The Institut français de Tokyo's Evolution Into a New Japan-France Cultural Promotion Hub

An interview with Dr. Frédérique Penilla, director of the Institut français de Tokyo, about the institute's fresh start after the opening of their new school building in July 2021.
The architect Fujimoto Sou, who works out of Tokyo and Paris, designed the new school building based on the idea of a French village.

The Institut français de Tokyo, located in Shinjuku City, Tokyo, opened to great fanfare in 1952, as part of an event attended by Prince Takamatsu, then-Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru, and French Ambassador to Japan Maurice Dejean. The institute was designed by architect Sakakura Junzo, a disciple of Le Corbusier—a master of modern architecture. Sakakura's design of the Japanese Pavilion at the Expo 1937 Paris won him the grand prize in the architecture category of an architectural design competition the same year. He then returned to Japan, established his own design firm, and set about designing the institute. The design was based on modern architecture, and utilized steel and concrete—which were still uncommon in Japan at the time. Over the decades, the building—which boasts unique features like the concrete "Champignon pillars," a façade of glass windows with wooden sashes, and a double spiral staircase—has welcomed many cultural figures.

Double spiral staircase in the old school building. There is another spiral staircase at the back entrance.

Penilla, who became director of the institute in September 2022, calls the building of the Institut français de Tokyo a "treasure chest." "It's absolutely incredible, the list of cultural figures who have visited this place since the '50s. Language and culture are inseparable, and it's a great treasure, the role this institute has played as a setting for cultural exchange between Japan and France. The building is like a treasure chest protecting that treasure. The moment you step into the building, you'll feel the spirit and atmosphere of the country of France." Indeed, the establishment of the Institut français de Tokyo has earned the nearby Kagurazaka area the nickname, Tokyo's "Little Paris."

The architect Fujimoto Sou, who currently works both in Japan and overseas, was responsible for the design of the new school building. What Fujimoto proposed was the "French village" concept. The new school building is built around the courtyard and takes advantage of the abundant greenery on the school grounds, with terraces and staircases connecting the classrooms and hallways in a fluid, dynamic manner. "This new building is designed to have people 'run into' each other. I think a defining feature of Fujimoto's designs is transparency. All of the rooms have large glass windows, which allow the people inside to engage with the nature outside. Stand on the terrace, and you'll hear the rustling of trees and the chirping of birds. It takes advantage of the role this place plays as a kind of oasis in Tokyo."

Penilla has worked at French embassies in Korea, Morocco, and China.

The Institut français de Tokyo has welcomed many Japanese and French artists, filmmakers, and thinkers, and has driven much cultural exchange. Penilla says, however, that going into the future, she wants to make more efforts to contribute to the process of cultural collaboration and creation. "Until now, our cultural activities have been focused on events like exhibitions and screenings. But from now on, we want to vitalize exchange amongst cultural institutions more broadly. For instance, we recently hosted a publishing event at which about 60 Japanese and French publishers came together for professional meetings. Japanese literature and manga are already quite popular in France. But this was an opportunity to introduce Japanese publishers to French works that aren't yet known on the Japanese market. We also planned a collaborative event with embassies in French-speaking countries like Belgium, Switzerland, Canada, and certain African countries, which was held in March 2023. I think it was a great opportunity to promote the culture of these countries through the prism of the French language."

At the "La Nuit de la lecture (Evening of reading)" event, which is held every winter, authors, ambassadors from various countries, and students at the institute come together to read their favorite books aloud. Photo: courtesy of Institut français de Tokyo

"What strikes me is how intricate the city of Tokyo is—like a mosaic. In the central area there are these modern buildings and commercial facilities, and in the small towns around them, temples and shrines. It feels like the traditional and the modern are always in dialogue with each other, much like with the Institut français de Tokyo," says Penilla. The Institut français de Tokyo, as Penilla says, is home to both the traditional and the modern—the historical building that symbolizes the institute's past cultural efforts, and the new school building, which will serve as a setting for future creative efforts. Through this dialogue, it is sure to play an even more meaningful role as a hub for cultural promotion.

Frédérique Penilla

Earned a PhD in applied linguistics and linguistic science, after which she became a teacher, then a researcher. Worked as an education attachée at the French Embassy in Korea, the French Embassy in Morocco, and the French Embassy in China. Since September 2022, she has served as Deputy Counselor for Cultural Affairs at the Embassy of France in Japan, and Director of the Institut français de Tokyo.
Institut français de Tokyo
Interview and Composition by Kubodera Junko
Photos by Fujimoto Kenichi
Translation by Amitt