Global Conversation with Kim Andrews, executive director, Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia

Kim Andrews comes to Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia from Friends of the Japanese House and Garden (FJHG), which administered Shofuso Japanese Cultural Center, which she led from 2010 through 2016. She holds a B.A. in Art History and French from Temple University, an M.A. in Preventive Conservation from Northumbria University in Newcastle, UK, and a certificate in nonprofit management from the Nonprofit Center at LaSalle University.

A lifelong Philadelphian, who was previously a preservation consultant to over fifty cultural heritage organizations, Kim is a founding board member and former president of the North American Japanese Garden Association (NAJGA).

What is the Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia?

Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia (JASGP) connects Japan and Philadelphia, and we have been doing so since 1982. We have four programs: we operate Shofuso Japanese House and Garden, we produce the Subaru Cherry Blossom Festival, we produce the US-Japan Business and Public Policy Series, and we coordinate additional Japanese art, business, and cultural programming throughout the year.

Tell me a little more about the work that you do specifically as the Executive Director of the Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia.

JASGP was formed in 2016 through the merger of Shofuso Japanese House and Garden with Japan America Society. As executive director, I oversaw that merger, which was more challenging than I thought it would be, but it turned out to be a great success. Now I oversee every aspect of the organization, even though I don’t necessarily do everything. I am in charge of strategic planning and strategic plan implementation, finance and budgeting, external relations and partnerships with other institutions, and general organizational performance. So I oversee everything.

When I started as executive director at Shofuso in 2010, we had a budget of about $100,000 three employees, including myself, and we had 10,000 annual visitors to Shofuso. This year, in 2019, our budget is now $1.1 million, we have 25 employees, and we’re going to host 40,000 people at Shofuso and then another 30,000 throughout other programming, so that’s about 70,000 stakeholders this year. Essentially, managing this growth has been my biggest job.

What is one of your overarching goals/missions and how are you working toward making it happen?

Our basic goal is to connect Japan and Philadelphia. We do that thorough elevating Japanese art, business, and culture in the Philadelphia region. There are 37 Japan-America societies in the country. We are the only one of these societies that is managing a historic site – the Shofuso House and Garden.

We are also the only society that connects a city to Japan. The other Japan-America societies throughout the country more generally connect the U.S. and Japan. But there is a long history of friendship between Japan and Philadelphia specifically, and since Philadelphia is a historic city, we see this as an important part of Philadelphia’s history. So we present Japanese art and culture and we look to strengthen Japanese-Philadelphian economic connections, but we look at it through the lens of the long history that we have. For a city becoming better known for its international connections, the presence of Japan here is proof that Philadelphia has been an international city all along.

How does your upbringing as a native Philadelphian tie into all of this?

Well, everything I do is Philadelphia-centric, frankly. Even though I oversee a Japanese cultural organization, my being born here in Philadelphia has informed how I look at everything. When I became the executive director at Shofuso Japanese House and Garden, I had already been very familiar with the 1876 Centennial Exposition, which was a big World’s Fair in West Philadelphia. I was aware that Japan had had a very large presence at that fair. As I was starting at Shofuso, the house itself at that time had been interpreted as a Japanese site. I thought this was very limited, I did more research, and I realized that our garden sits right on the site of the first Japanese garden from 1876. This made me realize that Shofuso is a Philadelphia historic site, not just a Japanese site – there’s been a continuous Japanese presence at our site since 1876. As a native Philadelphian, that just delighted me!

If you come across Shofuso in Fairmount Park and you don’t know why it’s there, there is a sense of cognitive dissonance: you’re in Philadelphia, you’re in a park, and here’s an authentic Japanese house and garden. The story of how it came to be here is that story of Philadelphia being an international city. So we changed our interpretation and how we interacted with the rest of Philadelphia’s historic sites. We looked at ourselves as a Philadelphia site that interpreted that history, rather than just a Japanese site. Of course, it is a Japanese site – it’s the third ranked Japanese garden in North America – but it’s here because of what Philadelphia was and has been.

When does it mean to you to “think global”?

As a native Philadelphian, I’m very proud to be a caretaker of this international site and to be able to connect Philadelphia to the outside world. Being able to continue the sense of looking outward beyond the city limits and looking out across the world makes me very proud to be a Philadelphian. I am proud to help take care of this important site and to continue to connect the City to the world (Japan is my piece of it), but I think it’s important for all of us to remember how deeply we are connected outside of our own borders.

Are there any global initiatives JASGP is involved with?

Yes! We continue to seek partners in Japan. Next year we are conducting a year of programming highlighting Japan and Philadelphia, so we’re traveling to Japan this summer to connect with museums and cultural sites in Japan that have connections to the architect of Shofuso and other Japanese historic sites in our region. We’re actively working this year to get cultural connections with historic sites and museums in Japan, as well as reaching out to Japanese corporations and seeking corporate sponsorships for that programming as well.  

Do you see Philadelphia as an international, global city? If yes, how so?

Philadelphia being a city of immigrants immediately puts us in a place where we are worldly. We are familiar with different types of people, different religions, different foods, different traditions – so I think Philadelphia embraces the great differences that we have here inside the city. I’ve been happy to see the city administration reaching out internationally, and all of the work that many of our organizations have been doing over the past 10 or 15 years: Global Philadelphia Association, Citizens Diplomacy International, and certainly the Commerce Departments here in Philadelphia and in Pennsylvania, have all been working really hard to make Philadelphia better known outside the United States and to show Philadelphia as an attractive economic and tourist destination. I think the results are showing. There are so many components that are working together. By each of us advancing our small pieces, we’re making big strides for the city.

What can Philadelphia do to become more internationally prominent?

I think we’re certainly moving in the right direction in terms of international positioning. We could do better with having more materials available in different languages, especially for tourist guides and website materials. In terms of Japan, there is a tourist guide in Japanese, and the city and state are working to get a direct flight to Japan from Philadelphia International Airport that would go a long way toward strengthening this international connection. Every single one of my stakeholders would benefit from this, whether they’re business people or academics or regular Philadelphians – everybody would be on that flight!

What does it mean for your organization to be operating in a World Heritage City?

Since Philadelphia received World Heritage City designation, I’ve been able to talk about that with Japanese stakeholders, donors, and visitors. In Japan, the World Heritage City Program is very well-known, so that goes a long way. I’m able to give a shorthand of what Philadelphia is working towards by mentioning that. Like I said, we’re visiting Japan this summer, and we’re including the World Heritage City logo in our materials so that everyone with whom we meet knows not just the Japan-America Society, but also knows that Philadelphia is a World Heritage City. Having that designation is very valuable for us, and it’s meaningful in Japan, where people know what it is, and they respond to it. So I’ll be carrying my World Heritage City bag on my trip to Japan this summer!

What is an upcoming JAGSP project or initiative that you’re excited about?

We have our Subaru Cherry Blossom Festival [on May 13 - 14, 2019], which takes about six months to plan, and we’re expecting more people than ever to participate. We have a Cherry Blossom 10km Run and we’re expecting almost a thousand participants, which is more than double the attendance we had last year.

In the longer run, we have an Obon Festival in the late summer, which is an ancestors’ festival that we’re going to be expanding this year.

We’re continuing to do preservation work at Shofuso and we’re also expanding our US-Japan Business and Public Policy Series. We’ll continue to have meet up-style business programming throughout 2019 and into 2020 through the meet-up platform. We want to create a kind of grassroots excitement among practitioners and people who are interacting with Japanese companies for business or have an interest in Japanese economic exchange. We’re having meetups with receptions at different corporations in the area to get people excited and start to pull together higher-level business programming.

How can your everyday average Philadelphian become involved with that mission/that goal?! Our website has all of the different programming on it – and it IS all different programming. With arts, business, and culture, we have a topic even someone slightly interested in Japan would probably be interested in. Like I said, we have business meetups for those interested in economic exchange, we have Japanese language classes, and we have a free conversation club for people of all levels who want to practice their Japanese. We also have Japanese tea lessons, and of course visitation at Shofuso, which is open Wednesday-through-Sunday into October. There’s lots and lots to do! If anyone has the slightest curiosity about Japanese art, business, or culture, will have all of the information they need.


Interview conducted by Cristina Serban on behalf of Global Philadelphia Association