Japan Society Chairman's Blog (8)
Dear Japan Society members and friends
Vladimir Lenin, the former exile in London whom your chairman has at times been accused of resembling, was a fine provider of useful quotations. One of the most often cited is his statement that “There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.” The difficulty during this COVID-19 pandemic, however, has been to decide which of those phrases is most applicable. I don’t know about you, but for me there are times when it feels as if the clocks have stopped working. And there are other moments when it feels as if trends we have been talking about for years have suddenly been accelerated, in just the manner of which Lenin was thinking. China’s rising role in the world and America’s decline is one of those seemingly accelerated forces. Another is the changing nature of work, towards remote working, management-by-video-conference and all the rest. But are these trends really accelerating? Or might we just be being induced, partly by the sense of clocks stopping, into jumping to hasty conclusions?
That, really, was the sub-text of this week's webinar on China, which featured Professor Kerry Brown from King’s College London and Professor Akio Takahara of the University of Tokyo. Perhaps as is befitting their roles as leading scholars of China, both speakers resisted drawing hasty conclusions about China’s rise or asking, like the former Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani, "Has China Won?" Their feeling, rather, was that all the superpowers had made both gains and losses during the so-far short period of this pandemic, and that China anyway shows little current interest in exerting global leadership or hegemony beyond opportunism and occasional necessity. The binary view of dealing with China that is common in London and Washington, that the country must either be confronted or embraced was rejected by both. China is a reality that needs to be faced up to, both for good and for ill, and any policy towards it has to encompass both.
For me, this webinar particularly confirmed the value in having experts in both the UK and Japan discussing an issue such as this, for it reveals the differences in perspective as well as the similarities. One British attendee wrote to me afterwards with an in-part tongue-in-cheek summary that nevertheless captured the reality of what Professors Brown and Takahara taught us: as he wrote, they drove “toward a conclusion that…the Japanese understand the Chinese and know the stakes are so high that their room for manoeuvre is limited; we have just discovered China in a broad sense, and are groping unerringly toward the wrong policy outcomes.”
Next week's webinar will concern itself with the second of those perhaps accelerated trends, namely the changing nature of work. This time, I will discuss the issue with just one speaker, Lynda Gratton of London Business School, but as her books on work and on “the 100-year-life” have been bestsellers in Japan and led to her joining Prime Minister Abe’s advisory commission, in this case I think she can speak for all of us. I am pretty sure she will not so much speculate as to where things might lead as advocate how British and Japanese companies alike can turn the pandemic into an opportunity for a rethink of working practices which in many cases was long overdue.
One working practice that never seems to change is the tendency of organisations to respond to criticism in the media by shooting the messenger. This week, this sadly was the case when the Japan National Olympic Committee lashed out at the tiny-circulation magazine of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, The Number 1 Shimbun, threatening costly legal action because it had used on its latest cover a graphic that blended the Tokyo Olympics logo with the COVID-19 virus. But what is wrong with associating the Olympics postponement with COVID-19 in this way? As an editor myself I learned many years ago that logos and images can be tricky territory, for whenever anyone published either a “smiley” face (this was the pre-emoji era) or anything resembling Mickey Mouse they would get a threatening letter from Disney’s lawyers. But even so, creative combinations of graphics are an essential tool of the trade and convey a story simply and clearly. For the Olympic Committee to bully the FCCJ in this way is outrageous and nonsensical, not to say somewhat Leninist. And rather sad, really.