Commentary / Japan

Finding strength and unity within our uncertain 'socially distant' future

by Joshua W. Walker

Change is frightening. Working together, we can strengthen and help each other to survive and flourish. It happened to the Japan Society before, in December 1941. Then, it was an act of war between Japan and the United States that shuttered the group’s doors and vanquished its board, staff, finances and friendships. Now we are faced with a pandemic affecting every nation in the world.

In this uncertain future we must become the stewards of our own legacy and agents of healing — through the Japan-U.S. relationship. We are the standard bearers of the original relationships — both business and social — forged between the two countries 113 years ago with the founding of the Japan Society in 1907.

After the end of the postwar U.S.-led Occupation of Japan in 1952, the dynamic leadership of John D. Rockefeller III brought about the astonishing rebirth of the Japan Society, followed some 12 years later by the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, an international celebration of Japan’s postwar recovery.

Japanese are pessimistic by nature and always prepare for the worst. The spectacle of sumo matches made for TV only, with no fans in the stands, presaged the fears of a postponed Summer Olympics that have now become a reality. However, just as the cherry blossoms begin to bloom, it is worth reflecting on the importance of global cooperation and leadership in these times.

Japan has been an island of stability amid the populist movements sweeping democracies of the West, with the longest serving prime minister in history willing to play a more global role than any Japanese leader before him. Therefore, like Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has been thrust into the spotlight for his handling of the crisis and has had to postpone his highly anticipated visit to Japan, or President Donald Trump, struggling to deal with the outbreak in the U.S. as he faces his own re-election, Abe has no place to hide as the world watches what Japan does next.

Unlike China, South Korea, Italy or Iran, where travel to and from these countries results in immediate quarantine here in America, Japan remains only an area of heightened concern and monitoring as it emerges from its own peak infection. There is still far more unknown than known, and maintaining characteristic Japanese humility and stoicism in the face of the new coronavirus is critical. Yet there are important distinctions and lessons to learn from the qualities of effective management and resiliency that have characterized Japan’s well-earned reputation for crisis management.

Top-down leadership is the norm in Japan, but given the way in which the virus continues to spread, local and regional government leadership has been welcomed and built upon in Japan, as we are seeing playing out here in New York. Clear communications, efficient treatment and containment strategies will go a long way in restoring the trust that Japan has built for itself over the last decade.

March 11 brought the ninth anniversary of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, to which it is easy to make parallels. But Japan’s long history of “bending to adversity” prepares Tokyo for what comes next in terms of global and national implications. Let us hope that the lessons learned on 3/11 in both the positive and negative sense will help Japan recover and once again lead the world, not just as the host of the Olympics during a year we desperately needed the distraction but as a beacon of hope for what is possible when we all come together.

Now, the worldwide coronavirus pandemic has shut the Japan Society’s physical doors just like so many others around the world, pausing all public programming for a still-to-be determined interval. We are no longer what we were, or who we thought we were. And yet out of this crisis is an opportunity to reinvent the present and future, to repair and repurpose ourselves to ensure the Japan Society’s future and to reinforce its mission of strengthening and supporting the Japan-U.S. relationship.

In these times, an inspiration that comes to mind is the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi — the acceptance and celebration of imperfection, with strength and beauty achieved through care and repair, simplicity and integrity. So many really beautiful Japanese traditions are grounded in the concept of visible repair and looking within. Kintsugi, “golden seams” or kintsukuroi, “golden repair,” is a more than 400-year-old Japanese gold-fill ceramic tradition that uses gold pigment and lacquer to mend shattered vessels, strengthening form to celebrate and increase beauty and value in the process.

For the Japan Society, our gold pigment is the Japan-U.S. relationship, and we are its custodians, curators and artisans, continuing the robust vision and lineage of John D. Rockefeller III, who gave the Japan Society new life and purpose after World War II. From this perspective, as people, as beings, we can grow from these challenges and our experiences will strengthen us. This is above all a time for leadership, vision, survival, repair and renewal, celebration and regeneration, for the U.S. and for Japan. Together, let us find our heart space, our true heartland connection, and move forward in strength and unity.

Joshua W. Walker is the president and CEO of the Japan Society.

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