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Monday 18 January 2021

Japan Society Chairman's Blog (32)

Japan Society Chairman's Blog (32)

Dear Japan Society members and friends

It is mid-January and the temple bells have long since fallen silent, but it still feels appropriate to say Shinnen Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu to you all, for 2020 had so many downs alongside the ups that we all need congratulating for having arrived at the new year, although that too has started with some downs of its own. Even before mentioning the pandemic, all us Brits have surely noticed that Washington’s Capitol Building has been stormed only twice: the first by British troops in 1814 and the second on 6 January, by supporters of President Donald Trump. We can feel relieved that both efforts proved unsuccessful. In a few days’ time President Joe Biden will be inaugurated and both the UK and Japan will begin forging new relationships with the relevant people in his administration, which in Japan’s case means the happily familiar figure of Kurt Campbell, who was Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs during the first Obama administration and will now hold a newly created post in the National Security Council co-ordinating policy for the “Indo-Pacific”. Those interested in the ideas he will bring might like to read this article he co-wrote in Foreign Affairs and which was published just last week.
It is painful for us all to find ourselves in this new and severe phase of the pandemic, both in the UK and, albeit more moderately, Japan. It feels particularly sad that young people are still having to forego some of the rituals and pleasures of youth, such as Coming of Age Day in Japan last week or a return to proper university terms in Britain this month. The impressively effective start to the vaccination programme in the UK is however a bright spot, bringing a genuine sense of being in a final phase: with about 5% of the population already having had their first jab by 15 January, this promises to be one programme that really does meet its ambitious targets and already places the UK well ahead of most others on this measure. Most people may not be data nerds like me, but for those who are, I have recently switched my attention when trying to keep track of such coronavirus statistics worldwide to this website, Our World In Data, produced by a brilliant team at the Oxford Martin School. I await the day when Japan starts to appear on the charts of vaccinations and hope that its approvals process for vaccines permits that appearance sooner rather than later. That hope is for empathetic as well as selfish reasons – it was dispiriting to see travel to Japan being curbed once again, as part of the new emergency measures – but also with a view to making the Tokyo Olympics possible in July. I note that Taro Kono, the administrative and regulatory reform minister, has just put the cat among the pigeons by saying the fate of the games "could go either way", but he is surely being honest.
Japan Society lectures have already re-commenced, with Antony Best’s talk on British Engagement with Japan, 1854-1922 coming on Monday evening, 18 January. The regular webinars will also begin again this coming week, with an issue made even more topical by the plan of the Biden administration for the US to rejoin the Paris Accord: climate change. Some are calling climate change “slow Covid”, an economic, social and political threat that could be pervasive and long-lasting, while affecting the whole world. It is also an issue on which both the UK and Japanese governments have recently made bold declarations that our countries will achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions in 30 years’ time, but without yet laying out a clear path for how to do so. I am delighted that on Wednesday 20 January at 11.00am (GMT) I will be joined by two stellar experts on this issue: Adair Turner, a member of the House of Lords and chair of the Energy Transitions Commission, and Dr Naoko Ishii, director of the newly established Centre for Global Commons at the University of Tokyo, and formerly CEO of the World Bank’s Global Environment Facility.
Another member of the House of Lords who is well known to many of us involved in UK-Japan relations is David Howell, a former energy minister under Margaret Thatcher as well as former chairman of what was then called the UK-Japan 2000 Group. He will be joining me for a special event on Saturday 30 January at 11.00am (GMT) to discuss his reflections on 40 years of UK-Japan relations and his own writing about them and about world affairs in the Japan Times.
The other landmark that was passed over Christmas and New Year was of course the settlement at last between the UK and the European Union over their new Trade and Co-operation Agreement. Settled on 24 December and in force from 1 January, the new rules and procedures governing UK-EU trade as well as goods movement between Britain and Northern Ireland are going to take quite a while for business to get used to – and indeed consumers, since ordering goods across borders now operates differently too. So on 4 February our second webinar of the year will provide a review of the new trade arrangements one month on, by our own Pernille Rudlin, who keeps a close eye on the views and actions of Japanese companies operating in the UK and EU, and David Henig, Director of the UK Trade Policy Project at the European Centre for International Political Economy, who surveys the whole trade horizon.  It is good, in a way, to have moved away from “for or against” to “how is it working and what difference is it making”, so that is what we will be discussing.
Last but not least, let me draw members’ attention to the fact that our former Japan Society president, Ambassador Yasumasa Nagamine, who left the UK this month, has now had his next post announced. As had been foreseen, he will be taking up the seat on Japan's Supreme Court being vacated thanks to the retirement on 7 February of another former ambassador to the UK, Keiichi Hayashi. We wish him well. 


* Photo: Temple in Nikko © Denise Metz

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