The Japan Society
About What is the Japan Society News
Sunday 8 November 2020

Japan Society Chairman's Blog (26)

Japan Society Chairman's Blog (26)

Dear Japan Society members and friends

So how was it for you? No prizes for guessing to what I am referring. Obviously, it was pretty good in the end for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, less so for Donald Trump and Mike Pence, though better than expected for the Republican Party as a whole. We can’t know how the next two and a half months are going to play out, with legal disputes over the results, the likely bitterness of the loser, two run-off races in Georgia in early January which will determine control of the Senate, and a difficult transition between now and President-elect Biden’s inauguration on 20 January. But regardless of the result and of that disputatious prospect, I certainly found myself impressed by how well the US election was conducted. Every time I felt frustrated by how slowly the votes were being counted – and afflicted, naturally, by a certain British and Japanese feeling of superiority about how quickly we resolve our elections – I just had to remind myself that this massive democratic process was taking place in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, with the highest turnout since 1900 and something like 100 million votes cast by mail or other permitted early methods. This was nothing like the election of 2000, when “hanging chads” in Florida on a few hundred disputed votes, cast in 1950s-era voting machines, took the election to the Supreme Court and led us all to wonder about the efficacy of the American way of voting. One reason I will never forget that 2000 election was that it produced an Economist cover by our splendid caricaturist, Kevin Kallaugher, which shows George W Bush and Al Gore using the map of that state as duelling pistols, the original of which is framed on my study wall. The sharp-eyed might be able to spot it just over my left shoulder in our webinars.

Americans are asking what the result and that disputatious period might mean for them, but we British and Japanese are naturally wondering what it might mean for us. I was grateful that our old friend Glen Fukushima got up in his Washington, DC, dawn to speak at our webinar on exactly this question on 5 November (the video of which can be viewed on our YouTube channel here), along with Professor Toshihiro Nakayama of Keio University in his Tokyo evening and Jim O’Neill, chair of Chatham House, in his Dorset lunchtime. One striking point was how both Glen and Toshihiro indicated that Joe Biden is fairly unknown in Japanese political circles, despite his many years chairing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. All speakers were clear that President-elect Biden will be easier for allies to deal with than President Trump, preoccupied although he will surely be with the domestic task of dealing with the health and economic consequences of Covid-19. Yet for both of our countries a central test of how comfortable we will feel with the Biden administration, just as with the Trump administration, will come from the White House’s chosen approach to China, for that affects both of us very directly. As Toshihiro Nakayama said, Japanese officialdom tends to feel comfortable when the US is just a bit tougher on China than Japan is, which was true of Trump and may well be of Biden, but in rather different ways. In next week's webinar, on 11 November, we will explore such strategic and geopolitical issues further with our guests Sir John Scarlett, former head of MI6, and Nobukatsu Kanehara, former deputy national security adviser under Prime Minister Abe.

With the pandemic and the US election hogging the news, other significant events can be easily missed. One such this past week was the suspension of the planned initial public offering by Jack Ma’s Ant Group in China, parent of the well-known Alibaba e-commerce platform as well as a fast-growing payments firm. I mention this because technological competition between the US and China is a core part of the superpower relationship, one that very much affects both the UK and Japan. This flotation in Shanghai and Hong Kong was to have been the world’s largest IPO, at more than $34 billion. According to Nikkei Asia Review, Mr Ma had offended the powers that be, presumably ultimately President Xi Jinping, by criticising the way finance is regulated in China, which may or may not be justified but might be considered a bit foolish when you are about to float a financial firm yourself. The mood against tech giants has darkened in Washington, DC, too, with something of a bipartisan consensus emerging that Facebook, Amazon, Alphabet and Apple need tighter anti-trust regulation. Meanwhile in Japan Hiroshi Mikitani’s e-commerce giant, Rakuten, has been preparing a new 5G mobile telecoms network using a virtual “OpenRAN” system (no, I can’t explain) which may please the Suga government by offering cheaper mobile calls but also offers a way for all countries to avoid becoming dependent on the Chinese equipment supplier Huawei.

That’s all been rather serious, so I want to end with two cultural contributions. One is to draw your attention to the Japan Society’s online lecture next Saturday, 14 November in which Dr Robert Morton of Chuo University will tell the story of Sir Harry Parkes, British Minister to Japan for 18 years of the Meiji era of the 1860s and 1870s which so shaped modern Japan. The other does return to the American election, but through the words of the late Northern Irish Nobel prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney. During his campaign, President-elect Biden recorded an advert featuring a rather beautiful poem by Heaney, “The Cure of Troy”, about how “once in a lifetime, The tidal wave of justice can rise up, And hope and history rhyme.” Inspiring words. Let’s hope he can live up to them.

Bill

*Autumn at Kenroku-en © JNTO / Ishikawa Prefecture Tourist Association & Kanazawa Convention Bureau

Previous Chairman's Blogs