The Japan Cultural Institute in Rome and Former Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru
In December 2017, I was appointed Director of the Japan Cultural Institute in Rome, the Japan
Foundation. During my tenure at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, I had many opportunities to
engage in cultural exchanges, and I already knew that the Japan Cultural Institute in Rome had a different name and status from the other 20 overseas offices operated by the Japan Foundation. The other two similar institutions are in Cologne and Paris, and while these three are permanent facilities, the others are basically rented offices/centers. I had never actually visited the Japan Cultural Institute in Rome, so when I first saw the building on my arrival in Rome, I was surprised at the imposing building on the vast property. My surprise was doubled when I learned that former Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru had played a major role in this Cultural Institute’s establishment in 1962.
Yoshida served as Japan’s ambassador to Italy in 1931 and 1932, but it was not his first posting in the country. In fact, he worked at the Japanese Embassy in Italy as its third secretary starting in 1909. In the year 1911, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Italy’s unification, World Expositions were held in Turin and Rome. While Turin’s Expo was mainly industrial, Rome’s focused on culture. About twenty countries, mostly from within Europe, participated in this cultural exposition, while the emerging Japan built a purely Japanese-style pavilion where a great many Japanese paintings and sculptures were exhibited, thus making it stand out from the rest. Then Yoshida was a junior diplomat in charge of cultural affairs, so he must have been heavily involved in the exhibition.
In 1930, Rome once again held an exhibition of Japanese art at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in
the center of the city. This exhibition attracted a great deal of attention in Italy, as it featured
Japanese paintings by leading masters at the time such as Yokoyama Taikan and Maeda Seison.
Seventy to eighty thousand people (some even say more than a hundred thousand) were said to have visited the exhibition during its one-month duration. Former Prime Minister Yoshida, who assumed
the post of ambassador to Italy the following year, when the success of the exhibition was still fresh in people’s minds, must have felt its tremendous, positive impact. Incidentally, the success owed much to the private contribution of Baron Okura Kishichiro, a renowned entrepreneur. After the exhibition Baron Okura bought the artworks, some of which are now stored in the Okura-Shukokan located next to the Hotel Okura in Tokyo. Ambassador Yoshida remarked during his tenure, “In the future, we must place cultural diplomacy at the center of our diplomacy with Italy. We must lay down a railroad for our future relations based on culture.” Behind these remarks, must have lain his experience mentioned above. However, his idea only came to fruition after the Second World War.
Having witnessed the devastation of the war, people were keenly aware of the importance of mutual understanding between nations. They attached great importance to cultural diplomacy so as not to repeat the tragedy of war. After its restoration of sovereignty following the signing of the San Francisco Peace Treaty, Japan began to make strenuous efforts to conclude cultural agreements with various countries. The first of such agreements was the Japan-France Cultural Agreement (1953), and the second the Japan-Italy Cultural Agreement (1954), which lay the foundations for the facilitation and encouragement of cultural activities between the two countries. What should be noted is its annexed exchange document, which called for the “construction of a Japan Cultural Institute in Rome” and “reconstruction of the war-damaged Italian Cultural Institute in Tokyo.” When the former Prime Minister’s revisited Italy in October 1954, right before his resignation in December, he inspected the proposed site for the Japan Cultural Institute in Rome, which proves his extraordinary passion for promoting cultural exchange between Japan and Italy.
After some twists and turns, its construction began in 1960, which was completed in December 1962. The building was designed by Mr. Yoshida Isoya, a leading architect who exceled himself in the “sukiya (a tea-ceremony arbor) style.” He is also known as the designer of the very former Prime Minister’s residence in Oiso, Japan (destroyed by fire some years ago). The Japan Cultural Institute in Rome is a Japanese style building with two floors above ground and one floor below ground, built on a 3,000 square meter plot with a floor area of 2,600 square meters. The land was granted by the Italian government, but the construction was funded by the Japanese government. If it were to be built today, it could not be as magnificent as this one. I am impressed all the more because the government budget could not have been so abundant back then. What made possible the undertaking of such a grand scale is, among other things, its supporters’ enthusiasm. There is no doubt that former Prime Minister Yoshida was behind it. We should also note the fact that the Institute was the very first government-built facility for the introduction of Japanese culture overseas. As a government property, its major renovations must be funded by the Japanese Foreign Ministry, and accordingly a request for such renovations should be submitted through the Japanese embassy in Italy. A fifty-seven-year-old building naturally calls for major refurbishment. Considering the Institute building’s historical value, maintenance must not be neglected, thus requiring great care and attention.
The Cultural Institute has an attached Japanese garden. It covers an area of about 1500 square meters. The garden has a full set of all essential elements of a Japanese garden, such as a pond, waterfall, stone bridge, rocks, rocky shore, suhama (sand) beach, lanterns, and wisteria trellises. It was designed by Mr. Nakajima Ken, a landscape architect, again, for the garden of the former Prime Minister’s residence in Oiso. One can enjoy a pleasant blend of Italian and Japanese plants such as olives and oleander as well as cherries and irises, which add some Japanese atmosphere. The city of Rome rents the garden site at the nominal rent of only 50 euros a year.
Incidentally, there is one more authentic Japanese garden in Italy. It is, in fact, also in Rome and designed by the same architect. The garden is set in the Botanical Garden of the University of Rome at the foot of the famous Janiculum Hill. There a cherry festival is held every April so that people can enjoy the beauty of blossoms.
A few words may be in order here regarding the location of the Japan Cultural Institute. Altogether there are forty foreign cultural facilities in Rome, nine of which concentrated in the Valle Giulia district, where the Japan Cultural Institute is located. In fact this is the area where the pavilions of many countries, including Japan’s, were set up during the 1911 Cultural World Exposition. The Japanese pavilion was on top of a hill, where now the campus of the Department of Architecture of the University of Rome is. One can see that the Italian government took the special care of allocating the land at the base of the hill for the Japan Cultural Institute.
In this connection I may add that the first movement of the symphonic poem “The Fountains of Rome”
(1916), a masterpiece by the Italian composer Ottorino Respighi, is titled “The Fountains of Valle Giulia at Dawn”. It represents a herd of cattle passing through the Valle Giulia at dawn and disappearing into the morning mist. A pair of fountains are found in the middle of the stairs, which lead to Borghege Park from Valle Giulia.
Here I might add a few words about the activities of the Japan Cultural Institute. We receive about 50,000 visitors a year, the number that has increased fivefold over the last five years thanks to the recent popularity of Japanese food, fanned by the “Food Expo” in Milan in 2015 and the 150th anniversary of Japan-Italy diplomatic relations in 2016 (celebrated with more than 300 events). The Japanese garden is also very popular. The number of visitors to the garden has multiplied by ten for the last five years. When Noh, Kyogen and traditional music performances are held in our multipurpose hall, which has a capacity of 150 people, it is always packed full. Film screenings and lectures are also given in this hall. In addition, three to four exhibitions are held every year in the large exhibition hall.
As for Japanese language education, we have five classrooms, in which 600 students attend classes each year. We are also equipped with a large library with 36,000 books on Japan. The library is actively used by Italian scholars and researchers.
Occasionally we have the honor to welcome members of the Japanese Imperial Family: His Imperial Highness Crown Prince (1984), Their Majesties the Emperor and Empress (1994), and Their Imperial Highnesses Prince and Princess Akishino (2016) (all then titles). In September 2018, Her Imperial Highness Princess Nobuko of Japan, spouse of the late Prince Tomohito of Japan, visited us. With Her Imperial
Highness being a granddaughter of Former Prime Minister Yoshida, I explained to Her Highness that her grandfather was extremely instrumental in establishing the Institute. Princess Nobuko was very pleased to hear that. The former Prime Minister’s calligraphy “日本文化會館 (The Japan Cultural Institute)” is engraved on the plaque hanging in the entrance hall. It is my pride that I was able to take a commemorative photograph in front of this plaque with Her Highness Princess Nobuko together with all members of the institute.
（Postscript 1: In the February 2010 issue of the Kasumigaseki-kai bulletin, former Ambassador Ishikawa
Yoshitaka of Japan to Kuwait introduces various episodes associated with the establishment of the Japan
Cultural Institute in Rome.)
(Postscript 2: In writing this article, I referred to the contributions of Mr. Matsunaga Fumio, Director of
the Japan Cultural Institute in Rome from 2010 to 2015)
Photos: © Istituto Giapponese di Cultura in Roma / Mario Boccia
This article is an English translation of the article first appeared in the Japanese website of the Kasumigaseki Foreign Service Association（KaFSA）in December 2019.
NISHIBAYASHI Masuo is Director of the Japan Cultural Institute in Rome of the Japan Foundation and a former Ambassador of Japan to Greece.