2012 OTTY Awards: First for Japan Society, a Japanese Leader

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By Laura Shin

Just two days after the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the Japan Society in New York had raised $350,000 in relief funds. A year later, it has raised $12.5 million.

As a cultural institution, fundraising isn't one of the Japan Society's primary functions. But Motoatsu Sakurai, president of the Society, made it a top priority after the disaster struck his home country last year.

"We are determined to help Japan as much as possible," he said. "With the magnitude of this disaster, you need at least 10 years to see recovery. So when it comes to money for Japan, we want to keep our door open."

The Japan Society's relief fund for the Great East Japan Earthquake is the sixth largest in the United States. The Red Cross' is the largest.

"I saw how hard he was working with the businesses here to raise funds," said Matthew Bauer, president of the Madison Avenue Business Improvement District, who nominated Sakurai for an OTTY and won one himself. "It was such a horrible disaster. It was great that New Yorkers could do their part and he really led that effort in a big way."

Sakurai was named president of Japan Society in 2009. He was formerly CEO of Mitsubishi International Corporation. In 2006, he became the first business executive to serve as ambassador and consul general of Japan in New York.

After 40 years in the private sector then serving as ambassador, Sakurai said he is pleased to have had a chance to work in different fields and ultimately transition into the nonprofit sector.

"The purposes in the three sectors are different," said Sakurai, 67. "In the private sector, you have to make money. In government, you have to think about the national interest, and in an NGO, my definition of purpose is to think about the people."

Japan Society was established in 1907 with a mission to bring "the people of Japan and the United States closer together though mutual understanding, appreciation and cooperation."

The Society is home to an art gallery, a performing arts program, a film program, a lecture program, an education program, a library and a language center that offers Japanese language courses.

Sakurai is the first Japanese person to lead Japan Society.

"They wanted to change the mood. They were interested in having a Japanese person, so I said, 'Why not?'"

Sakurai's extensive career as a businessman also prepared him for the job. He became president at a challenging time, he said; the organization's endowment was depleted and he had to find ways to reduce costs and enhance revenue. As of last year, they were able to break even.

Sakurai said the donations coming in for earthquake relief have declined significantly. He hopes to continue to raise money for the victims of the disaster. Japan Society has distributed $7.2 million of its funds to 19 different organizations that directly serve the people affected by the earthquake.

"We are very appreciative of the American people helping out the Japanese," he said.

Even though he is from Japan, Sakurai said his favorite part of his job is learning new things about Japanese culture.

When he is not working, Sakurai said he enjoys playing golf. He came to the United States in 2000 and currently lives on the Upper East Side. He is married and has two daughters who live and work in the United States.

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