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Friday 3 April 2020

Japan Society Chairman's Blog (2)

Japan Society Chairman's Blog (2)

Dear Japan Society members and friends

In early March, in what now feels like a distant memory, I gave a talk to sixth-formers at a state school in the English countryside, as part of the excellentSpeakers for Schools” charitable scheme set up some years ago by the journalist Robert Peston, now a prominent political anchor on ITV. During the Q&A after my talk one boy asked an especially prescient question: “I’ve heard that the economic impact of the coronavirus could be worse than the 2008 crisis,” he said. “Do you agree?”

I have to admit that his question rather woke me up, even if it certainly proved he was wide awake. This covid-19 crisis has taken us all by surprise, in its dimensions as a pandemic and as an extraordinary global economic shock. I am relieved to say that I didn’t dismiss his fear but answered that there was no need for this crisis to be worse than 2008 and that I hoped it wouldn’t be. I said the outcome would depend on whether the economic demand that would be lost during any shutdown proved to be just deferred to a later date or whether it was lost altogether, and outlined what governments could do to maximise the amount just deferred and minimise the permanent loss. We’d have to wait and see, I said.

Well, here we are, a month later and we’re certainly still waiting to get our arms and our minds around what is going on and how long it might last. One thing that is striking, however, is how different the evolution of both the health and the economic impacts have been in the UK and Japan, despite our many similarities and despite this pandemic’s global reach. Corporate decisions to change policies about meetings and events came much sooner in Japan than the UK, as did the decision to close schools, but sports events, cultural programmes and entertainment venues such as Pachinko parlours stayed open much longer than their equivalents here.

Such differences, as well as the fact that we are all getting accustomed to working from home and using video conferencing, gave rise to an idea. Next week we will begin holding a weekly webinar using the Zoom platform, which will enable us to do something we cannot do in our normal live events in London: to feature a discussion between a speaker in the UK and one in Japan.

In next Wednesday’s opening webinar, as I hope you will have seen, I will chair a discussion between two old friends, Ambassador Koji Tsuruoka in Tokyo and Sir David Warren in London, about the role of government and the public response in our two countries. Do please sign up and ask plenty of questions. In subsequent weeks we will talk about topics such as the economic response, how investors and businesses are responding, and about the scientific lessons. Please let us know what you think about these webinars and do suggest future topics and discussants.

Perhaps after several of those discussions I will have a better answer to questions such as that from my prescient sixth-former. Part of the answer will certainly be that whether this shock is worse or better than 2008 is to compare apples and oranges: each economic crisis is different, for it is the unexpected consequences in politics, business and, above all, in our own behaviour that tend to be influential, whether for good or for ill.

Finally, one silver lining to today’s clouds is the way that videos and other forms of entertainment are circulating between friends and family. This week my two favourites were, first, a sad but inspiring video from the other country that I study, Italy, a song about re-birth disseminated on You-Tube in aid of a hospital in Bergamo, that country’s worst-hit town. And, second, a literally more hopeful example of UK-Japan communication, being a performance by a Devon-based group of drummers, Kagemusha Taiko, from 2017. It made me look forward to the time when I will be able to travel to Sado Island to witness the home of Taiko drumming.

Bill

*Sakura in the Snow - Image © Mr Robert Nappa 2020

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