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Monday 2 November 2020

Japan Society Chairman's Blog (25)

Japan Society Chairman's Blog (25)

Dear Japan Society members and friends

“In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone…”

It feels a bit early to quote a Christmas carol, with Hallowe’en only just behind us and the weather not even very cold. Mind you, to an Englishman of my generation the celebration of Hallowe’en feels rather alien, since although Japan long ago adopted this American festival of pumpkins, ghosts and ‘trick or treat’, it is a much more recent import into the United Kingdom. I presume that this is because we British kids had our celebration on Guy Fawkes Night a few days later on 5 November, barely considering as we enjoyed the fireworks and baked potatoes that we were also burning on our bonfires the effigy of a Catholic Yorkshireman who was executed for plotting to blow up Parliament in 1605. We used to go around the neighbours showing off our stuffed versions of Fawkes asking for “a penny for the Guy”. Perhaps wearing witches’ hats and ghostly clothing is a bit healthier, now I think about it. Leaving those celebrations of death to one side, it is one of the strange features of modern politics that the Spanish name the real Guy adopted, Guido Fawkes, was copied by one of Britain’s most pro-Brexit political commentators, Paul Staines, for his blog

But I digress. The reason for quoting Christina Rossetti’s poem from 1872, which became a popular Christmas carol, is that that is the way things currently feel in Europe as COVID-19 cases soar, hospitals fill up again and tighter and tighter restrictions become imposed. Especially now that a second national lockdown has been announced, starting on Thursday and scheduled to last for at least a month, we in the UK should certainly feel envious of the much better situation in Japan. Mind you, rather than envy we really ought to learn from our Japanese and other Asian friends. I rather liked this recent article by the returning Tokyo correspondent of The Economist, Sarah Birke, about the difference she saw between Britain and Japan under the pandemic.

The death of the incomparable Sean Connery naturally dominated the past weekend, bringing a myriad clips from James Bond films as well as a few others. Among the many tributes, I rather liked the memories, reported in the Mainichi on 2 November of Kazuto Kawabe, the former Japanese assistant director who worked with Connery on You Only Live Twice when it was filmed in Japan. Of course, also memorable is Bond’s prowess in that film when drinking sake, and even more so the response of his Japanese counterpart, Tiger Tanaka. When Bond cites approvingly the correct temperature for serving sake, Tanaka responds marvellously: “For a European, you are exceptionally cultivated.

As winter draws in and the nights get longer, one solace always comes with the solstice, this year on 21 December, when the days begin to gradually get longer again. As far as the pandemic is concerned, the prospect of vaccines and new treatments have to be our solace. Last weekend I listened to a private talk given to alumni of Magdalen College, Oxford, by Dr Adrian Hill, a fellow of the college as well as being director of the Jenner Institute, the Oxford university body that specialises in vaccines and is responsible for the vaccine now in its ‘phase 3’ trials, jointly with the pharmaceutical firm Astra-Zeneca. What I learned was, first, the reassuring fact that data from the trials is seen not by the originating scientists such as Dr Hill but rather by independent statisticians, whose role is to identify the point when the number of identified successful cases of prevention of COVID-19 infection passes a pre-agreed threshold. This was reassuring because it is so arm’s-length, objective and thereby likelier to be unaffected by politics or other pressures. My second learning was that as the type of vaccine developed by the Oxford/Astra-Zeneca team is of a type (a ‘chimpanzee adenovirus vaccine vector’) that has already been used and tested for previous coronavirus-type infections, there is already much more evidence of the vaccine’s safety than for more innovative types. And my third learning was Dr Hill’s basic expectation, blinded though he is to the emerging trial data, that the team will be able to apply to the UK regulator for emergency use authorisation at some point before Christmas, which if granted would allow the vaccine to be administered immediately for health-care workers and other high-risk groups, and would then apply for a full licence early in the New Year.

More imminently, voting is all around us. The people of Osaka voted this past weekend on a plan to merge the prefecture and city into a single metropolitan area, akin to Tokyo, but they have again rejected the plan, at the second time of asking. Naturally, all the world’s eyes will be on the counting of votes in America’s presidential and congressional elections on the night of 3 November, with one of the big uncertainties being how soon the results will actually be known, given what appears to be a record high turnout and large amounts of mail-in voting. We hope to know before our next webinar on 5 November, but even if we don’t there will be a lot to ask our three speakers: Glen Fukushima in Washington, DC; Lord Jim O’Neill in London; and Professor Toshihiro Nakayama in Tokyo. As well as the politics, the effect of this election on trade, especially relations between the US and China but also with Japan, the UK and Europe, looks particularly important to understand. The following week, on 11 November, we will discuss the geopolitical effects with Nobukatsu Kanehara, former deputy national security adviser to Prime Minister Abe, and Sir John Scarlett, former chief of MI6.

Last but far from least, I’d also like to draw the attention of anyone involved with or close to schools anywhere in the UK to the Japan Society’s Sixth Form Japan Week which is coming up in early December and for which registration is now open. Normally, when this is an in-person event it is hard for schools outside southern England to send pupils. But a silver lining to this year’s bleak clouds is the fact that being online, anyone from anywhere in the UK can now join. This midwinter event would be a good moment for sixth formers to look ahead to the part that Japan could play in giving them a brighter future.


* Image: © Siora Photography 

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