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Ex-director of U. of I. Japan House to be honored by government of Japan

Kimiko Gunji
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L. Brian Stauffer

Kimiko Gunji, a professor emeritus of Japanese arts and culture and the former director of Japan House at Illinois, will receive the Order of the Rising Sun from the government of Japan.

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6/1/2012 | Dusty Rhodes, Arts and Humanities Editor | 217-333-0568; rhodes8@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Kimiko Gunji, a professor emeritus of Japanese arts and culture and the former director of Japan House at the University of Illinois, will receive the Order of the Rising Sun from the government of Japan on Wednesday (June 6) at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.

The order is awarded by the Emperor for significant achievement in international relations or promotion of Japanese culture.

Gunji, who retired in August 2011, is in Japan furthering her study of ikebana (flower arrangement)
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“She is so overwhelmed by this award, she can’t quite put it into perspective,” said Jennifer Gunji-Ballsrud, Gunji’s daughter.

Kimiko Gunji learned she had been chosen for the award in early April, but refrained from sharing the news. Once it was announced in Japanese media, Japan House began receiving “abundant emails,” Gunji-Ballsrud said.

Japan’s imperial family will bestow almost 900 of these orders this year. Fewer than 40 will go to women, and only a handful to women not living in Japan.

Gunji joined the Illinois faculty in 1979. She taught courses in Zen aesthetics, Japanese tea ceremony and flower arranging at Japan House, and a course titled “Rigidity and Flexibility in Japanese Arts and Culture” in the Campus Honors program. She holds a teaching certificate in Japanese dance, and achieved the master level in both flower arranging and tea. She is president of the Illinois Prairie Ikenobo Ikebana (flower arranging study group) and the Urbana-Champaign Association of Chado Urasenke Tankokai Inc. (tea study group).

All along, she was involved with Japan House, initially as assistant to Shozo Sato, the first director. His 1992 retirement coincided with the razing of the Victorian structure on California Avenue that had been home to Japan House since 1975. The university provided land for a new facility, and Gunji spent the next few years raising funds from private donors to finance the construction of a building. A new Japan House, surrounded by traditional Japanese gardens, was dedicated on June 18, 1998, and Gunji was named director.

“Here’s a little Japanese woman who just said, ‘I believe in this, we’re going to make it happen,’ and she did,” Gunji-Ballsrud said. “This was everything to her. She lived and breathed Japan House, not for herself and not really even for the university, but truly to share Japanese arts and culture with the broader community. It was her heart she poured into this.”

Gunji-Ballsrud, a professor of graphic design and the interim director of Japan House, said that despite retirement, her mother plans to continue teaching a weekly tea class, a monthly flower-arranging class and her Campus Honors course. She is taking more lessons in tea and flower arranging, accepting more speaking engagements and giving more demonstrations than before.
“My mother’s zodiac character is the dragon, which is the only mythical character in the Chinese zodiac,” Gunji-Ballsrud said. “These dragons are a force of nature.”

Gunji has received numerous awards, including a Campus Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching and an Illinois Arts Council fellowship. On June 14 she will receive a Cultural Achievement award from the Japan American Society of Chicago.

Japan House will host a reception celebrating Gunji’s award on June 16 (Saturday) from 5:30 to 7 p.m.

For more information, call 217-244-9934.

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