Japan Society Chairman's Blog (3)
Dear Japan Society members and friends
One of the surprising but also cheering aspects of this strange and difficult period has been how readily we can all be connected with one another, despite spending most of our time at home. It has been great to see how many Japan Society members have been logging in to the first two of our now weekly webinars, as well as great to be able to link together speakers and indeed viewers in Japan and in the UK. What has also been striking, to me, has been how many differences have emerged between the situations in our two countries, despite the fact that we are fighting a common enemy, the covid-19 virus.
In common, as David Warren and Koji Tsuruoka both outlined in the first webinar, has been a supportive public response and a general reluctance to blame governments for their mistakes or delays. The time for that may well come later, especially once questions emerge about the timing and fairness of measures to re-open economies while continuing to support citizens and companies. But what is plainly different, as well as going somewhat against stereotypes, has been how much more constrained British society has become than the relatively freer and seemingly more easy-going social situation in Japan.
As Leo Lewis pointed out in our second webinar, showing the keen awareness of a father with a young family, Japan’s decision to close schools as early as the end of February took some of the crowding out of public transport, although it will have made life a lot harder for working mothers. Japanese companies moved sooner than many European equivalents to impose rules limiting staff attendance at external meetings and networking events, but have found it much harder to adjust their management systems and practices to remote working. Some chief executives he had spoken to had said, intriguingly, that they hoped that this crisis might enable them to bring in quite radical changes to working practices. Yet that, no doubt, may depend on how long the crisis lasts.
In analysing the economic impact of the pandemic, Yuko Kawai helpfully explained how necessary it is to distinguish between household and corporate spending that has simply been deferred – such as car purchases – and spending that will have been lost forever, such as travel and tourism that had been planned. Business sectors will be alive to a third category, which matters to them more than to macroeconomic analysts, namely spending that has been diverted from one recipient to another: spending on food for cooking at home rather than dining out, for example, or on video conferencing technology rather than travel to meetings.
All of which raises what will for now remain purely a matter for speculation: to what degree this pandemic will lead to a rise in investment in the sort of technologies that replace both human workers and direct human contact. In today’s environment, as Yuko said, cash is king; and as Leo pointed out, Japanese companies have far more cash on their balance sheets and in their bank accounts than do American or British companies. But what will the cash be spent on? Artificial intelligence, self-driving vehicles and robot hotel check-in staff? Or maintaining employment through temporarily hard times.
The sort of international connection we have had through these webinars has, as I said, been very cheering. But it comes against a backdrop of a lack of international co-operation, and even of overt attacks by the Trump Administration in the US against one of the bodies charged with encouraging such co-operation, namely the World Health Organisation. Given the demonization we can see in the US both of multilateral organisations and of China, it was interesting as well as encouraging to hear from Koji Tsuruoka about how little negative attention he has seen in social and traditional media in Japan towards China as this pandemic has developed.
Accordingly, in next week’s webinar we will be looking more closely at the interplay between economic trends and geopolitics, with the help of Robert Feldman of Morgan Stanley in Tokyo and Robert Ward of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. Do join us again and send in plenty of probing questions.
One thing I might consider for my future Zoom video conferences is the offer the Japan Society team have just publicised on Twitter from the famous anime production company, Studio Ghibli, of virtual backgrounds drawn from their films. It would make a change from simply changing the computer angle in my study in Dublin to conceal the unfiled paperwork.