TPP: Trans-Pacific Philanthropy

Junko Chano, Executive Director of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation and President of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA

Let’s begin with a brief bit of geography and history.

The nation of Japan is situated on an archipelago of 6,852 islands, of which 430 are inhabited. Just the north of the main island, Honshu, lies Hokkaido, the second largest of the chain with some 5.8 million residents, many of whom can indeed see Russia from their house on a clear day.

Well perhaps it’s more accurate to say that standing on the Hokkaido coastline on a clear day, one might see some small islands which are now controlled by Russia… But the point is, this is Japan’s “last frontier.” Hokkaido was settled before recorded history, chiefly by the Ainu, who maintained a separate culture from the Japanese. Then in the late 19th century, the Meji government attempts to consolidate power spread new modernization policies north and along with them came hundreds of thousands of settlers.

Hokkaido, in fuchsia.

The legacy of the frontier culture is still intrinsic to the regional identity of Hokkaido, and it has influenced the personal identity of Junko Chano, Executive Director of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation (SPF) and President of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA, who hails from there.

As a result of her upbringing, Chano considers herself more open-minded, more welcoming to different cultures and different ways of thinking. By her own account, she is also more adventurous and willing to take personal and professional risks.

In Japan, stability is the name of the game for most workers. It is not uncommon for an employee to work at the same company for their entire career. Chano has taken a different path. In the early 1990s, she and her husband, Junichi Chano, both took a leave from their jobs to come to the United States with their two children for graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Upon completing Masters in Government Administration, Junichi took a position in his foundation’s New York office. Junko was faced with the decision to resume her own work in Tokyo, or stay with him and keep their family together.

She chose to stay and took an opportunity to work at the Ford Foundation in New York. Then a few years later, the Chanos faced a similar situation.

“I really enjoyed the work and also living in the US and when my husband had to go back to his headquarters in Tokyo, this time I said ‘I’m sorry, but I really like working here,’” said Junko Chano. Her husband was not surprised, citing Junko’s Hokkaido roots, and he returned to Japan by himself.

It would later turn out this was just the start of their transpacific family.

When Chano eventually returned to SPF headquarters in Tokyo, her daughter came with her, but her son remained in the United States. Later her daughter would return to the United States herself to attend university.

“I had some mixed feelings, but I knew my daughter would be happier in the United States than if she was in Japan,” explained Chano. She sees her daughter’s choice as a reflection of her own enjoyment of life in America, but a bi-cultural life can also be difficult. One can speak the language fluently, but wonder about small gestures or ingrained cultural norms.

“When my daughter first came back with me to Japan, she asked me if people walk on the right side or left side of the sidewalk. She asked me several times,” said Chano. “I never thought about it. I think they walk on the left.”

Though she is often found introducing, moderating, or speaking on panels about the US-Japan, she is also an expert in philanthropic strategy and foundation management.

“When I moved to the Ford Foundation, I was quite excited because I worked at Japanese foundation before, and the Japanese were just starting to think about the value of foundations,” said Chano.

Though it has changed over the past decade or so, the Japanese society still preferred that the government address important issues, so much so that many Japanese would rather donate — brace yourself here — to the government than to a non-governmental organization. The idea of private fundraising just was not a part of Japanese culture.

“So working in American philanthropic institutions is a really good opportunity for me to learn from them what kind of projects they find interesting, how they carry out projects, all of the ways they think, and how they talk to their partners — everything was quite new for me and very worth learning.”

When she returned to her work at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Tokyo, she brought back a host of new ideas and perspectives on philanthropy.

“Japanese foundations cannot compare endowments with American foundations, so we have to be very strategic about how and what, what projects we can work on,” said Chano. “We tend to be very selective and sometimes very careful in terms of decision-making.” She was concerned by the restrictive attitude, and tried to change the culture of Japanese philanthropy, at least at SPF, to what she sees as a more opportunistic American model, one more trusting in efforts to build partnerships with like-minded institutions.

Chano is also deeply invested in staff development. Again, the Japanese career system is generally inflexible, whereas the US has a more fluid job market. Because of the relatively recent emergence of a philanthropic sector in Japan, it is difficult to find experienced professionals willing to take a few years out of a career path they have already built to work at a foundation.

“I think in Japanese society still people don’t really understand what a foundation is and the role we can play. In many cases, men prefer working for corporations and more stable jobs with good income. For them it is a risk,” said Chano. Women on the other hand still struggle to find these types of opportunities. At the same time, Chano also believes that women are driven more by hope and solving issues than by the prospects of climbing the corporate ladder. This quality is a strength for the foundation world in her experience.

It is little surprise then that more than half of the staff of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation are female. Chano suggests that social realities are more of a precipitating factor than her own leadership, but she does see it as her role to create an environment where all of her staff can — whether they are from Hokkaido or not — take more risks and try new things.

One more question…

Tell us something about yourself that most people don’t know, but would be surprised to find out.

Maybe many people don’t know that I am master of martial arts, type of swordfighting called naginata (なぎなた). Naginata has been played mainly by females throughout the centuries. My grandfather is a master of kendo (剣道) and also master of kyūdō (弓道), Japanese archery, and I guess he really wanted his children to continue that tradition, but none of his three sons did martial arts. They played tennis, they skied, but never practiced martial arts. So he really wanted someone to do it, and I had that in my mind when I started after he passed away. I started at the age of 18 and eventually achieved the third-highest rank.

Do you still practice?

Well I stopped it once I got married because I had so many things going on. Three years ago, I thought about restarting my martial arts career. I went to a nearby club, which was well-known, and I knew they were a very strong club. I sort of acted as a beginner. I said “I’d like to learn and see you practice, I’d like to just observe.” The teacher, I thought I recognized her, and she thought she recognized me from speaking on a panel. So we introduced each other, and we did know each other. She found out I wasn’t really a beginner and said, “Go and practice.” I had no choice, so I started practicing. I sort of was quite awkward because I had forgotten so many things, but I enjoyed it. Again, I had to stop because I am so busy these days, but I’d like to restart it.


by Andrew Loeb Shoenig, with research assistance from Alexis Ayano Terai; December 2016

n.b. Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA is an institutional partner of The Congressional Study Group on Japan.

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