Kenji Tanaka
Dr. Tanaka presenting a gift to Jim Dennis for
McKendree University

A Leadership Legacy Created Through Relationships With Honor

by Cynthia Cherrey

Cynthia Cherrey Photo

Cynthia Cherrey is President and CEO of the International Leadership Association. Previously, Cynthia served as Lecturer in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and Vice President of Campus Life. She publishes in the areas of leadership, organizational development, and higher education including co-authoring Systemic Leadership: Enriching the Meaning of Our Work. Her most recent publication is Women and Leadership Around the World (co-editor). She is a Fellow at the World Business Academy and a recipient of a J.W. Fulbright Scholarship. Cynthia’s interests and research explore new ways to live, work, and lead in a knowledge-driven, interdependent, global society. She consults and speaks to for-profit and non-profit organizations around the world on leadership and organizational change. She can be reached at ccherrey@ila-net.org.

Dr. Kenji Tanaka, founder of Technos International College and the Tanaka Memorial Foundation, passed away February 1st, 2019 in Tokyo, Japan. In this time of fractured societies, we can all take leadership lessons from Dr. Tanaka — a man who lived his life bridging cultural differences.

My husband Jim and I attended his memorial service in Tokyo. Among the many who came to pay their respects were representatives from ILA group member, McKendree University, and other international colleagues from Pembroke College, University of Oxford, and Johns Hopkins University and Internazionale Milano — a global youth sports program. On our return flight to the United States, I had the time to reflect on Tanaka’s leadership legacy. His leadership unfolded through the relationships he developed around the world to further education and cultural understanding. In this and all things, he modeled the way with honor and humility.

Tanaka was a visionary, a philanthropist, and an educator. He received numerous honorary degrees from institutions around the world. After receiving an honorary degree, he would often begin his remarks with something like: “I am deeply honored to join you, graduates, as you mark this turning point in your lives that will take you into the world and define your place in it.”

Tanaka defined his place in the world and left an indelible mark for future generations.

He grew up during WW II, a time that defined his teenage years and his future. He experienced the loss of his brother, witnessed wide-spread destruction, and saw his country in ashes, but he was also there to see the rebuilding of his beloved Japan. Throughout his life, he expressed gratitude for the resulting gifts of prosperity, freedom, and the democratic ideals that grew from those ashes.

Tanaka had an innovative vision for education. In 1959, he founded a technical education college in Tokyo to meet the needs of students and businesses in Japan’s growing economy. The college grew to six vocational colleges which, in 1991, were united into Technos International College. Technos International College was the first institution of its kind to create a campus-like environment with the latest technological amenities to train a workforce for a rapidly changing 21st century society.

Attentive to the increasing interdependence of the world, Tanaka was a forerunner in promoting cultural and international understanding. He established the Tanaka Memorial Foundation in honor (there is that word again) of his father, who founded Meijo University in Nagaya, Japan. The Foundation funds collaborations between Japan and other countries through cultural exchange programs and the celebration of Technos International Week where students and faculty from countries around the world immerse themselves in the richness of Japanese culture.

He modeled his eminent belief in the importance of international understanding and cultural exchanges through his relationships and his family. His international network was built one relationship at a time, and those relationships frequently deepened over time with benefactors often becoming friends of the Tanaka family.

Each summer, he would gather together the recipients of gifts from the Foundation at a lunch to express his gratitude and honor to each of them. At the lunch, attendees would be joined by his family. Jim and I met his two daughters and, as they grew up, their families. Both daughters are business and community leaders. His leadership now influences three generations and his trans-cultural practice continues with his daughters, one living in New York, the other in Tokyo. Even his family models his cross-cultural experience-living in the East and West!

In celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Tanaka Foundation, Tanaka quoted a Japanese expression, Ichi-go Ichi-e — which can be translated as one time, one encounter or a once in a lifetime encounter. He went on to express what a lucky man he was to have encountered so many people who changed his life and contributed to his life’s work. He paid it forward, influencing change through his work and the relationships he developed around the world. Dr. Tanaka’s leadership will surely be felt — and honored — for many years to come.