The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Presenter Interview
New developments in the Japan Society, a promoter of exchange between Japan and the U.S. for 100 years
Japan Society has a 100-year history now. I’m sure that the roles and the activities today have changed considerably from those at the time of its start.
Japan Society was founded in the wake of the Russo-Japanese War when influential business people in New York began to recognize that Japan was not a dismissible country. They worked with influential Japanese people to discuss what kind of organization was needed promote mutual understanding in both countries. The result was Japan Society. Although we have some awkward feelings about the name "society" these days, this organization at the time actually functioned as a "society." Without its theater and other facilities that we have now, it used to provide opportunities for academics, literati, and leaders in business and politics to meet each other. It also organized events to introduce aspects of Japanese culture like ikebana flower arrangement at salons rented at hotels and the like. Another interesting example of activities of early Japan Society is that it produced a first packaged tour to Japan targeting general public of Americans.
The foundation of the present Japan Society was really formed after World War II. In 1952, the head of Chase Manhattan Bank, David Rockefeller III, became President of the Society. In 1953 Performing Arts program was initiated and since then, public programs in the arts were augmented. The current building, designed by Junzo Yoshimura, was completed in 1971. With this architecture containing a theater, gallery, language center and multi-purpose rooms, Japan Society has been able to produce its own original performing arts programs and present them to general public.
Looking back on the last 100 years, Japan Society's contribution to deepen mutual understanding between the U.S. and Japan has been enormous. For example, there are many influential journalists who were fellows of the Japan Society’s “Media Fellow” program. (Japan Society has assisted American and Japanese journalists in their research and investigation in each other's country). Also the Society for many years has always maintained close network with "Japan experts" in American academia. In recent years, the number of American people who speak Japanese and who have a deep understanding of Japanese cultural has increased dramatically – likewise there are many Japanese people who speak English fluently these days, and the internet has enabled Americans and Japanese to easily obtain all kinds of information of each other's country. However, in the past the Japan Society was virtually the only organization which could navigate American people to the culture of Japan: the Society had been long considered the most comprehensive resource center for information on Japan.
Today, however, the Society’s positioning is completely different. First of all, in the past Americans' interest about Japanese culture was primarily in the traditional. But these days, while conventional interests in “Fujiyama & Geisha” still remain, many are interested geeky "otaku" culture represented by the world of anime and manga comics, and many others are interested in Japan's technology business. That is, demand on "information of Japan" is much more diverse now than it once was. It is our big challenge to address such diverse characteristics of Japan as one entity called "Japan."
Furthermore, in such a developed internet era, we can no longer indulge ourselves with the long-standing status of "the most comprehensive recourse of Japan." In other words, unless we make serious effort to keep seeking an elaborate way to convey the diverse characteristics of Japan, or to deliver new discoveries that the internet cannot provide, we will lose our status. We are challenged to fulfill a new role as a guide to Japan.

What kinds of the way are you trying to do, for instance?
When the Society was planning an exhibition curated by artist Takashi Murakami, the then-Gallery Director as well as staff members in the Communication and Development department wanted to promote it through the "pop art" angle. But I, who was putting series of performing arts program related to the exhibition's theme, disagreed. I insisted that we should promote it through the theme using the word of "otaku." They argued that Americans didn’t understand what "otaku" meant, and that "pop art" is the communicative theme title to attract Americans. But I believed that "pop art" in an American context would associate with something completely different from what Murakami was trying to put together. Unlike "pop art," the word "otaku" has negative connotation. If we ignore the complexity lying below the surface of Japanese pop culture, our program would end up as same as other organization's programs and we would lose our competitive edge. We should not just show the obvious. As I mentioned earlier, the Society has to have the sensitivity to elaborately illustrate the true and entire personality of Japan.
There’s more. In order to discover Japan, "looking into Japan to see what is going on there" is no longer a sufficient approach. In the past there were only a few Japanese artists active abroad. However, these days it is rather difficult to name a world-class ballet company whose company does not include a Japanese dancer. Not only is the number of those dancers increasing, but the choreographers active abroad are also increasing. The fact that many Japanese artists are thriving outside of Japan suggests that you can find some kind of Japan-ness abroad: a piece born outside of Japan may contain influences of Japan, or it may be a hybrid of Japanese culture. Considering that phenomenon, you would realize that the mere presentation of what you find on Japanese soil is not sufficient to introduce "current Japan as a whole."
I am now planning to present a series of European productions (or perhaps German productions) for fall 2009 or spring of 2010. One of the groups I am thinking of presenting is a group formed by a German man and a Japanese woman who met when they were studying at New York University. The theme of their work is Japan but it is performed in English; the production staff team is German, and the cast includes New York-based Japanese actor and Berlin-based Japanese dancer. You can't label this production as simply “Japanese” can you? But you also can't tear off the label of Japan completely since the work is still deeply rooted in Japan. This is a fine example that represents the great diversity of Japan today. Another example is "Contemporary Dance Showcase from Japan” which we have presented annually for the last 10 years. This season, we will expand this program to "Contemporary Dance Showcase from Japan and East Asia," introducing dance company from Taiwan and Korea along with three Japanese companies. I have set this new direction because I think we now have a mission to present Japan in a global context.

I would like to ask you to give us an overview of the Japan Society’s performing arts department.
We present performing arts program almost once a month in our theater. We cover all kinds of genres from contemporary music, dance, and theater to traditional performing arts. Some of the programs and projects are conducted on an annual basis: U.S. tours of Japanese contemporary theater companies, which have been supported by the Saison Foundation in Japan; various kinds of traditional Japanese performing arts performed by the highest-ranked performers from Japan; the aforementioned contemporary dance showcase; experimental music concert series curated by the avant-garde musician/composer John Zorn, to introduce the many Japanese artists who have released albums under Zorn’s Tzadik label. Also, every other year we commission a non-Japanese artist to create a new piece inspired or influenced by Japanese culture.
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