Back in prewar Japan — when there were still titled nobility — it was the duty of the upper class to engage in philanthropic activities, promote art or spread foreign culture here.

Among the fruit of such activities was the establishment of the Italian Cultural Institute in the heart of Tokyo, which started out as a research institute for intellectuals and later flourished as a foothold to spread Italian culture in Japan.

Situated in today’s Chiyoda Ward, it will celebrate its 70th anniversary Friday.

The land where the institute stands was donated by Baron Takaharu Mitsui, born to the eminent Mitsui zaibatsu business conglomerate. A significant portion of the construction costs were shouldered by the Harada Sekizenkai Foundation established in 1920 by banker Jiro Harada, who donated his entire fortune.

Umberto Donati, director of the institute, said the baron was apparently motivated by his personal interest in European countries.

Mitsui, who chaired the Japan-Italy Association, donated the land to the Italian government to establish a cultural institute, Donati said during a recent news conference.

He had traveled to Europe, according to the book “Short Story of Italy-Japan Relationship, and Italian Cultural Institute of Tokyo” by Maria Sica and Antonio Verde, and afterward decided to use his family’s huge resources to promote friendly relations between Japan and European countries.

Meanwhile, Harada’s foundation donated about ¥200,000 to cover part of the construction costs for the institute, which was designed by German architect Arnolf Pezzoldt.

“The money is equivalent to some ¥250 million” today, Donati said.

It took two years to complete, and when the institution opened, renowned public figures, including Prince Mikasa and Prince Nashimoto, attended the reception, according to Donati.

Showing footage of the opening ceremony at the news conference, he said they still haven’t identified some of the Japanese participants. “We don’t know who this Japanese receiving a medal is,” he said of one of the people shown in the archival film.

Japan’s relationship with Italy grew closer during World War II, but part of the institute was damaged during the war. After being renovated in the late 1970s, the entire building was rebuilt by Italian architect Gae Aulenti in 2005.

“Looking at historical materials (from the institution), we can see there was a deep bond of friendship (between Japan and Italy),” Donati said.

For 70 years, the institute has dedicated itself to promoting Italian culture. Every year, around 5,400 people sign up for a culture and language course.

The institution will hold a reception Friday to celebrate its 70th anniversary that will include a short recital by soprano Desiree Rancatore. Guests will include Tomotada Iwakura, an honorary professor of Kyoto University, Masanori Aoyanagi, director of the National Museum of Western Art, and Paolo Calvetti, a professor at the University of Naples L’Orientale.

An exhibit of 150 photographs related to the institute will be held from Friday to July 4 and from July 18 to Aug. 1.

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