Forged amid cold war, Japan's I-House looks to the future

A cornerstone of East-West exchange, it has hosted the likes of George Kennan and Eleanor Roosevelt.

For more than a half-century, an acre swath of garden tranquility known as the International House of Japan has been one of the best-known addresses in town for scholars, artists, and writers from the West. Generations of Asia-studies majors, diplomats, and intellectuals have shared breakfast eggs and dinner ideas next to a stunning terraced garden first built by a 16th-century feudal lord.

But starting Friday, "I-House," as it is known, will close its doors to undergo extensive renovation; only the 26,000- volume English-language library will remain open for the next year. The 61 rooms, many without a bath and quite Spartan, will reduce to 40 rooms; the postwar horizontal modernist Japanese architecture of the main building, in the DOCOMOMO style, will remain intact, though the parking lot will be sold and a high-rise will go up.

In its heyday, from the 1950s to the late 1970s, the house was home to the greats of global intelligentsia. The period was one of excitement, ferment, and idealism. Historian Arnold Toynbee, statesman George Kennan, theologian Paul Tillich, physicist Robert Oppenheimer, and Eleanor Roosevelt all came, debated, postulated. Sociologist David Reisman wrote his "Conversations in Japan" after spending 1961 here. Harvard Japanese scholar and former ambassador to Japan Edwin Reischauer was a frequent visitor.

The main draw was founder Shigeharu Matsumoto. Mr. Matsumoto gave "East-West exchange" real life after the war. At the time, Tokyo was in ruins; few places existed for foreigners. US businessmen and soldiers usually made do. But concepts like "cultural dialogue" were still in swaddling clothes. Japan was traumatized. There was no place for thinkers from West and East to share poetry, physics, law, and foreign policy.

Matsumoto deeply felt this need. Gracious, a student of Charles Beard at Yale University and a meber of the elite whose father was finance minister in the Meiji period (1868-1912), Matsumoto turned down ambassadorial postings to both the US and UN, offered by Prime Minister Yoshida, in order to start the house.

"Yoshida is regarded as one of our greatest prime ministers, and Shigeharu was his friend," says Masao Kunihiro, a biographer of Matsumoto. "For Shigeharu to turn him down was significant." (The prime minister later did a calligraphy panel for I-House of a saying from Confucius: "Is it not delightful to have acquaintances from different quarters?")

Matsumoto was an independent writer, unusual for a collective-minded Japan that had just failed in its attempted takeover of Asia. Matsumoto wanted the house to be like a home, relaxed and friendly; academic but not monastic.

All went happily for about 40 years. But after the cold war,the house seemed less energized by its original mission. Complaints arose about limited Internet access. TVs were added to rooms only a few years ago. Membership, about 5,500 in the early '90s, dwindled to 4,000 - about 1,200 of whom are American. The house, originally funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, is seeking benefactors.

"We appreciate our heritage, but we also need to look forward," says Hiroshi Matsumoto, Shigeharu's son. "Contact and exchange are more sophisticated and complicated today."

Still, other than the India International Center in New Delhi, there is no place in Asia like the I-House. In recent years, the house has focused on developing a forum for Asian intellectuals and small group meetings. "We have moved from bringing cultural big shots and big names to the house," says Matsumoto, "to finding an intellectual dynamic in diverse groups."

The renovation will bring a high-tech interior, a collaboration between Keio and Harvard Universities and the Architectural Institute of Japan.

Orginal plans to demolish the house, located in the Roppongi district of Tokyo, would have kept it shut for several years. Those plans were stoutly opposed by US members, Matsumoto says.

He insists that "one basic idea will never change." That is, "the idea of mutuality, tête-à-tête, personal exchange, and sharing. We are a house, not a hotel."

Yet some observers say the jury is out. Mitsubishi group will take over the accommodations. Many current staff have not been asked to stay.

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