President’s Letter (Winter 2024)

President’s Letter

Winter 2024

日本語はこちら (Japanese)

日本語はこちら (Japanese)

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Dear Friends and Supporters,

As we begin 2024, Japan has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons starting with the earthquake in Ishikawa and then the subsequent flight accident in Haneda. Even before these tragedies there was already a long shadow over the world from the wars in Ukraine and Israel, alongside potentially fraught politics from upcoming elections in both the United States and Japan.

This is not an easy starting point for the New Year geopolitically, and it's also not at all what we'd expected from 2023, with two major wars having no easy endings in sight. In the U.S., we have a presidential election where people are historically unhappy with both leading candidates, not only because of their age, but also because there's not really any new vision being offered for society or a new hope for America. In Japan, there is a competent and fiscally responsible government that's doing all the right things, yet continuing scandals within the ruling party and a population that is upset and extremely critical of its governance. Historically low approval ratings for both Prime Minister Kishida and President Biden don't augur well for 2024 politically. The reaction from Washington to the recent headline on Nippon Steel’s acquisition of U.S. Steel underscores the politics affecting business. As I discussed with Nikkei Asia, this deal should be celebrated as a symbol of the strength of U.S.-Japan relations, but instead sends all the wrong signals. The future of steel production in the U.S. and Japan is secure with this major investment from Japan to America. We can't celebrate Japan as our most important and critical ally and then attack Nippon Steel with the type of xenophobic rhetoric we are seeing.

Going beyond the political

Thus the question is, how can we go beyond the political? The scandals and dysfunction within the LDP and the political polarization in the U.S. mean that elections are not going to solve anything. In some ways, the solution has to come from somewhere outside of the political realm. As someone who has spent my entire career looking at politics, I think it's time to take a step away and not buy into everything that DC and Tokyo politics offer. There's something bigger at play here, and that's why I'm excited to be here in New York, even with our own local political unpleasantness on full display. The fact that both of our democracies and our political leaders are in such trouble doesn't necessarily translate to the role that our societies can play in making the world a better place. If the last few years have taught us anything because of COVID and natural disasters, it's that our people and societies are remarkably resilient.

When we look to the higher version of ourselves, not the political side, and when we look for the common denominators, we find these in the fields of arts and culture, in business, and in entertainment. There's a lot there that we can be excited about, not just the Dodgers! This was brought home to me in one of my favorite holidays, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. In the 2023 Parade, I saw a record number of very recognizable Japanese characters who have become part of the American family. Watching Goku, who I grew up with in Dragon Ball Z and Pikachu that my kids adore float through the streets of New York alongside Snoopy and Smokey the Bear, some of the great icons I've always loved—that gives me great hope. The energy coming from anime and the creative side of both our societies is remarkable including as we will see during the film award season with monster hits Godzilla Minus One and The Boy and the Heron, both of which we were proud to premier at Japan Society in 2023. That's what the future has to offer. The silver lining for Japan is its soft power, as I wrote here.

What Japan can teach us

Let's talk about art and tradition. The concept of fine art is not something that was necessarily part of the Japanese lexicon until the Meiji period—that was driven home to me during a recent visit to Asia Society's Meiji Modern exhibition. Until then, the concept of art in Japan was always very functional. You wouldn't make a vase unless you could put flowers in it. Why would you make a vase that was only for display? But that's what, on one level, Japan learned from the West during the Meiji modernization period. Now it's time for the West to learn from Japan again.

Along with the beauty of traditional Japanese arts and crafts, Japan's pop culture is booming globally and becoming the entry point for those who are unfamiliar with Japan. And there have never been more tourists going from the U.S. to Japan—2023 visitors include Warren Buffett, Sam Altman, and Kim Kardashian, a literal Who's Who of America!

A new season for the New Year

The first quarter of 2024 brings the very first state visit by Prime Minister Kishida to Washington, DC. Here at Japan Society, we're getting ready for a new season. We're kicking off the New Year after our holiday party of course, fittingly enough, with our Global Risk Forum featuring General David H. Petraeus and Nobel Prize Recipient Joseph E. Stiglitz. We're thrilled to be welcoming our new Gallery Director, Dr. Michele Bambling, who will be joining us at the beginning of February. March will see the opening of our spring exhibition, None Whatsoever: Zen Paintings from the Gitter-Yelen Collection (March 8-June 16, 2024), which explores the origins of Zen Buddhism through over four centuries of ink paintings and calligraphies by painter-monks, who expressed Zen Buddhist teachings through their art—something to bear in mind as we think about how we can calm our own inner spirits in today's unstable world. Japan Society is committed to promoting Japan's soft power of arts and culture within the United States and beyond.

Finally, we've just announced our 2024 Annual Dinner on June 13, 2024, featuring co-keynote speakers Arvind Krishna, Chairman & CEO of IBM, and Atsuyoshi Koike, CEO of Rapidus, in a dialogue moderated by Japan Society Chair Merit Janow. We'll hear from these two titans of the geotech world, exploring how IBM and Rapidus are partnering so that Japan can position itself in the world of semiconductors and chip wars that the U.S. and Japan must be leaders in to ensure diversity in the global supply chain. Please join us not only for an illuminating discussion but also in recognition of Japan Society's essential role in supporting the U.S.-Japan alliance within a global frame.

Joshua W. Walker, Ph.D.
President and CEO, Japan Society