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Sunday 11 October 2020

Japan Society Chairman's Blog (22)

Japan Society Chairman's Blog (22)

Dear Japan Society members and friends

A key text from my long-ago student days was Walter Bagehot’s “The English Constitution” from 1867, in which this great Victorian writer and editor laid down, unofficially but ultimately influentially, some of the fundamental principles by which this country’s unwritten constitution functions. He did so in part because the monarchy was at the time being challenged by abolitionists who were exploiting the then Queen Victoria’s decision to absent herself from public life following the death of her husband, Prince Albert. But also the 19th century monarchy was an institution in transition, from an earlier era when the Crown played an active political role to one in which, as Bagehot advocated, the Crown would form “the dignified part” of the constitution as distinguished from “the efficient part”, namely Parliament and the government. Bagehot famously defined the monarch’s role as giving it “the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn” but not, as became increasingly clear as time went on, to actually do anything. Anyone who has watched Netflix’s sumptuous series, The Crown, will have seen the present Queen exercising that inability to do anything repeatedly (and compellingly, I should add).
I mention Walter Bagehot and the English monarchy not just out of ancestor-worship – he was also my most distinguished predecessor as Editor of The Economist – but because he came to mind when reading about the controversy that Japan’s still-new prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, has provoked concerning the Science Council of Japan. For those who have missed this, Mr Suga chose to break precedent by refusing to accept the nomination of six among 105 nominees for new members of this prestigious advisory group, whose membership is rotated regularly. The Bagehotian parallel arises because while formally speaking nominations to the Science Council have in recent years always required prime ministerial approval, in practice it had been thought that this power was purely “dignified” rather than actually to be used. We shall see whether Mr Suga proves now to have stirred up a hornet’s nest by rejecting six nominees who had all, ahem, coincidentally, criticised the government in recent years. Mr Suga has not yet disclosed the reasons for the rejections, but has referred to a hitherto unknown 2018 document in defence of his right to do so. A prime minister's powers are obviously not ultimately comparable with those of a monarch, but the episode is nevertheless a change to an unwritten convention which Bagehot might have found interesting. 
Science and history came together also in a fascinating story I want to share with you from Normally, those of us who happen not to believe in Unidentified Flying Objects, aka UFOs, assume that they are a creation of modern times, one in which technology has created all sorts of flying machines and science has stretched our imaginations to bring in the idea of visitors arriving from other planets. The story dates from June but landed in front of me this week thanks to the modern magic of Twitter. It concerns the Utsurobune, a Japanese UFO legend from 1803. This tale is of a mysterious “hollow ship” which was said to have fetched up on the shores of Ibaraki prefecture (then called Hitachi), and from which a beautiful woman emerged wearing strange clothing and unable to communicate with locals. It was unearthed by Kazuo Tanaka, a professor emeritus at Gifu University, who is evidently a scientist by background but also works as a historian. The drawings in the 19th century texts he found look eerily like flying saucers.
I am grateful to my fellow Japan Society board member, Yuuichiro Nakajima, not only for organising this week’s webinar on women’s football (you can watch the video here), but also for acting as moderator. As an attendee, I found the plans being described to us by Kikko Okajima Murray for the new WE League both impressive and inspiring. Professional women’s leagues and trophies for traditionally male sports such as soccer, rugby and cricket have really only broken through very recently here both in terms of public recognition and commercial viability, so I shall be watching the WE League’s progress keenly once it launches fully in September 2021. Kelly Simmons, Director of the Women’s Professional Game for our Football Association, brought all sorts of lessons from the English experience, while plainly also admiring the hitherto amateur Nadeshiko league’s style of play. Those who watched the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation’s recent event Little Miss Sumo will be wondering whether Japan’s national sport might soon follow suit.
Next week we will be looking at gender equality from a different, though more conventional, angle. At the webinar on 14 October I will be joined by Kathy Matsui, vice-chair of Goldman Sachs Japan but most pertinently the originator of a landmark series of research studies since 1999 on what she termed “Womenomics”. As my own new book is on this subject, and has benefited from Kathy’s work and guidance, we will have a conversation about the obstacles that still remain and about how optimistic we should be about future progress. Do join us, if you can.


* Image: ©Iwase Bunko Library in Nishio, Aichi Prefecture

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