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Friday 24 April 2020

Japan Society Chairman's Blog (4)

Japan Society Chairman's Blog (4)

Dear Japan Society members and friends

In most years, given the way England is, we pay remarkably little attention to St George’s Day, despite knowing him as our patron saint and using his flag when supporting the English rugby and soccer teams. It is, I know, one of those puzzlingly English things that we have as a patron saint a figure from history who never actually visited the British Isles and whose main claim to fame lies in a legend of him slaughtering a mythical creature, a dragon – although that could, at least, have fitted him into Japanese mythology too, or perhaps as the name of a Japanese baseball team. Nevertheless, on this April 23rd, no doubt because of staying at home and staring at Twitter, St George’s Day seemed to loom a little larger. Sir Patrick Stewart, whose daily readings on Twitter of Shakespeare’s sonnets I mentioned in my opening blog, even devoted his reading of Sonnet 37 to St George’s Day, while also reminding us that it is Shakespeare’s birthday too by giving a beautiful bonus reading of a passage from the play Henry V, which comes just before the Battle of Agincourt, the famous English victory in 1415.

Hearing Sir Patrick’s mellifluous tones has reminded me of the pleasure of listening to poetry being read out loud, whether by an actor or the author. Which is why I was also pleased to learn that the Japan Society has given one of its grants to support Modern Poetry in Translation, a publishing venture bringing together poets and translators, and the launch of whose Spring 2020 issue, which emphasises Japan, will now take place online on April 30th at 7pm, involving both live discussions and readings. Access is free.

St George’s Day also was the occasion for the third of our weekly webinars (or should I call them Zoominars?) in which speakers from the UK and Japan come together to try to slay – or, more strictly, understand – the dragon of this sadly non-mythical pandemic. Robert Ward, head of geonomics as well as Japan Chair at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, wisely reminded us of what he learned from the 2008 financial crisis, namely that the most decisive or influential consequences of such events may not occur until even the second or third year. In other words, that shocks of this magnitude continue to bring after-shocks for quite some time, especially in economics and in politics. Robert Feldman, chief economist at Morgan Stanley in Tokyo, cited an online survey his firm had done among investors in Japan, asking them when they expected Japan’s annual GDP to get back to the level it reached before the pandemic. There was a wide range of views, but the median response opted for the second half of 2021 – which sounded pessimistic until he pointed out that his own firm’s forecasts were even more pessimistic.

So we should expect to be studying the economic, business and political effects of this pandemic for a very long time to come. It is salutary to remind ourselves that we are really only in the second or third month of what is likely to be a multi-year process. That means both that I will be wanting to invite speakers back in coming months and years to review how things are going, and that all conclusions currently made have to be tentative. That point was illustrated by an audience question about what the impact this pandemic might have on companies’ approach to their supply chains: might they want to bring them closer to home, rather than ranging across the globe and, in some cases, depending heavily on manufacturing in China? Our panellists were sceptical about whether many companies would come to rapid conclusions about this issue, while also pointing out that in recent years many firms, especially Japanese ones, had already been working to reduce their dependence on China by investing in “China-plus” plans of building up alternative options elsewhere, chiefly in South-East Asia.

Later that day, I came across an interesting interview in the Nikkei Asian Review on just this topic with Shigenobu Nagamori, the founder and CEO of the very successful motor manufacturer, Nidec. Nagamori-san took the view that bringing production home to Japan from overseas plants and suppliers could actually increase risks rather than reduce them. He expects more globalisation after this crisis, not less. But while going against the knee-jerk view that globalisation will now be reversed, he does also embrace the idea that remote working will now be here to stay, suggesting that the resistance among Japanese firms to such new practices, which we heard about from Leo Lewis of the FT in our second webinar, could change surprisingly rapidly.

But how about politics? And how about that topic we were previously obsessed, not always happily, about in Britain over the past three years: Brexit? Politics in the UK and Japan will be the subject of our fourth Zoom event, on April 30th, when I will welcome my old colleague, John Peet, political editor of The Economist, and our old Japan Society friend, Tsutomu Ishiai, former London correspondent and now deputy managing editor of the Asahi Shimbun. Do join us. I can’t promise it will be poetic, but I know it will be enlightening.

* Image: Susanoo slaying the Yamata-no-Orochi ca. 1870s by Chikanobu Toyohara 

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