Jul 11
Japan Society President Motoatsu Sakuri (photo by Ken Levinson)

By Justin Tedaldi, Editor (Kobe-shi CIR, 2001-02) for JQ Magazine

Even century-old organizations can find new ways to change. In April, New York’s Consul General of Japan Motoatsu Sakurai became the first Japanese president of the city’s esteemed Japan Society. JQ talked with President Sakurai (who has graciously hosted JET gatherings at his home numerous times over the years) shortly after his inauguration to ask about his new plans and ideas for the future.

How did become the new president of Japan Society? Did you campaign, or were you appointed directly by their board of directors?

I have long been an admirer of Japan Society, its mission and its programs. In fact, I served as member of Japan Society’s Board of Directors from 2003 until my appointment as Ambassador and Consul General of Japan in New York, after which I became an Honorary Director. Towards the end of my term as Ambassador, when former president Richard J. Wood was looking to retire, the Society’s board approached me to see if I had interest in the position. As my first venture into the nonprofit sector, leading this venerable 102-year old organization seemed like—and now is—an exciting new challenge.

You previously served as Consul General of Japan in New York, and president of both Mitsubishi International Corporation, USA and the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry in New York. What kinds of skills developed from those positions do you think will be key as you begin your tenure at Japan Society?

In both the public and private sectors, you need to pay attention to the people you are serving. That is most important, I think. At Japan Society we have to be mindful of the bottom line, resourceful, and constantly building a better product. Everything one does in good business. At the same time, there is a diplomatic core to what we do in terms of building relationships, whether funders and partners who support our wide range of programs, or world leaders who participate in our endeavor.

Regarding your platform, what things will you do for Japan Society, and where do you see it in five years?

I did not come to Japan Society with any fixed ideas. I have made a point to meet with all staff to learn about the Society, and to listen to our stakeholders, including board members. I would like to continue the great work Japan Society has accomplished for over 100 years. To foster a constructive, resonant and dynamic relationship between the people of the U.S. and Japan remains our goal.

Japan Society has historically been a place to network–one-on-one and with groups of varying disciplines. Looking ahead, we need to better engage an international audience through new technologies as well as maximize our physical space—the five-story Junzo Yoshimura-designed building that houses our art gallery, 262 seat auditorium, language center, boutique shop and 4 floors of administrative offices.

More broadly speaking, we have entered a new era of U.S.-Japan relations. The bilateral relationship has grown very complex in the global sphere—one could even say it is now multilateral. Therefore, the work of Japan Society has become increasingly multifaceted.

What are some of your favorite events that you’ve attended at Japan Society in the past?

I have attended so many outstanding events in recent years, it is very hard to select just a few (also, I should mention, Japan Society presents over 100 events every year.) I enjoy the performances we present—from the traditional noh theater we had outdoors to cutting-edge contemporary dance that defies description. We mount three exhibitions every year that are extraordinarily beautiful, varied and unlike anything you will see at the major museums in the New York, from 12th century zen figure paintings to incredible modern bamboo sculptures. Currently, KRAZY!, an exhibition of manga, anime and video games–art forms having a huge influence on American youth culture, has drawn record crowds to our Gallery. I enjoy attending our family programs where children of all ages and nationalities learn about Japanese customs. Our corporate programming is exceptionally appealing to business leaders and policy makers. We were honored recently to welcome the Bank of Japan Governor Masaaki Shirakawa. If you were there, you would have seen me in the first row taking notes. I believe it is never too late to learn something new!

There are also incredible programs not immediately visible that I have discovered since coming to Japan Society. Our U.S.-Japan Innovators Network is a pioneering network of visionary Japanese and Americans working to create a better future, and our Education Program, which engages educators and students throughout New York, has created an invaluable online resource, About Japan, that helps teachers around the world teach about Japan.

Because this is for the JETAANY magazine, I should mention our Toyota Language Center. We offer 12 levels of Japanese language instruction, teacher training, and shodo calligraphy classes. Who knows, perhaps you will find me there brushing up my skills, so to speak.

In this recession, budgets are facing a tough time, especially the arts. How will this affect Japan Society?

During my first weeks at Japan Society, I was pleasantly surprised to find the organization in strong standing. We had just completed an incredibly visible centennial celebration. Programming remained robust, and staff was as diligent and deeply engaged as ever. Like every organization today, though, Japan Society is facing unprecedented challenges with resources and development. We have had to make hard decisions and cuts. By addressing the issues early, we have prepared for the difficult months ahead that will surely continue into 2010. I feel we are in a good position to maintain strong and steady programming, which has been our priority through the crisis, but the struggle is a constant right now.

The interesting thing is that while fundraising has become increasingly challenging, audiences have been growing, whether for our exhibitions, as mentioned, our family events, or for our recent Tora-san film series (which your generous writers praised a few months back). Our website traffic has even grown significantly in the past six months. I think this has as much to do with our commitment to programming as it does with people’s interest in Japan and their desire for education and entertainment in these difficult times. We are pleased we can continue to fill these needs.

What kinds of events or changes would you personally like to bring to Japan Society?

Since 1907, Japan Society has been a place of friendship, sharing, and understanding. I don’t want to change that. My job is to support our accomplished staff—highly engaged individuals who have steadily evolved Japan Society into a hub of dynamic and diverse thoughts and encounters.

There are things we can do to amplify this. We are currently looking for innovative ways to minimize cost and maximize our revenue and outreach. Are we being energy efficient? Are administrative expenses as low as they can be? Are our technologies up-to-date? Is our programming reaching and engaging the broadest audience? Have we identified new areas of exchange? Are we connecting to everyone in America that has an interest in Japan? What can Japan learn from the American perspective? These are questions we continuously pose as we address what Japan Society does.

Name some of your highlights as ambassador and Consul General of Japan in New York, and what you liked best about the job.

There were many challenges to the job–dealing with bureaucracy being a surprisingly tough one–but there were many more rewards that came from serving the people. I was honored to bring business leaders from Japan to meet U.S. officials, including Governor Jon Corzine of New Jersey, Governor Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, and Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania.

During my term as Consul General, I also helped create Japan Day @ Central Park, an annual outdoor cultural festival hosted by the Japanese community in New York. The event drew some 35,000 people in 2008, involving everyone from major corporations and nonprofit organizations to individual supporters. It was humbling to be among so many Japanese, American and international friends, and to give something back to New Yorkers for their hospitably and enthusiasm.

What’s the overall impression you have of the JET Programme after meeting and working with so many JET alums?

I commented while Ambassador that the JET Programme is one of the top programs organized by the Japanese government. The mission to promote grass-roots international exchange between Japan and other nations is invaluable. The program engages thousands of people in many countries and creates an effective network for Americans interested in Japan and for Japanese living in the States. I commend the community engagement and overall training excellence the program engenders. It is no coincidence that there are four JET Programme alums on staff at Japan Society.

Besides New York, where are some of your other places in America, and why?

I lived and worked for 14 years in Washington, D.C. I raised my daughters there. It is an exceptionally international and wonderful town. The difference between it and New York is that in D.C., internationals function as foreigners. As a person from Japan you are Japanese there. In New York, everyone functions as a New Yorker. I am a New Yorker in New York. It is truly a melting pot.

Did CGJ do anything in particular for the Obama campaign, and what are your thoughts about our new president?

In government office, we are not allowed partisan work. There was no room for political activity of that kind.

Japan Society seeks to bring more Japanese arts and culture to Americans. How can we continue to promote those things to Americans who might be unfamiliar with Japanese culture?

That is a very good question. I will take it further: how do we let people know that some things they take for granted are Japanese. Sushi, manga, and sake have all become common. People may forget the rich cultural legacy that brought them to the table. This is one of the reasons Japan Society is so vital. Our programming and projects are not only great introductions to Japanese culture—sometimes even for native Japanese people—but they are invaluable means to deepen appreciation and understanding of what is uniquely Japanese.

This is a very different time from when Japan Society was founded over 100 years ago. We live in a global culture and sometimes take for granted the cultural importance of what is around us. America as we know it is just 250 years old. It moves very fast and changes quickly. Japan’s culture dates back thousands of years. It can be more reflective and reluctant to change. Between the two cultures there is still so much to discover and share. Japan Society brings this forward, focuses it and expands the process for everyone’s benefit—in the U.S., Japan and the world.

Who in your opinion are the most influential Japanese people to have a positive impact on America?

I think Japan itself has had the most impact. Everywhere you look now, you see its presence: in food, fashion, film, art, music and architecture. Some of our top baseball players are Japanese. Educators everywhere are using kamishibai and manga as teaching tools. The list goes on. People are surrounded by Japan’s influence and they are not aware of it. I want to make sure they are.

For more on President Sakurai, visit http://www.japansociety.org/content.cfm/bios#Motoatsu Sakurai.

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