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Friday 26 March 2021

Japan Society Chairman's Blog (37)

Japan Society Chairman's Blog (37)

Dear Japan Society members and friends

One of the most surreal aspects of this long pandemic has been the sight on television of professional sports being played in vast stadiums with no spectators. At least for rugby fans this did not make the now almost-concluded Six Nations tournament any less exciting, but I did find myself occasionally wondering how it must feel for the players. Perhaps they are so absorbed in the contest and in doing their jobs that the absence of noise makes little difference, and I confess to finding it slightly irritating when broadcasters choose to inject  artificial crowd noise into the proceedings. This is one way in which Japan’s COVID-19 experience has been very different from those in Europe for it has remained one of the few countries in which spectators have continued to be admitted to watch professional sports, albeit generally in more distanced arrangements than before the pandemic. 
Now that the least surprising announcement of the year has been made – namely, that no foreign spectators will be allowed to attend the Olympic and Paralympic Games this summer – this practice and experience needs to be born in mind. It is sad, of course, that the 630,000 tickets sold to overseas residents will have to be refunded and that the Games will not provide the sort of international festival atmosphere that Japan saw and enjoyed during the Rugby World Cup in 2019. But in these circumstances, for the Games to go ahead at all must be counted as a pretty good outcome. It was nice to see the torch relay setting off on 25 March from Fukushima for its 121-day journey through all 47 prefectures, with the torch to be carried by a rather remarkable 10,000 people in all. I just hope that once the Games are opened on 24 July Japan’s experience in managing spectator sports during the pandemic will mean that the stadiums can be made to look and feel full and atmospheric, for the competitors’ sake -- and, I admit, so that when I watch events on TV I will be able to avoid the irritation of realising that I am hearing fake cheering. 
The Games will still, I also hope, be able to feel like a celebration of emergence from the pandemic, even though the world will by July still sadly be far from having beaten the virus given what a small proportion of the world’s population will have been vaccinated by then. Our chances of being able to travel to see the cherry blossoms in bloom in Japan this time next year, or for our Japanese friends to visit the UK and see the daffodils while reciting Wordsworth, depend very much on working together to get both vaccine production and administration far larger and more extensive than they yet areA little over 500 million vaccine doses had been produced worldwide by mid-March, which was a great achievement, but roughly 20 times that amount will be needed before the majority of the world’s adult population can have received their jabs. To borrow from the Olympics it is a marathon, not a sprint – though, to look on the positive side, if the various pharmaceutical firms’ currently declared target production of about 9 billion doses by the end of 2021 is achieved by the myriad of entities now involved, including many both in the UK and Japan, then gold medals will truly be deserved, all round. The companies deserve all the encouragement, and help, they can get.
It was a delight on 24 March to see so many Japan Society members assemble on Zoom to hear the fourth, and final, annual lecture by Paul Madden, the just-retired UK ambassador to Japan (the recording can be seen here). It must be frustrating for him to have left his busy posting and come home only to find himself under more restrictions than when he was in Tokyo, and so unable to meet up with friends and family. Nonetheless, he gave us a typically thoughtful and thought-provoking tour both of his eventful past year and of his 40 years in government service, along with his thoughts about the present and future state of UK-Japan relations. His photographs showing how he, like the Olympic torch relay, had managed to fulfil his goal of visiting all 47 prefectures during his posting certainly made many of us hanker for our own next trips around Japan. Paul’s lecture also made it clear that he will feel empathy with the title of a book featured in the latest Japan Society Review, Tokyo Junkie, by Robert Whiting, in which this American journalist reflected on his own more than 50 years living in and writing about Japan. Personally, I well remember Whiting’s lovely 1989 book about Japanese baseball and the American professionals playing in it, You Gotta Have Wa.
Our next current affairs webinar, on 1 April, will be on what is “the elephant” in virtually any room where international politics or economics are under discussion: China, or more specifically the relationship between the United States and China and what it might mean for Japan as well as the UK. To explore that we will be welcoming another face and voice familiar from US-Japan relations of the 1980s, Clyde Prestowitz, best known for his 1990 book Trading Places: How We Are Giving Our Future to Japan and How to Reclaim It. This veteran student of, and participant in, trade and strategic relations has now turned his attention to China, with a new book, The World Turned Upside Down: America, China and the Struggle for Global Leadership, and I look forward very much to his reflections both on how to respond to China’s challenge and on how it differs, or not, from what he saw in US-Japan relations in the 1980s. And to provide her view of Japan’s strategic interests amid this US-China rivalry we will be joined by Yuka Koshino, Research Fellow for Japanese Security and Defence Policy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, who has also worked in Washington, DC, and of course Tokyo. As Britain’s own declared “tilt to the Indo-Pacific” indicates, the evolution of this relationship and the wider region stands to shape all our futures. Do join us, if you can.

* Image © Atul Vinayak

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