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Tuesday 21 December 2021

Japan Society Chairman's Blog (48)

Japan Society Chairman's Blog (48)

Dear Japan Society members and friends

So what metaphor or simile should we use to describe the situation we find ourselves in as we approach Christmas festivities and Bonenkai, in the second year of the pandemic? A roller-coaster? Round and round the mulberry bush? Groundhog Day? Or might we, in a more positive frame of mind, express gratitude for the many good things that have happened this year, from vaccinations to the Tokyo Olympics to the great support and participation we have seen from Japan Society members and supporters in the UK, in Japan and in many other places around the world?  In that sort of positive mode, I learned with great interest during our recent webinar on cybersecurity (the video of which can be found here), featuring Mihoko Matsubara of NTT and Marcus Willett from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, what a big achievement it had been to keep the Olympics cyber-secure, with NTT having observed and blocked an extraordinary 450 million suspicious pieces of cyber-traffic. The other videos of our events during the year, whether cultural or current affairs, can also be found on our website, including the recent conversation with Ambassador Hayashi and, in a rather different vein, M.W. Shores’ History of Comic Storytelling in Western Japan. It has been constantly difficult to plan for the resumption of in-person events, making members’ support and involvement online even more welcome, but we do hope the clouds may part – yet another metaphor – in the New Year at least for some carefully selected and organised get-togethers. There is still, by the way, time to book for the Japan Society’s in-person New Year’s Lunch at Pantechnicon in Belgravia on 8 January. One always interesting feature of this pandemic has been the chance to compare policies, responses and outcomes in our two countries. They have converged at times, before then diverging widely as they are now, especially in terms of daily infection rates (compared in this chart by the excellent Our World in Data) and death rates; but during the year we have converged in terms of vaccinations, with Japan lagging behind for much of the first six months, but then making impressively rapid progress, as this second OWID chart shows, overtaking the UK in terms of the proportion of the population that is fully vaccinated. Now, the UK is ahead in terms of third, “booster” shots, but that also reflects our very high level of infections.  I hope members will forgive me for now plugging something that just appeared in my former publication, The Economist, but I do thoroughly recommend a very comprehensive special report that just appeared on Japan, written by Noah Sneider, the Tokyo Bureau Chief. It is here, but behind a paywall; but I have a PDF copy so any Japan Society member lacking access who would like to read it can email us and we will send it to you with pleasure. On the pandemic, one point I enjoyed was Noah’s caution to foreigners not to seek cultural explanations too readily for differences in social behaviour, such as mask-wearing: as he indicated, this was imported to Japan from the West at the time of the Spanish Flu a century ago, as is shown by the fact that “face mask” is still written in katakana.  Thinking of reading, and indeed of leisure time during the coming holiday weeks, I decided to ask board members of the Japan Society if they had any recommendations among books, films or TV shows they had read or watched this year. It drew a splendidly diverse range of responses. I’ll start with Pernille Rudlin who nominates “an anime series called Odd Taxi, which was first broadcast on TV Tokyo this year. You can watch it in the UK with English subtitles if you have a subscription to Crunchyroll. Apparently a dubbed version will be released next year. All the characters are anthropomorphised animals and the central character is a taxi driver called Odokawa, who is a misanthropic Hawaiian shirt wearing walrus. Despite this, it deals with some very adult themes of child neglect, yakuza, drug dealing and violence (but no explicit sex) and also has a side plot about a manzai comedy duo, a girl band and sub themes of the price of fame, comedy, social media and money, Kanto vs Kansai. It’s one of those shows where the atmosphere really lingers in the mind long after you’ve watched it.”Both Helen Macnaughtan and Stephen Barber nominated another Japanese TV series, Midnight Diner (Shinya Shokudō) on Netflix, which “offers compelling slices of contemporary Japanese life, mores and obsessions. Whimsical, often very funny, these 15-20 minute episodes are miniature masterpieces, now winning international acclaim.” Helen also gave a hat-tip to Witches of the Orient, a documentary that featured in this Japan Society discussion in July and is available to rent/watch through Modern Films; and two animations, From Up on Poppy Hill (available on Netflix) and Kuroko's Basketball (3 seasons - available on Netflix) On more serious, business but also political matters, Yuuichiro Nakajima and Yoko Dochi both cited a book on the Carlos Ghosn affair, Collision Course by Hans Greimel and William Sposato. As Yuuichiro said “This isn’t just a chronicle of the former Nissan chief’s rise, fall, glory and disgrace, it is also about the history of corporate governance; the meaning and significance of companies in society; politics and how it relates to business: cultural clashes; personal brilliance, egos and fallibility; and what legacy the whole saga leaves.” And Yoko added: “Having worked in the Japanese car industry for nearly 20 years at Toyota, I find this book resonating, fascinating and thought-provoking. The French political context is an interesting revelation.” On all of those points, I would add a further recommendation of my own: Broken Alliance, which is by Carlos Ghosn himself and Philippe Ries, former Tokyo bureau chief for Agence France Presse. That book gives Ghosn’s own view of what happened and, naturally, of the Japanese justice system which held him in custody for so long in conditions unknown in West European legal systems. In history, Stephen Barber recommends Richard Overy's Blood and Ruins: the Great Imperial War 1931-1945 saying it “ought to command our attention, as, in digging into the causes of the Second World War, he dates its origins to 1931 with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria.” Looking at British history, Hiroshi Matsuura, who in his day job is Deputy Chief of Mission at the Japanese Embassy, says this year he has been “wishing to learn more about the emotional aspect [of Brexit], the aspect related to the collective emotion historically forged among Britons. So I read the following two books: This Sovereign Isle, by Robert Tombs, and How Britain Ends, by Gavin Esler, Head of Zeus, 2021”. The former supports Brexit, and the latter argues against it, but both of them treat the English nationalism as the main engine that drove the movement.” To those, I would add Sathnam Sanghera’s just published Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain, as it places that English nationalism in both a historical context and that of the country’s actual highly multi-cultural population. Stephen also happened to recommend a film that on 5 January will feature in the Japan Society Film Club, Drive My Car by Ryusuke Hamaguchi. This movie attempts what has been shown to be a difficult task: turning the writings of the popular but highly surreal Haruki Murakami into film. And he tipped “a fascinating new translation of the short stories of the woman novelist, Taeko Kondo (1926-2015), called Toddler-Hunting and Other Stories, full of erotic sadomasochism and fetshism, if you like that sort of thing; and Fifty Sounds, in Fitzcarraldo Editions, a brilliant book by Polly Barton, a translator of literary Japanese, who describes her experiences in Japan through 50 Japanese phonemes.  Martin Hatfull has been reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest, Klara and the Sun, as more recently have I, and writes “I know Ishiguro underplays his Japanese connections but I still think there are strong links to Japanese society in his work. This was certainly true [in his new novel] in the use of AI and robots as carers/human helpers but in other respects as well. I also happened to re-read A Pale View of Hills earlier in the year and both books, in different ways, tackle aspects of alienation; human life in a hostile or at best challenging environment; and in particular the place of children and the way adults see and treat them. In a year when the welfare of children has been in the news in so many ways - whether interrupted education, safeguarding or the appalling murders which have hit the headlines recently, Ishiguro seems to me to highlight challenges which both societies face in protecting and nurturing their next generations.” On Japanese society and international interplay, I recently read and enjoyed Caroline Pover’s One Month in TohokuIt is a very personal account, published last year of her time raising funds for and working with a community after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, whose tenth anniversary we marked with this webinar featuring David Warren, who as our ambassador at the time naturally features in Caroline Pover’s book, and Yoichi Funabashi.  More historically, Helen Macnaughtan also tipped Amy Stanley’s Stranger in the Shogun's City: A Japanese Woman and Her World, which is a non-fiction study of a Japanese woman’s life in nineteenth-century Tokyo. By the way, Peter Popham’s fine modern study of that city, Tokyo: The City of the End of the World, originally from 1985, came out this year in a new edition, to mark of course the Olympics. Aptly, Helen also cited 1964 – The Greatest Year in the History of Japan: How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise from the Ashes by Roy Tomizawa, which came out in 2019.I’ll give the last word to Yoko Dochi and a novel, or rather a collection of short stories: Things Remembered and Things Forgotten by Kyoko Nakajima (2021), who was the author of Little HouseYoko writes that these are “About forgotten but never lost memories, feelings and hopes in soft, everyday narratives which are well translated. My 26 year old English-Japanese daughter also loves it.” Which is as good a recommendation as one can find!  Happy Christmas, Happy Holidays, Happy New Year, and happy reading to all Japan Society members. Here’s to a wonderful 2022. Bill


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