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Monday 8 November 2021

Japan Society Chairman's Blog (47)

Japan Society Chairman's Blog (47)

Dear Japan Society members and friends

What news item struck you most over the past week or two? There has certainly been plenty going on both in Japan and the UK, what with the COP26 United Nations climate negotiations in Glasgow, a Lower House election in Japan which the opposition flunked and from which Prime Minister Kishida came out well, a dramatic U-turn by the British government over the enforcement of Parliamentary standards, and we have all watched the state governors’ elections in the United States with a sense of how quickly fortunes can change in democratic politics. My answer, however, is none of these. It is a story about pumice. Or, rather, it is a story about how an undersea volcanic eruption in August, near the Ogasawara islands about 1,000 kilometres south of Tokyo, is now causing quite serious disruption in Kagoshima prefecture on Kyushu and in the Okinawan islands, as the floating pumice stones produced by the eruption have been clogging up harbours, beaches and the engines of boats. I first noticed it in that Guardian report last weekend, and now see on NHK-World that the problems are continuing. The reason I find this example of nature’s ability to spring surprises so interesting is because it comes at a time when all of us are, or should be, thinking about how we should be preparing for future pandemics or for the effect of extreme weather events. Having lived through the now nearly two years of Covid-19, and with climate change so high on everyone’s agenda, companies, governments and all sorts of institutions are needing to think about how much time and money they should be spending on preparations in order to be more resilient when something else comes along. Some of that will be expressed as insurance premiums, some as special training for staff, some as new working arrangements, some as permanent arrangements for building ventilation, and so on. Yet then, for businesses in Kagoshima and Okinawa that “something else” turns out to be the extraordinary appearance in their waters of pumice stones from a faraway volcano they can hardly have known existed. Not surprisingly, in the light of that news, I was also fascinated by an article in Nikkei Asia on 5 November about how some big companies in Tokyo, notably Mitsubishi Estate and Tokio Marine, have been making preparations for the possibility that Mount Fuji might erupt for the first time since 1707, perhaps blanketing the city in volcanic ash. Knowing how thorough are the many levels of preparations for earthquakes, I look forward to learning more about what might be put in place. One thing we haven’t been short of, thanks to the wonders of Zoom, has been the chance to discuss these sorts of issues of preparation and resilience as we go through these often difficult but always discombobulating but fascinating times. On 20 October we had the good fortune to hear from Kimiko Hirata in Tokyo and Christopher Huhne in London about how they saw the COP26 climate conference developing and how they see the UK and Japan managing the shift to decarbonised systems for energy over the coming decades. For those who missed the webinar, the video can be found here. What they very much agreed on was how the change needs to be led not so much by individuals’ behaviour but rather by changes in the systems within which we all live, work and travel, which seemed both realistic and challenging. On the other hand, thanks to the pandemic we as a Japan Society have not had as much opportunity to meet and to learn from the man we still therefore think of as Japan’s new ambassador, even though it is nearly a year since Ambassador Hayashi was appointed and now nine months since he arrived in London. It is thus a delight that on 17 November at 11.00am Ambassador Hayashi will be joining us for a special webinar; he will first give us some of his reflections on his time so far in the UK and on the state of UK-Japan relations, following which he and I will have a discussion and, more importantly, he will answer questions from you, our members, about a wide range of aspects of the relationship. These will no doubt include the consequences for both our countries of COP26 and the emerging UK-Japan defence and security relationship. We don’t know yet whether that Japan Society tradition, the annual lecture by the UK ambassador to Japan early in the New Year, will be able to take place in person or whether Julia Longbottom will also have to join us by Zoom, but whichever it is I look forward to it very much. This week Ambassador Longbottom gave perhaps a foretaste of next year’s lecture by taking part in a “Japan Memo podcast” with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, in conversation with Yuka Koshino, the IISS’s research fellow for defence and security policy. It was a very compelling reflection on her 30 years working on Japan and how the issues and the country had changed during that time, so here it is for those who might be interested. As defence and security has been one of the issues that has changed the most, and as the recent AUKUS security agreement between the UK, Australia and the US has been a development both of interest and concern in many capitals around the Indo-Pacific, not least Tokyo, it was good to hear on 3 November from two very thoughtful scholars about what AUKUS might lead to: Dr Alessio Patalano of King’s College London and Professor Kiichi Fujiwara of the University of Tokyo. Those who missed the discussion can find the video here. Still on the security theme, we will have a webinar on cybersecurity on 3 December, featuring Mihoko Matsubara, Chief Cybersecurity Strategist at NTT, and Marcus Willett, who has led the IISS’s work assessing national cyber capabilities all around the world, and who formerly directed cyber strategy for the UK at GCHQ. More details will follow shortly. Finally, I want to offer congratulations to the Japan Society’s golf team for winning the annual Collar Cup against the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry on 16 October. The win was by the narrowest of margins, with the course affected by recent heavy rain, but it was by all accounts a very enjoyable occasion. 


* Image: Akiyoshi Inoue

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