparts on how to re-energize economic relations between the two countries, as well as the rest of the world.
“Many of the ideas that were put into practice in the (Prime Minister Junichiro) Koizumi period were discussed and some of the original discussions happened here in New York, so I think that side played an important role,” the chairman said.
McDonald also stressed the growth of the society’s visual and performing arts programs during that period. For example, he said, there were merely a handful of Japanese restaurants in New York, and “now there are hundreds.”
“I think Japan Society New York has been one of the real leaders in helping to broaden Americans’ exposure to Japanese artistic and aesthetic skills and history, so that will remain important also,” he said of the society’s activities during its centennial year.
The Japan Society’s 2007 performing arts program will place a major focus on contemporary noh, a centuries-old form of Japanese musical drama.
Believing noh reflects the strong tradition of Japanese culture in society, as well the future direction of culture and society in its contemporary form, the organization chose to emphasize noh “in the contemporary world and as it is evolving as we start our second century.”
The organization’s centennial program is balanced across the organization’s strengths in diverse fields, in everything from the visual and performing arts to business and language programs, McDonald said.
McDonald, a lifelong Boston Red Sox fan, welcomed the increasing integration of Japanese actors, artists and athletes into mainstream U.S. culture, including actor Ken Watanabe and newly signed Boston Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Matsuzaka “will become part of the incredible rivalry between New York and Boston,” he said. “So I don’t think this is so much about the Japan and U.S. as about who has the best baseball team in America.”
For the next generation of young Americans, McDonald pointed out that the increasing presence of popular and successful Japanese athletes would have a positive influence on children who “probably do not think about it, but take for granted that a Japanese could be one of the greatest athletes in America, and I think it does help the two cultures get more comfortable with each other.”
Over the next phase of the Japan Society’s work, the chairman emphasized increasing collaboration, both with other Japan Societies across the country.