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Saturday 28 November 2020

Japan Society Chairman's Blog (29)

Japan Society Chairman's Blog (29)

Dear Japan Society members and friends

The British novelist Martin Amis once published a book of his essays entitled The War Against Cliche, arguing that all great novels are battles against clichés not just of writing but also of the mind and the heart. I’m not really an Amis fan, but I do like that notion. A stylistic guide for all journalists is, or rather should be, George Orwell’s great 1946 essay Politics and the English Language in which as well as bemoaning the political lies and obfuscation of his era he laid down six rules for good, clear writing, the first of which is “Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in a print. It is a harder rule to follow than one might imagine. The toughest rule for a writer, beloved of editors is his third: “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.” Mind you, Orwell’s sixth rule (“Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous”) is a rather brilliant cop-out.
In any event, it has seemed clear in recent weeks that few British headline writers have been handed a copy of either Amis or Orwell, given the number of times the welcome news about the efficacy of the three vaccines announced so far, by Pfizer/BioNtech, Moderna and Oxford/Astra-Zeneca, has been greeted with the phrase “light at the end of the tunnel”, albeit now with some critical commentary on the Oxford/Astra Zeneca data and results. It is remarkable that so much progress has been made on vaccines in so little time, and it really is clear that some at least will begin distribution for emergency use in the next few weeks and wider distribution in the New Year. Managing that distribution will be difficult, but should nevertheless be a simpler project to run and manage than testing and tracing, for example. Even so, with the latest lockdowns in the UK (and Ireland) stretching nerves, and Japan too perhaps about to reintroduce restrictions in response to a rise in infections, we can also soon expect references to “the darkest hour is just before the dawn”, an old English proverb-cum-cliché known more recently from American songs by Bob Dylan and Emmylou Harris. I like both, but my personal recommendation to cheer us all up as Christmas and New Year approach is Doris Day and her song Enjoy Yourself
Headline writing is admittedly a rather special craft, given the space constraints. Had I written diaries of my time as an editor, I would certainly have mentioned a fax sent to us at The Economist by the late great Peter Drucker, after he’d been referred to in our pages as a management guru. “I have long believed,” he wrote, “that newspapers call me a guru only because the word ‘charlatan’ is too long for a newspaper headline.” For this week’s webinar our guest was a man who has written a memoir of his time as editor of the Financial Times, Lionel Barber. It is rich in anecdote, including of an occasion when the pugnacious retailer Sir Philip Green sent a cake to the FT newsroom as a peace offering, but the big interest for Japan Society members comes in 2015 when the FT’s owners, Pearson, sold the company to Nikkei. Lionel’s stories about how he learned to work with his new proprietors – including how he had felt “undressed” when they quizzed him for information ahead of the sale – were a notable part of our webinar discussion, the video of which can be found on our YouTube channel here. As I commented during the webinar, one sign of the normalisation and maturing of UK-Japan relations has been the way in which Japanese acquisitions of British firms are these days barely commented upon in the media or politics – unlike, say, as recently as 2006 when Nippon Sheet Glass bought Pilkington – but the FT was different, being itself a prominent media brand and one for which editorial independence is a crucial part of its reputation and success.
The next current affairs webinar will be on 8 December when we will scrutinise the new UK-Japan “Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement” with the help of Hiroshi Matsuura, who was Japan’s chief negotiator on the deal until his recent move to London as deputy chief of mission, and Minako Morita-Jaeger of the UK Trade Policy Observatory. We’ll have a rather different talk a week later on 15 December when Till Weingärtner of University College Cork will tell us about stand-up comedy in Japan and his research into it. Our friends at Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation will be holding an event on a different form of entertainment on 10 December, featuring the young actor Matsumoto Koshiro X talking about tradition and innovation in Kabuki. And don’t forget that on that same day the Japan Society too will be mixing tradition and innovation by holding its first ever Virtual Annual Dinner, for which there will be surprise entertainment. Do join us.


* © Photo by Takemaru Hirai

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