Japan House is Getting a New Annex to Accommodate Growing Interest in the Community

Jennifer Gunji-Ballsrud, director of Japan House, oversees work of students.
Jennifer Gunji-Ballsrud, director of Japan House, oversees student work.

Japan House is Getting a New Annex to Accommodate Growing Interest in the Community

By Michael Darin and Lindsey Stirek

The roots of Japan House go back to 1964, when Shozo Sato, then artist-in-residence at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts and now professor emeritus of the School of Art and Design, began a series of courses focusing on the art and culture of Japan. Eventually, he renovated an old Victorian house to teach classes. He continued to teach numerous courses there and began the tradition of open houses and welcoming the broader community to learn more about Japanese culture.

In the early 90s, the university absorbed the location of the original Japan House for the construction of the Alumni Center, and the dream of a permanent home for Japan House began. The current structure was funded primarily through generous private contributions and was dedicated in June of 1998 with Kimiko Gunji as director. The focus of the traditional Japanese-styled structure is its three authentic tea rooms surrounding a large activity and classroom. Under the direction of Professor Gunji, Japan House expanded its classes and offerings, also collaborating with other units and organizations to bring Japanese artists and performers to Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, Krannert Art Museum, the Spurlock Museum, and the Campus Honors Program. Over the past 21 years, Japan House continued to grow and welcomed students and the general public to academic courses, workshops, public and private tea ceremonies, ikebana classes, shodo (calligraphy) classes, and a vast number of events centering on Japanese Arts and Culture including Matsuri festival, Moonviewing, open houses, winter bazaar, cooking classes, Girls’ Day Celebration, Children’s Day, and much more.

Japan House is incredibly blessed. Classes and workshops fill within the first day of release; most public teas sell out; and events exceed expectations of attendance. Since 1998, Japan House has welcomed over 100,000 guests.

Due to the growth of interest and recognition of Japan House as a valued cultural organization for the community and campus, the consideration of expansion was necessary. In 2017, Dr. George Ogura came to Urbana-Champaign for a visit and was surprised by the beauty and tranquility of the Illinois Prairie and the cultural offerings that Japan House shared. He attended every event that Japan House held, and he decided to relocate here from his longtime home in Denver, Colorado. George became an avid supporter of Japan House and stated that although he was Japanese American, he never truly embraced his Japanese heritage until he visited Japan House. He was amazed by the number of visitors that were in attendance at events and asked what he might be able to do to support the future of Japan House. He overwhelmingly decided to gift Japan House $2 million dollars to create an annex that would house a permanent classroom, offices, a commercial kitchen, a fully accessible tea room, and storage. His gift, along with additional major gifts from Professor Shozo Sato, Alice Sato, and Nick Offerman (BFA ’93 Theatre), and additional gifts from over 140 other friends of Japan House, brings the total private support for this project to over $2.25M. These contributions, combined with additional funding support from the Provost’s office will fund the construction of a 6200-square foot annex. Without the friendship and generosity of Dr. George Ogura, the Ogura-Sato Annex was merely a dream. Japan House anxiously awaits a groundbreaking this fall and hopes to welcome all in 2023.

Jennifer Gunji-Ballsrud, director of Japan House, oversees work of students.
Jennifer Gunji-Ballsrud, director of Japan House, oversees student work.
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