OSAKA — In the years following the Meiji Restoration of 1868, when Japan ended nearly 2 1/2 centuries of isolation, Tokyo, Yokohama and Kobe in particular saw a large influx of Western men in uniform, merchants, teachers and clerics.
One of the first things many did upon arriving in Japan was make contact with fellow expatriates at social clubs modeled after those in Europe and the United States. Members could find food and drinks like those at home, catch up on news from outside Japan and take in a host of activities ranging from dancing to billiards to tennis and squash.
Today these clubs, many with more than a century of history, face a variety of challenges to attract and keep members.
What are the main foreign social clubs in Japan?
The most prominent social clubs founded by Western expatriates include the Tokyo American Club and the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, the Yokohama Country and Athletic Club, the Kobe Club, and the Kobe Regatta and Athletic Club.
Each has its own facilities and a large membership from all over the world. The clubs are all secular and not restricted to one religion, and, while private, anyone may apply for membership, which usually consists of various categories and price ranges.
How and why did such clubs start up?
The Yokohama Country and Athletic Club, the Kobe Club, and the Kobe Regatta and Athletic Club all trace their roots back to around 1870, just after Japan opened up to the West.
Modeled on traditional English men’s clubs, merchants from Great Britain, the United States, France and Germany were usually involved in establishing the clubs, which became centers of expat life.
At the time, the foreign powers in Japan had special rights and privileges outside of Japanese jurisdiction. Western communities in port cities like Yokohama and Kobe, which had been opened to foreign trade, did not need Japanese government authorization to establish such clubs.
Many Japanese public officials and businessmen welcomed their establishment, and helped the foreign communities lease property to build the facilities. One of the early supporters of what would eventually become the Kobe Regatta and Athletic Club was Ito Hirobumi, then Hyogo governor and later a four-time prime minister who is considered one of the greatest statesmen of the Meiji Era.
The Tokyo American Club came about in 1928, during a period of increasing tension between the U.S. and Japan.
As the club’s official history notes, four years previously, the United States had passed the Alien Exclusion Acts barring Japanese and Asian immigration. About 50 American businessmen who belonged to a separate club decided to form their own club that would be open to women, breaking with the male-only business clubs of the time.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Japan was not formed until 1945, when the swarm of foreign reporters who had arrived in Japan at the end of the war realized they needed a separate place to work around the clock, and an organization that would defend freedom of the press, especially from the U.S. military authorities who were running the Allied Occupation.
What kinds of activities did these clubs engage in?
As social clubs, they held parties, dances, concerts as well as sporting events, including billiards and bowling.
The Yokohama Country and Athletic Club and the Kobe Regatta and Athletic Club established fierce rivalries in cricket, rugby and baseball.
The clubs also served as meeting places for local charity organizations, and helped raise money for not only the resident foreign community but for Japanese as well.
Via the Kobe Club and Kobe Athletic and Regatta Clubs, the Kobe foreign community distributed relief funds to the local government in 1896 after a tsunami destroyed part of the city. And one charity used the Kobe Athletic and Regatta Club to raise money and provide relief to the widows and children of Japanese soldiers killed in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905.
Like the older clubs in Yokohama and Kobe, the Tokyo American Club hosted social and charity events. During the 1930s, it was a center of important gatherings between influential Americans and Japanese, as then U.S. Ambassador Joseph Grew notes in “Ten Years in Japan,” his official account of prewar relations between the two countries.
The club also saw its share of intrigue. Members suspected that Japan’s military police had bugged the tables at the club’s bar and that spies for other nations, including famed Soviet spy Richard Sorge, had infiltrated the group.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan was, if the legends are true, the most boisterous and freewheeling of the lot, with stories of hard-drinking journalists regularly engaging in the kind of behavior that would get one sued or deported nowadays.
Although officially a social club, the FCCJ offered extensive work facilities and, in its early years, sleeping quarters — a kind of Tokyo version of Rick’s Cafe in “Casablanca,” with all manner of the famous and notorious passing through.
These social clubs have a long and colorful history. But in today’s world, aren’t they, fundamentally, relics from a different age or bastions of privilege and racism?
It is true some clubs used to maintain quotas on Japanese membership, and most still require a member’s recommendation to join.
Many Japanese refer to the bodies as “foreigner’s clubs,” possibly implying a certain exclusivity. Some members also say it’s not the foreign membership that sometimes opposes increasing the Japanese membership, but older Japanese members who like the fact that they can enjoy a “foreign atmosphere” at the club.
As to privilege, because they operate facilities, the clubs also have initiation fees and monthly dues, on top of the money members spend on club activities. Thus they are a lot more expensive than, say, simply belonging to an organization that meets over the Internet or at a local hotel. Thus a high income is generally necessary.
However, most of the clubs now have a diverse range of members from many countries and the high initiation fees once common, especially during the bubble economy years of the late 1980s and early 1990s, have been greatly reduced.
The FCCJ has an extremely large contingent of Japanese members, both journalists and nonjournalists, as well as those from other parts of Asia.
Matthew Roberts, communications manager at the Tokyo American Club, notes that the club has more than 50 nationalities represented.
The clubs are also often rented out by nonmembers for parties, as their facilities can be cheaper than a room at top hotels.
How are such clubs able to survive in today’s Japan with the Internet, social media and ailing economy?
They are trying to appeal more to families, upgrading facilities and services with Internet connections and Wi-Fi, and attempting to strike a balance between keeping long-term members happy and bringing in new faces, people whose needs can be financially and socially different from the older members.
Roberts says that the Internet has been a great tool for promoting the Tokyo American Club among those who may not have known about it, while emphasis on family-oriented social programs, as opposed to just business meetings, attracts members with children.
Next January, the Tokyo American Club will move back to Azabudai from its current temporary premises in Takanawa, with new facilities that are particularly family-friendly.
At the FCCJ, President Georges Baumgartner said that efforts are being made to recruit Asian journalists, who are arriving in Japan in ever-increasing numbers even as Western correspondents leave, as well as bloggers. Baumgartner noted that some bloggers are now more influential than certain mainstream media.
Meanwhile, at the Kobe Regatta and Athletic Club, membership is fairly steady, according to Takae Gibson, the club’s general manager. One reason is the club’s emphasis on team sports, which can always draw a stable clientele.
What survival issues do the clubs face these days?
Clubs in the past were places where expats could be sure to find Western food, with surrounding communities only able to offer at best reasonable representations.
This is no longer the case. Tokyo, for one, is now a gourmet capital, and thus club meals have lost some of their allure.
Also, in many cases Western expats spend less time in Japan than they did in the past, and are often too busy with other activities while here to get involved in club activities, as their predecessors did.
The Internet age has also seen a rise in professional and specialized organizations and clubs that may offer more in the way of shared interests to potential members of the older, traditional clubs.
There are no guarantees the long-running social clubs will be able to prevail.
In Nagasaki’s Dejima district, visitors can tour the old Nagasaki International Club and see how foreigners once lived and played. The club, which was active during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, closed in the 1930s.
Only time will tell if, by century’s end, the remaining social clubs will be active, vibrant centers of international exchange, or museum exhibits where people go to learn about 20th century life in Japan.