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Friday 28 May 2021

Japan Society Chairman's Blog (41)

Japan Society Chairman's Blog (41)

Dear Japan Society members and friends

The news came as quite a shock, as it may do now to those Japan Society members not yet aware of it: that Sir Roger Gifford, who spoke so warmly and cheerfully at our webinar on green finance on 19 May, passed away at his home less than a week later, on 25 May. He had apparently been suffering for some time from myeloma, a form of cancer, but although clearly under the weather at our event he made light of it and would not let it stand in his way. Roger had been a long-time friend and member of the society, having spent six years working as a banker in Tokyo in 1994-2000. He had spoken before to the society, notably when he became Lord Mayor of London in 2012-13. The Financial Times had a very nice obituary, but it was behind their paywall so non-subscribers might also like to see the tribute paid to Roger by the City of London Corporation. As both articles said, on green finance he was a pioneering advocate and developer of a business about which he was plainly enthusiastic, as was evident during the interesting and illuminating discussion in our webinar on 19 May with Mari Yoshitaka of Mitsubishi UFJ Research and Consulting. For those who missed it, the video can be seen hereWe send our deepest condolences to Lady Gifford and his whole family. He will be greatly missed, both in the UK and Japan.
The more general news this week in the UK has been rather dominated by the mudslinging between the prime minister’s former special adviser, Dominic Cummings, and various members of the government. It has all been quite entertaining, up to a point. Yet behind all that noise and fury, and the noise from other recent scandals including that surrounding a former prime minister, David Cameron, and his work for a now insolvent bank, Greensill Capital, which despite being just 10 years old boasted four private planes, lie some serious, systemic issues. These concern the rules governing the actions of current and former ministers, and the enforcement of those rules, as well as the appropriate relationship between civil servants and private businesses. Such issues are fraught but important, both in the UK and Japan, where questions about how to deal with Amakudari, the “descent from heaven” by retired officials into roles in private companies, and with corporate hospitality of current officials, have lingered and been argued over for many years. For that reason, I am delighted that our next webinar, on 10 June at 12.00 BST, will look at what the UK and Japan might learn from each other’s experiences in dealing with this. From Tokyo we will be joined by Koichi Nakano, professor of politics at Sophia University and a prominent commentator on these matters, and from London by Alex Thomas, programme director at the Institute for Government and himself a former civil servant. Indeed, Alex was principal private secretary to the late Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary and head of the Civil Service, who was involved in the Greensill story.
The Japanese media, it is clear, has been rather preoccupied this week by the states of emergency in nine prefectures (now extended until 20 June) and by related arguments about the forthcoming Tokyo Olympic Games, due to open on 23 July. It is good to see the graph of the share of Japan’s population who have received at least a single dose of a Covid-19 vaccine at last rising more steeply (to just over 6% on 26 May), a trend we all hope will now accelerate further. More than 10 million doses have now been administered, although the target of one million per day has not yet quite been reached. 
Amid all this apparent gloom, I confess to having smiled when reading the story of the Shinkansen driver on the Tokaido line who was reported for having left his cockpit for a three-minute toilet break while the train was operating at 150 kph. While not at all condoning this breach of regulations, what made me smile was the fact that this transgression was reportedly detected when it was noticed that the train was running one minute behind schedule. Some UK-Japan contrasts remain eternal. Nevertheless, the episode brought to mind a more sobering recollection, namely of the West JR commuter train crash in 2005 which tragically took 107 lives thanks to the driver attempting to catch up with a similarly brief delay. The event and its consequences were explored beautifully in an award-winning 2014 documentary shown on both NHK and BBC, "Brakeless" by Kyoko Miyake.

* Image © Masaaki Komori

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