President’s Letter (Summer 2023)
Summer 2023日本語はこちら (Japanese)
Dear Friends and Supporters,
I want to begin this letter with a reflection on the 4th of July and the importance of independence as the United States celebrates its 247th year and how society—yes, that word—is particularly important. Like Tanabata, Independence Day celebrates the stars and our connection to things beyond ourselves. We, as a nation, and as a society in both the U.S. and Japan, are all interconnected. These interconnections begin with personal connections, leading to geopolitics, as we saw in Hiroshima with Prime Minister Kishida and Ukrainian President Zelensky in front of the Peace Memorial and G7 world leaders in front of Miyajima’s Shrine along with India’s Prime Minister Modi and South Korean President Yoon—setting the stage for Japan’s increasingly relevant geopolitical role.
The symbolism of Hiroshima and the Peace Memorial is an ever-present reminder of why U.S.-Japan history is so critical. But looking to the future, these meetings are also consequential. The world is focused on the superpower conflict between the U.S. and China and the recent meeting between President Xi and Secretary of State Blinken along with Treasury Secretary Yellen’s visit. Japan, as seen from the Chinese perspective, is what blocks China’s global ambitions. That has direct implications in Taiwan, which directly ties to what is happening in Ukraine. America is used to thinking about the world in binary terms, such as the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Now there’s a feeling that it’s the U.S. and China. It’s not that simple. When we talk about “mini laterals,” it’s to say that the world is not as multilateral anymore. The UN isn’t functioning the way it should because of the invasion of Ukraine and Russia’s veto power on the Security Council. But even when the traditional forms are not working, things like the Quad, G7, or G20 leaders’ summits give Japan and America new ways of engaging. We’re now in a waiting period to see what the next world order looks like. I believe the U.S. and Japan are guiding forces, and the meetings in China are one indication of this.
It’s worth sharing this in light of the positive developments in the relationship between South Korea and Japan—the most interesting geopolitical thing that’s directly relevant to Japan and to U.S.-Japan. In many ways, the private sectors in both countries have always wanted to work closely together but domestic politics have made it difficult. To see the successful meeting between President Yoon and Prime Minister Kishida in Tokyo, and to see this level of connection in advance of the G7 in Hiroshima, is really important.
India has replaced China as the most populated country in the world, supplying business resources for critical industries as well as geostrategic value in the Indo-Pacific to counter China and Russia. Prime Minister Modi stopped in New York City on his way to Washington, DC. His visit was a model of soft power, using International Yoga Day to galvanize our neighborhood along with a series of influencer meetings from university presidents, scholars, think-tankers, and Indian-American leaders in advance of his state visit to DC that included a full State Dinner and an address to the Joint Session of Congress, all well received and indicative of the larger role India occupies in American thinking as a strategic counterweight to China. India is not a treaty ally like Japan, but in terms of the Indo-Pacific, the two most important countries for the United States are undoubtedly India and Japan.
With a successful G7 Summit in Hiroshima, the G20 in India, and UNGA and APEC in the U.S., there are a lot of opportunities for Japan to play a leading role and position itself as a most important ally of the U.S. and a critical player in the Indo-Pacific. But it’s also clear that this cannot all be done by the government. The private sector and soft power of Japan must lead the way as it did in Hiroshima with its omotenashi, and as it will do again in 2025 at the Osaka World EXPO. India is probably the way that the future is going to go in the Global South and Pacific, especially given its first hosting of the G20.
U.S.-Japan through relationships
U.S.-Japan high level news has been mostly on private leaders such as Warren Buffet and Sam Altman’s visits to Japan. At Japan Society, I saw that play out in a significant way during our 2023 Annual Dinner. For our Fireside Chat we hosted James Gorman, who recently announced his imminent retirement from Morgan Stanley, and Nobuyuki Hirano, Senior Advisor of MUFG Bank, Ltd., from whose relationship one of the most unique financial partnerships in the world was born—befitting the closeness of U.S.-Japan relations. In addition, for the first time we had a Tokyo audience join us by live stream, making this a historic first in our 116-year history! During the 2008 financial crisis, Morgan Stanley and MUFG personified what trust can do between countries, people, and organizations. What we saw on that stage, between James and Nobu, is exactly the type of relationship that I dream of for the future of U.S.-Japan.
U.S.-Japan through soft power
Movies in many ways reveal something about our societies. In the same way that Captain America, or Iron Man, or Superman, captures the American sense of bigness and greatness, there is an enduring appeal to superheroes from Japan that tells us something about the character and creativity of Japanese society. To this end, I’m thrilled that JAPAN CUTS, the largest Japanese film festival in North America, returns in-person to Japan Society for its 16th iteration starting July 26th, kicking off with the sold-out East Coast premiere of THE FIRST SLAM DUNK, which combines my love of basketball and the transformational manga I read while growing up in Sapporo. Pop culture is sometimes hard to harness, but I think the superpower of Japan is that culture. That’s what we’re trying to show at Japan Society—that there is a depth of appreciation and understanding just waiting to be unlocked.
UNGA 2023 and beyond
After JAPAN CUTS, we’ll take a deep breath of humid New York air and get ready for the UN General Assembly. I’m hopeful that means including greater Korea-Japan relations and Japan’s global presence from Africa to the Middle East and Asia. At Japan Society we will be hosting Pacific Island nations, G7 leaders, and a peace symposium, while continuing to serve our core mission of connecting U.S.-Japan relations from the capital of culture, finance, and global diplomacy. New York is the culture and finance capital of the world but sometimes we forget that it’s also the capital of global diplomacy, by design. The Rockefellers donated the land for the UN—as well as for our own Japan House. The role that we play as a nonprofit organization that focuses on the U.S.-Japan connection has never been more vital.
I’m excited for what the future holds. Going back to where I started, when I think about the meaning of July 4th here in the U.S. and what Tanabata represents for Japan, where I grew up, it’s about seeing something bigger than yourself, something larger. What does that revolution in U.S.-Japan relations look like? How do we connect to our own lives from the world of finance, culture, and global diplomacy? How can we have a deeper appreciation for that U.S.- Japan relationship? Our mission is to expand that relationship and make it more meaningful—and something that we can all be part of together as human beings.
All the best,
Joshua W. Walker, Ph.D.
President and CEO, Japan Society