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Monday 8 March 2021

Japan Society Chairman's Blog (36)

Japan Society Chairman's Blog (36)

Dear Japan Society members and friends

You are old, Father William, the young man said, and your hair has become very white; And yet you incessantly stand on your head – Do you think, at your age, it is right?Way back in 1865 Lewis Carroll captured admirably our societies’ blend of veneration and astonishment at the achievements of great old age in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In Britain we saw it in last year’s national admiration for Captain Sir Tom Moore, walking 100 times around his garden to mark his 100th birthday with the thought of raising £1,000 but ending up raising £33m for the National Health Service before taking a Christmas holiday in Barbados, helped by British Airways, and then sadly dying on 2 February to widespread national mourning and recognition. In Japan, where there are more than 80,000 centenarians compared with the UK’s 14,000, such great old age has perhaps become almost commonplace, but still when the artist Toko Shinoda had a book published in 2015 called Things I Learned When I Became 103 ("103-sai ni natte wakatta koto"), based on an interview with a journalist, the work sold more than half a million copies and Shinoda-sensei became something of a reluctant TV celebrity. I suspect I am not the only Japan Society member to have a few Toko Shinoda lithographic prints in their homes, for her abstract, sumi ink calligraphic works are both eye-catching and intriguing, and her output was prolific, right up to her death this past week, on 1 March, at the age of 107.
It was fitting that Shinoda-sensei’s passing achieved international recognition, for tributes were published in both the New York Times and the Washington Post, for her work is exhibited in big American museums and in the 1950s she was closely connected to the American leaders of Abstract Expressionism such as Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. I had the privilege of visiting Shinoda-sensei’s studio in Minami-Aoyama in 2016 to interview her for my recent book, and I can attest that it looked very much like the photo in the Washington Post obituary taken in 1966; I recall her showing me the huge inkstone which she had bought from a shop in Kanda in the late 1940s and was still using, on a daily basis. 
Friends at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Japan have reminded me that the club has a Toko Shinoda screen that is now mounted on the wall of the lobby in their new premises but which for many years stood in the dining room in the Yurakucho Denki building, near a buffet table. A gift to the club from Hitachi, the screen eventually became stained by spilled food and the shoe marks of passing staff, so much so that when Norman Tolman, Shinoda-sensei’s main dealer, saw it one day he was apparently outraged. But he wisely called Shinoda-sensei and invited her to the club with her brushes, with which she deftly obscured the damage. Her grander works can be seen all over Tokyo, including an extraordinarily massive calligraphic mural at Zojoji Temple and a smaller work produced for the Yoyogi National Gymnasium at the time of the 1964 Olympics. When I interviewed Governor Yuriko Koike for that same recent book I cheekily suggested it might be fitting to commission Shinoda-sensei to produce another work for the 2020 Olympics, symbolising continuity as well as Japan’s ageing society, but the idea did not appear to find favour.
A rather different sort of print restoration is the topic of a very interesting-looking online event being staged by the Japanese embassy on 18 March at 1.00pm: “Reviving Yoshitoshi’s Moon: Restoration, Reprint and the Last Great Master of Ukiyo-e Woodblock Printing”. The event will centre on the work of Yoshitoshi Tsukioka (1839-1892) and will feature a discussion between Yukiko Takahashi, who is the 6th-generation head of Takahashi Kobo, a print workshop founded 160 years ago, and Alfred Haft, curator in the Department of Asia at the British Museum. The event is open to all, and bookings can be made here.
Our own webinar on 4 March marked the forthcoming anniversary on 11 March of the devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster that hit Tohoku, Fukushima and really the whole of Japan ten years ago. David Warren spoke movingly of his experiences as UK Ambassador when the triple disaster struck, and it was excellent to see several members of his then staff on the Zoom call. Yoichi Funabashi has devoted much of his time in the past decade first to directing an independent investigation into the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear crisis, then to leading a number of enquiries in his think-tank, Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation (now renamed, with enlarged scope, as the Asia-Pacific Initiative) into Japan’s future social, economic and political strategy, and most recently to chronicling the events surrounding the crisis in his new book, Meltdown. His comments about the significance of the tsunami and nuclear disaster for Japan’s alliance with the United States were especially striking, as were his sense that while many necessary reforms had not been made during the last 10 years the events of 3.11 had nevertheless brought about a lasting positive impact on Japan’s security policy alongside the negative impact on nuclear energy. For those who missed it, the video of the webinar can be found here.
Our next online lecture will be on 15 March, when Professor Peter Kornicki will talk about Britain’s wartime Japanese language courses in both the UK and, more surprisingly, Mauritius: How did Elizabeth Anderson learn Japanese in 1943? And then on 24 March Paul Madden, who has just completed his four-year posting as our Ambassador in Tokyo, will give his annual lecture to the Japan SocietyWe all look forward to toasting his return when circumstances permit, but meanwhile do register for this always popular and informative annual event, kindly hosted in normal times at Nomura Securities but this year on Zoom. As usual, I will chair a discussion with Ambassador Madden following his lecture, when there will be ample chance for the audience to ask questions.
Finally, having earlier mentioned Toko Shinoda and Yuriko Koike I should also mention, for anyone particularly interested in the issue of gender in Japan, that on Friday 12 March at 9.00am GMT (6.00pm JST) I will be taking part in an online discussion for Tokyo College, of the University of Tokyo, with Sawako Shirahase, who is a professor of sociology and as an executive vice-president of the university is one of their most senior female faculty members. Registration for the event, entitled “Japan Gender Update: Envisioning a Far More Female Future for Japan”, can be made here.

* Image:Left: Toko Shinoda, Right: Shinoda painting at the entrance of Tokyo American Club © Toko Shinoda/The Tolman Collection of Tokyo

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