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Monday 13 June 2022

Japan Society Chairman's Blog (51)

Japan Society Chairman's Blog (51)

Dear Japan Society members and friends

Given how demanding was the application process for my visa to visit Japan last month – sponsors’ certificates, financial guarantees, itinerary – as were the rather more relevant health protocols on arrival in Tokyo, my biggest worry was of testing positive for covid just before departure from London or, even worse, on arrival, and then losing the whole trip after all that effort. Thank goodness this didn’t happen, and in the end I had a fantastically intensive and rewarding ten-day stay. And gosh, it was wonderful to be back, after so long. A few days ago, however, my luck changed. I flew to Singapore for the annual “Shangri-La Dialogue” on Indo-Pacific defence and security organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. On Friday 10 June, the opening night, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida was due to give the keynote address. I was just preparing to go and join the party meeting him and his team when I began to feel some cold symptoms and thought I had better take a test. Well, you’ve guessed it: this time I tested positive, so immediately had to isolate myself in my hotel room and was unable to meet PM Kishida or any of the other speakers. At least Singapore’s Channel News Asia broadcast the most important speeches – as well as Kishida-san, there was Lloyd Austin the US Secretary of Defense, and General Wei Fenghe, China’s Minister of Defence – so I was able to watch them in comfort from my sickbed.This has been very frustrating, but I comfort myself that at least I did dodge the virus for my first visit to Japan since December 2019. Not surprisingly, the themes of that visit and of this weekend’s Shangri-La Dialogue have fitted closely together, since both have strongly reflected Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. What came through from my conversations in Japan and from Prime Minister Kishida's speech in Singapore this weekend was a new sense of realism and determination about strengthening Japan’s own security and contributing more regionally. The longstanding informal ceiling on defence spending of 1% of GDP – which anyway is misleading, since if using the same definitions as NATO Japan’s current budget amounts to more than 1.2% of GDP – is clearly going to be breached with substantially increased spending on military hardware and personnel, especially for installations in the Nansei/Ryukyu islands near Taiwan, and for intelligence and cybersecurity. Certainly, Prime Minister Kishida’s speech seems to have gone down very well with the Shangri-La audience, or so the messages from my colleagues have told me.Japan’s desire to play a bigger role in its own defence and reduce its vulnerabilities can only be welcome. It was noticeable that in his speech China’s Minister of Defence reserved the barbs for the United States and made no comment about Japan’s plans, whereas some years ago in such a speech there would have been a ritual denunciation of supposed “militarism” had a Japanese minister said anything similar. Where there are bigger doubts concerns whether the Kishida government’s plans for strengthening economic growth, and therefore making the extra defence spending more affordable, are adequate to the task. Everyone I spoke to in Tokyo assumes that Mr Kishida is carefully avoiding all controversy ahead of July’s Upper House elections, so perhaps we will see his real plans later this year.Bearing in mind the importance of Japan’s economy and financial markets to many of our members, we have decided to start a new webinar series to monitor developments. On June 28th we will hold the first of what will be quarterly “Japan Macro Salons with Jesper and Bill”. Every three months Jesper Koll, who many will recall spoke in this webinar in January and who teasingly calls himself “the last Japan optimist”, will join me in a discussion about the latest economic trends, along with a guest appropriate for the particular issues we plan to focus on. Jesper, who has lived and worked in Tokyo since the late 1980s, has always been great at spotting what is new and noteworthy. It should be fun. The notice about the webinar will be out very shortly.Talking of fun, and perhaps reflecting also my personal disappointment at missing the chance to meet people in person at this past weekend’s Shangri-La Dialogue, I am very much looking forward to the Japan Society’s first in-person Annual Dinner since 2019. As you will have seen, the dinner will take place on 12 July at the lovely Chelsea Physic Garden, in a marquee. As well as excellent company and food, we’ll also give the evening something of a focus on history, with exhibits from the Tsunagu Connect theatre project on Japanese women in the UK and with conversation to mark the 150th anniversary of the visit of the famous Iwakura Mission to Britain in 1872. Do come, if you can.And in the meantime, as we look forward to a time of meetings without fear of covid, join us online next Monday 20 June for Fusako Innami’s lecture when she will explore the desire for touch expressed in modern Japanese literature, from Kawabata and Tanizaki to Junnosuke Yoshiyuki and Rieko Matsuura.Bill

Image: Chelsea Physic Garden via WikiCommons

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