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Friday 16 October 2020

Japan Society Chairman's Blog (23)

Japan Society Chairman's Blog (23)

Dear Japan Society members and friends

Politics is a distinctly unedifying process. The quote usually, perhaps apocryphally, attributed to Otto von Bismarck gets it about right: “laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made”. A similar sentiment may explain why I far preferred the original British version of House of Cards on BBC in 1990 to Netflix's later American version in 2013-2018 because it was shorter, sharper, funnier and, well, more appetising. Taking a brisk British story to Washington, DC, and stretching it to six series and several presidencies just made it grim, in my view at least, though both Francis and Claire Underwood, the main US characters, were quite prescient figures given all that has followed. US presidential election campaigns are always painfully long, consisting it seems of far too many series, but at least the saga tends to culminate in a fairly lively final couple of months of quite theatrical televised debates and what have become known as “October surprises”. Not this year, however, where despite undoubted surprises such as President Trump’s hospitalisation the whole thing has felt grim and excruciatingly long-drawn-out. Britain and Japan are both lucky to have elections that, rather like the late great Ian Richardson’s portrayal of Francis Urquhart in the BBC’s House of Cards, are quick and brutal. Are you counting the days until it is all over? You might say that, as Urquhart used to say, but I couldn’t possibly comment.
And yet it is all so important, for us all. America’s role as what Ronald Reagan described as a “beacon on the hill” for democracy and liberty was always somewhat overblown, but nevertheless we all know that in matters of democracy, where America leads, others follow, and that the strength and stability of American society makes a crucial difference to the way it conducts itself internationally, including its relations with its closest allies. This affects our politics, our commerce and our very security. That is why we have arranged three forthcoming webinars on aspects of American democracy and leadership. Next week I look forward to discussing the underlying trends in America’s democracy with Professor David Runciman of the University of Cambridge and Hitoshi Tanaka, formerly deputy minister for foreign affairs and now chairman of the Institute for International Strategy. Some of you may, like me, be regular listeners to David Runciman’s Talking Politics podcast or readers of his insightful articles in the London Review of Books. Hitoshi Tanaka became well known for his role in negotiating with North Korea during Junichiro Koizumi’s government of 2001-2006 but has recently published a number of articles expressing concern about the implication of trends in US democracy for the rest of the world. 
Then on Thursday 5 November I will be welcoming two experts on trade and business, Lord Jim O’Neill, who in his time at Goldman Sachs invented the acronym “BRICS”, and our old friend Glen Fukushima, a former deputy assistant US Trade Representative, for a discussion about the implications of the US election outcome – whether or not it has been settled – for commercial relations with China, Japan and Europe. And the following week, Wednesday 11 November, I will discuss the geopolitical and security consequences with Sir John Scarlett, former chief of the Secret Intelligence Service (better known as MI6), and Nobukatsu Kanehara, who from 2013-2019 was the inaugural Deputy Secretary-General of Japan’s National Security Secretariat. That’s a lot on America, but to paraphrase a famous quote from Leon Trotsky about war, you may not be interested in America, but America is interested in you.
As a partial antidote, as an Irish resident I have this week found myself watching and listening to the Wexford Festival Opera on RTE, for in a normal year I would have driven down the road from Dublin to watch part of it live. An even better antidote for Japan Society members would be to watch Sunday’s online lecture by Hans Brinckmann, an illustrated look at the past 70 years of Japanese history, with all its ups and downs, from someone who has lived in the country for 40 of those years. It promises to be fascinating, as does his new book The Call of Japan: A Continuing Story, from 1950 to the Present Day.
Finally, for this week’s webinar on Japan’s Far More Female Future, the video of which can be seen on our YouTube channel here, I was joined by Kathy Matsui, vice-chair of Goldman Sachs Japan, and herself the author of a new book, whose title translates as ‘How to Nurture Female Employees’. In our discussion of the role of women in Japan’s economy and society, I was particularly encouraged by Kathy’s comments about how investors, led by the Government Pension Investment Fund, the largest pool of retirement savings in the world, have come to take gender diversity as an important determinant of investment, along with other aspects of so-called ESG – environmental, social and governance. Such ESG investing is a topic we will return to, for it has become an important trend.


* Image: Traffic-free shopping on Tokyo’s Ginza (1972), © Hans Brinckmann

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