“[we] offer members a user experience that fits their lifestyle and their requirements”

A diverse community

Tokyo American Club turns 90

 


Text by Yung-Hsiang Kao / Photos by Yuuki Ide and @Jeff Goldberg/ESTO


On 23 May 1928, a group of 51 American businessmen founded Tokyo American Club (TAC) as an exclusive place for expatriate Americans to gather. However, over the past 90 years, the club has undergone several transformations, occupying six buildings in different locations around Tokyo. Its present home, an eight-storey complex, opened in Azabudai, Minato ward, in January 2011. It has also seen a transformation in terms of its demographics.

“Over time, we’ve diversified and broadened the membership, growing it dramatically from a small group of American expats to the large diverse group we are today,” says Michael Alfant, representative governor of the club since 2016.

TAC has some 4,000 members, drawn from more than 50 countries, including a sizable percentage of Europeans. There are no nationality requirements to become a member.

“There are Europeans who have served on the board and Europeans who currently serve as volunteer leaders, as committee chairs, and are integral to the governing structure here,” says Alfant, an American entrepreneur from New York, who has been a member of the club for 15 years. “There’s a huge demographic of European members in the club.”

Alfant points to several benefits of membership that draw Europeans to the club.

“Firstly, you become a part of the largest business community in Japan — and that’s focused specifically on international business,” he says. “But it’s not a business organisation; it’s a social community, a club that’s largely populated by international businesspeople that provides a good opportunity to expand your personal network here.”

Among other benefits, members have access to meeting and event facilities, top-end restaurants with award-winning wine collections, seven guest suites — and excellent fitness facilities.

“Part of being a good businessperson is having stamina and being genki,” says Alfant — using the Japanese word for “healthy and energetic” — who works out at the club five days a week. “The gym here opens at 5:45 … And we have parking available for members, so you can get here early, get your workout in and be at your office by 7:30, without a problem.”

 

Furthermore, members can take advantage of reciprocal membership arrangements with 150 similar clubs around the world, including several in European countries such as Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and the UK.

As a private club, members are invited to make suggestions on how the club can be improved, and regularly do. Alfant is a proponent of the Japanese practice of kaizen and encourages incremental improvements to be made each day.

And while each US ambassador serves as the honorary president of the club, Alfant says TAC is “very politically uninvolved”.

“Our present mission is to create a community for everyone, not just for Americans, but for everyone in Japan that’s interested in international business, international relations, diversity, expanded horizons,” he says. “What I’m always trying to create is a sense of community amongst our members.”

The club’s range of dining and recreational amenities — which include an impressive top-floor swimming pool, full-size gymnasium, spa and library — play host to a packed calendar of events and programmes. Besides American holiday celebrations, such as the Fourth of July, the club organises winemaker dinners, author talks, tours, children’s summer camps and a multitude of fitness and cultural classes.

“Just about anything you can imagine we use as an excuse to have an event and to have a great time with it,” says Alfant.

The variety of offerings helps retain members long-term, and draws new ones.

“I think the club offers people several unique value propositions — whether it’s a swimming pool that’s open early in the morning, or a world-class steakhouse, or guest suites, or US sports on television … to activities for young people and adults,” he says. “There is no member who accesses everything the club has to offer — there’s just too much.”

Registered as an ippan shadan hojin, or general incorporated association, TAC is involved in community outreach, community service and charity work, an important part of the club’s identity. In one recent event, member families hosted schoolchildren from Fukushima, a relationship nurtured by the club since the triple disaster of 2011.

Thanks in part to its central location, excellent facilities and iconic status, TAC was selected to host Team USA during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. The US Olympic Committee (USOC) has designated the club as its USA House, or headquarters, during the Games. Athletes, staff and USOC partners will take over half of the complex, with the other half reserved exclusively for members’ use.

Alfant hopes TAC members will have opportunities to mingle with the athletes on Team USA.

“Obviously, the athletes are here for a specific reason and they have an overriding priority, but we’ll certainly make our facility available to them,” he says. “We will welcome them when their events are done, or even before their events are done, to take advantage of the club.”

With more foreign companies setting up or expanding operations in Tokyo ahead of the Games and the 2019 Rugby World Cup, the club recently launched a membership option aimed specifically at expats on short-term assignments.

One particular group who are increasingly making the most of the club are families, who represent the most popular membership option. The club today has a formal side and a family side, a distinction not available in previous incarnations of the club.

“The nice thing that we can do is offer members a user experience that fits their lifestyle and their requirements,” Alfant says. “Partly because the club is so large and so diverse, you can make of it what you want to make of it.” 

“[As a member,] you become a part of the largest business community in Japan”

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