BY JOSHUA W. WALKER
NEW YORK – On June 16, 1860, 160 years ago to this day, and a year before the American Civil War broke out, the first Japanese mission to the United States arrived in New York City. They were warmly welcomed by literally hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers as their “samurai parade” moved along Broadway from the Battery to a ceremonial reviewing stand in Union Square.
Our relationship — between the U.S. and Japan — has endured from this amazing beginning throughout our shared history, sometimes mutually beneficial, at other times literally devastating. Together, we have seen a Civil War, the Russo-Japanese War, World War I, the Spanish Flu, World War II, with the first atomic bomb dropped on Japan by the U.S., the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, 9/11, 3/11, and now the global COVID-19 pandemic plus Black Lives Matter and protests in America.
Despite this impressive history together, we increasingly must look to the future, to craft shared initiatives both political and private that can build bridges and empower leaders, for the sake of both of our countries and for the world. Although we must physically isolate ourselves during this pandemic, our world will no longer sustain isolation as a political and economic practice. We are too connected and so much in this together. We must truly commit to working together for the future of everyone, not just nations, and for the future of our world.
Japan Society has a 113-year-old history of building bridges between our two countries, and starting each year since 1972, a year after the society’s now landmarked building opened to the public, our supporters and friends have come together every year at our annual dinner. This gala featuring major public figures from the U.S. and Japan as keynote speakers, from heads of state to preeminent economists, policy makers, and business leaders, is more than just a fundraiser — it is a unique platform to celebrate our shared history and commitment to the future.
We almost did not have our annual dinner this year given the extraordinary circumstances, but thanks to our incredible board, supporters and staff, while our building is currently closed to the public and our programs have moved online during the pandemic, we are celebrating new beginnings with our 2020 Japan Society Annual Dinner: Reimagined Gala and Awards on June 18.
We are making history not just with our notable awardees, leaders and public figures whom we have historically hosted, but this is also the first time we are holding our annual dinner virtually — taking this unprecedented opportunity to have a Tokyo co-host and guests. Out of crisis emerges an opportunity to further our mission and U.S.-Japan relations for the future.
For our annual dinner, I have to address what is happening around us. New York is on edge, and the entire world is watching. First, our city became the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, and now everyone is watching to see what will come next, starting from the defining moment of the George Floyd protests.
In these difficult times, we are reimagining our annual dinner out of necessity, but we are also making a very explicit choice. We chose to keep the dinner on June 18 for a reason — because 160 years ago the first Japanese mission came to New York, and just like at that time, people did not know what to expect, as we, frankly, do not know what awaits us in the next year. We do know that we are better off together, and that is why we are here, in this reimagined and still evolving community outside of Japan Society’s physical presence.
Resiliency has always been a defining theme between the U.S. and Japan, as demonstrated by New York during 9/11 and Tohoku during 3/11. These events are reminders that even in the darkest moments, light can and does shine in the form of inspiration and hope. Our reimagined annual dinner will let us celebrate, stay connected and build on our mission of bringing communities together.
Rather than being about Japan Society and the work we do, we have an inspirational program anchored by Aflac CEO Dan Amos’ unique history with Japan, Living National Treasure Nomura Mansaku’s legacy of kyogen, and many special guests including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who will offer a message of hope to us in New York. We will also express our sincere gratitude to our countries’ COVID-19 frontline responders through the presentation of a special donation, signaling our historical and shared commitment to helping one another.
As we move forward with our exciting new digital initiatives for the summer and fall seasons, originally by necessity, we are moving into the future to start work on a different level to build bridges beyond our physical building into the world at large, and to reach out to new audiences in both the U.S. and Japan.
Our distinguished 1975 annual dinner keynote speaker, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, said it best when he said, “Americans and Japanese can take pride in what we have achieved and use it as a point of departure for greater efforts still. We are seeking the crucial balance between diversity and common purpose that is the best hope for building a creative, just, and productive international community. With the good will and good sense, the high hopes and hard work which have so far marked our journey, we will continue to strengthen our relations — for ourselves and for mankind.”
Echoing these same themes almost half a century later, Prime Minister Abe will reinforce to our 2020 annual dinner guests the immutable friendship and alliance between the U.S. and Japan. His charge to us that the Japan Society, which for over 100 years has been fostering mutual friendship, will take on an even bigger role and receive the support of even more Americans across the country is our hope as well. This is only the beginning of a new chapter in Japan Society’s history, and we are going to be able to do things that we have never done before. We hope that you will join us.
Joshua W. Walker is president and CEO of the Japan Society.