Japan Society Chairman's Blog (7)
Dear Japan Society members and friends
One enjoyable memory from my time when posted to Tokyo is of a weekend visit in what I think must have been 1985 to Ito-shi, out on the Izu peninsula, for the Anjin Festival. This now annual fixture in Ito’s calendar is a wonderful celebration of William Adams, the ship’s pilot who in 1600 became the first Englishman to set foot in Japan and became known as Miura Anjin, the pilot of Miura. The Tokugawa shogun allowed him and his crew to stay, but put them to work building ships in Ito. Every year, a ceremony is therefore held there in which a British embassy official impersonates William Adams, and speeches are also made by representatives from the Dutch, Mexican and American embassies, befitting the thoroughly multinational nature of Adams’s arrival: in a Dutch ship, via California and Mexico. There are usually spectacular fireworks and a glorious parade, but on the August weekend when I visited they were sadly rained off. But I have fond memories of the lovely ceremony, of a charming parade on stage by the local Girl Guide (now known as Girl Scouts) troupe and of a band playing tunes from around the world, including (why do I remember this 35 years later?) “The Green Green Grass of Home”. Which is also suitably global having been made famous in the 1960s by both Jerry Lee Lewis in the US and Tom Jones in Britain.
So why am I dwelling on William Adams? The reason is that 16 May is the 400th anniversary of his death, in Hirado in Kyushu, where his gravesite can be visited. There were to be ceremonies and celebrations marking that anniversary in both Tokyo and London, which of course have had to be called off, or at least substituted, like many things these days, by online events. Many of us, in both Japan and the UK, will be raising glasses (or cups of tea depending on the time of day) to this historic figure, made famous also by James Clavell’s 1975 novel, Shogun and a subsequent TV series in which he was played by Richard Chamberlain.
Moreover, while I am dwelling upon anniversaries, there is also the 100th birthday this year of the Leach Pottery, jointly established by Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada in 1920. In celebration of that milestone, the Mingei Film Archive has just made available a film, “Working at the Leach Pottery, 1970” free to watch until 15 June. Some of you may also have seen a modern film about the Hamada family pottery in Japan, notably featuring Shoji Hamada’s grandson, shown on the BBC as part of its "Handmade in Japan" series (you can catch it if you are quick - available until 8pm on 15 May).
This week's webinar highlighted another form of UK-Japan interaction and collaboration, namely in medical science. Thanks to our Japanese speaker, Kiyoshi Kurokawa, professor emeritus at the Graduate Institute of Policy Studies, we collaborated with his think-tank, the Global Health and Policy Institute, over publicising this event, and so welcomed a large number of viewers in Japan as well as the UK. Our UK speaker was actually a Belgian, Peter Piot, who lives and works in London as director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has been one of the world’s leading researchers in recent decades on both Ebola and HIV-AIDS, and had recently recovered from a severe bout of COVID-19 himself.
I found both speakers reassuring about the pace and intensity of scientific collaboration and progress on combatting the COVID-19 pandemic, which was a welcome contrast to the previous week when we were lamenting the lack of international collaboration at the political level. Dr Piot and Dr Kurokawa were particularly compelling when discussing the promising candidates for treating and so managing COVID-19, which will be crucial if the mortality rate is to be reduced and the health risks made more manageable and less alarming. They felt that we would know “in a few months’ time”, which Dr Piot further and perhaps bravely defined as July, which treatments were going to work best. Dr Kurokawa himself has been working with Fujifilm to get that company’s Avigan flu treatment into full-scale trials for COVID-19.
Naturally, our speakers were more sober about the timetable to find a successful and safe vaccine, suggesting that although there are about 100 research projects under way, there were really fewer than 10 serious candidates. Then the task of producing and distributing billions of doses in as equitable and orderly a way as possible will be daunting, especially in the face of what has become known as “vaccine nationalism”.
An aspect of that nationalism will no doubt feature in next week’s webinar, the subject of which will be China. I am looking forward very much to discussing how political and commercial relations between China, the US, Japan and the UK are evolving during this pandemic crisis with two of the leading scholars on China in each of our countries: Professor Akio Takahara of the University of Tokyo and Professor Kerry Brown of King’s College London. I hope that many of you will be able to join me.