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Tuesday 26 January 2021

Japan Society Chairman's Blog (33)

Japan Society Chairman's Blog (33)

Dear Japan Society members and friends

For any foreigner taking a look at cricket, baseball or sumo wrestling, it would seem that the term “national sport” is actually a synonym for “incomprehensible to outsiders”. Now, there is plenty of room for debate as to whether cricket can be termed Britain’s (or, really, England’s) national sport and in America’s case there are those who would stand up for American football or basketball as rivals for the nomenclature. But few would I think begrudge sumo that title for Japan, whether or not you like the sport, for baseball’s popularity cannot hide the fact that it is an import, albeit one that arrived in the 1870s. Personally, I do rather like sumo especially for all the ritual and flummery that goes with it, as well as the memory of sitting in a box watching a Grand Sumo Tournament scoffing and drinking. As a Tokyo correspondent in the 1980s I always knew when there was a Grand Sumo Tournament on because in the neighbouring office the then Financial Times bureau chief, Jurek Martin, was a huge fan and through the wall would come the sound of the TV commentary, followed by Jurek shouting excitedly “Chiyonofuji no kachi!”, whenever his hero, “The Wolf”, would win a bout
In those days, the not always popular up-and-comer was Konishiki, the “little brocade”, also known as “dump truck”, a vast Samoan who became one of the first foreign wrestlers to rise to a high rank (Ozeki), although he never made the highest, Yokozuna. So here’s the point (and I do have one): what puzzles me about Japan’s national sport, one steeped in tradition and Shinto religion, is how following Konishiki it then embraced non-Japanese wrestlers so wholeheartedly that the sport nowadays is dominated by Mongolians, Pacific Islanders and others. Such a bastion of conservatism became thoroughly global, no doubt in the interests of its own prosperity or survival, rather as Britain’s Premier League embraced the world’s best footballers. And yet having done so it remains hidebound in other ways, as was displayed recently at the New Year Tournament when a wrestler suffered concussion at the outset of a bout and yet was then allowed to fight on. In fact, reports suggest that sumo officials and attending doctors had no real idea of what to do, as there were no policies or procedures in place. That would not, I trust, be the case for the Brave Blossoms and other rugby players, as in that sport procedures to deal with the risks of concussion and brain injury are well established. Perhaps one of our members who is better versed in the ways of sumo might be able to explain, for like any other sumo is a sport in which the fitness and health of contestants must be a prime concern.
The topic at our first current affairs webinar of 2021 was the fitness and health of our planet, namely climate change and the prospects for mitigating it. With the next UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) coming up in November in Glasgow, and with both the UK and Japanese governments having recently made public pledges that our countries will reach a state of “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions within the next 30 years, we invited Dr Naoko Ishii, director of the new Center for Global Commons at the University of Tokyo, and Adair Turner, chair of the Energy Transitions Commission, to tell us what our governments might need to do to get us there. Lord Turner’s answer was that our future lies in electrification, aided by what he described as the “unbelievable” drop in the costs of renewables including onshore and offshore wind and above all solar power, backed by rapid advances in battery technology. The electricity system would have to be decarbonised by 2035 but the costs of getting there were dropping dramatically. Dr Ishii felt that Japan is lagging in this process and that it remains “coal-addicted”, but that by focusing on the need to redesign and transform whole systems, helped by technological progress, this could be done as long as it was recognised that getting change done in the next 10 years was going to be crucial. Both our speakers felt hydrogen would play an important future role, both directly as a source of energy and to produce fuels, such as ammonia for shipping. It was an optimistic and positive discussion, the video of which can be found here.
Next Saturday 30 January at 11.00am (GMT) we will be looking backwards, with our guest David Howell, at his 40-year involvement with UK-Japan relations, as a journalist, politician, minister, member of the House of Lords, and chair of the UK-Japan 2000 Group. We will I am sure look forwards too, at how the world is changing and how the UK and Japan can and must adapt to that change. Then on Thursday 4 February we will be looking at the impact on business of a more recent change, the new UK-EU Trade and Co-operation Agreement that was finalised on 24 December. Our speakers will be Pernille Rudlin, our Japan Society board member but also an experienced consultant to Japanese companies in the UK and Europe, and David Henig, Director of the UK Trade Policy Project at the European Centre for International Political Economy in Brussels. Do join us, if you can. 


* Photo: ©Yasufumi Nishi/©JNTO

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