By Joseph Greenberg
Since its foundation in 1928, the Tokyo American Club (TAC) has been an institution of the expatriate community living in Tokyo. It has, from its original US based membership of around 200, grown to a membership of 3,700 representing over 50 different countries. Japanese members account for 40% of the membership.
TAC’s legal status and structure differentiate it from other similar institutions: it is a shadan houjin (government chartered, Non-Profit Organization) and almost 300 of the club’s members participate in its governance, either on the board or through committees.
An historical institution
After the war, TAC, then based in Marunouchi, reopened in 1949 and with a little help from a few US banks and none other than General MacArthur himself, the club was able to regain its former leasing rights and receive enough credit to get up and running after it had been closed during the war years. It was in the next few years that the Club started to embrace families as well as business and bought property in Azabudai, West Tokyo—an ancient site that was formerly inhabited by feudal lords.
After a decision in 1971 by the Board of Governors to “provide space for any US citizen who wishes to join,” the club grew fast and needed to renovate its existing facilities in order to improve and cope with the impending expansion. By 1974, the TAC was housed in brand new buildings and quickly became a busy hub for foreigners living in Japan as well as attracting significant numbers of Japanese members.
Since then, TAC has been a place where children have learned to swim, deals have been made, couples have been married and lifetime friendships have started. However, in 1996 the Long Range Planning Committee looked into TAC’s future and saw even greater potential. With the Kobe earthquake, concerns had been raised about the safety of the buildings and it was generally agreed that although perfectly sound, the existent premises would benefit from a total makeover on a number of levels. It is for these reasons that TAC planned to pull down and rebuild the current establishment— a process that started with construction at the temporary site in May 2007 and will finish with the return to Azabudai in late 2010.
The road to 2010
TAC President, Dan Thomas, recalls that in planning for the rebuilding of the premises, a key turning point was in 2001 when TAC managed to acquire the apartment complex on the West side of the club. Previously owned by the Daiichi Corporation, the new buildings will allow the club to shift towards the newly acquired areas while on the East, it is building a luxury condominium block with its partner Mitsubishi Estate. The 2010 club will be larger than before and architects Cesar Pelli & Associates have been brought in to design the new facilities—the same brains behind the Petronas towers in Malaysia and the Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo.
Outside and in, the TAC of 2010 will ooze sophistication and warmth. Mr Thomas explains that “some years ago, the club set itself the goal of being the premier club in Asia. It has now achieved that, and can compete for the top title at a global level.” The future facilities will build on existing programs and create a greater divide between the formal and informal facilities; there will be separate areas for children, teenagers, families and business. The swimming pool, the heart of the club’s leisure facility, will be improved so that it can offer year-round swimming and the club intends to broaden its range of cultural and educational programs. A new fitness center, squash courts and full-size basketball court will also revitalize health and fitness programs.
In terms of dining, TAC aims to increase the options available and, in particular, Dan Thomas is excited about the possibility of having a permanent Japanese dining option. “We have in the past had regular Japanese banqueting events such as a sushi evening and these have been a hit with the members. As somewhere that people like to bring guests to Japan, and as a place where people can come to get a taste of Japan in a familiar context, it’ll be great to have a Japanese style restaurant.” There is also talk of a stylish new Italian outlet.
However, before TAC reopens in Azabudai in 2010, the current premises will close and the club will move to a temporary location in Takanawa. New and purpose built, these facilities will be slightly smaller but will allow the club to function normally and provide its regular services for members. In fact there will even be some new facilities to be taken advantage of such as a spa. When asked about any inconvenience members might experience, Dan Thomas is open about the need to adapt: “Of course, routines will need to change but it’s not that far away. It’s possible to drive to the club from Hiroo in under 10 minutes and there is good parking available.”
Interestingly, the move has been greeted with excitement internally. While at most clubs the vast majorities of big changes that have to go through a referendum get rejected, the plan to redevelop TAC received an overwhelming 93% of member support when put to the vote. Dan Thomas puts this down to the fact that the project has been one that has risen organically from the membership itself and also as a result of the high amount of publicity and transparency in relation to the planning process. There is an informative new website and the club’s naturally democratic structure has allowed members to take ownership of the project in a way that would be less likely to occur at clubs run purely for profit.
Although Dan Thomas doesn’t predict any major increase in the club’s growth rate, since news has spread about the new building, there has been a surge in terms of interest among prospective Japanese members, quick to see the value in new premises.
So, despite the logistical hurdles of moving to a temporary site for two years, TAC is optimistic about the brand new future that it is, quite literally, building for itself.
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