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Friday 12 February 2021

Japan Society Chairman's Blog (34)

Japan Society Chairman's Blog (34)

Dear Japan Society members and friends

The "Basic Policy" for the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games is as clear as it is uplifting. “When people look back on the Tokyo 2020 Games in 50 or 100 years’ time”, the policy says, “the Games should be seen to have been a catalyst for change in culture, society and values leading to the realisation of a more sustainable, spiritually richer, happier society”. One of the Games’s three “core concepts” is stated to be “Accepting one another (unity in diversity)”. I think we can agree that the now former president of the Organising Committee, former prime minister Yoshiro Mori, is unlikely to have read that Basic Policy and if he had he evidently did not think it applied to him. The story of his resignation followed a trajectory typical of such scandals in every country: denial, grudging apology, furore, commercial and political pressure and finally belated departure. What I found particularly depressing about the whole episode was the fact that the misogynistic insults Mr Mori used at an Olympic Committee meeting were utterly hackneyed – couldn’t he think of anything original? – so much so that academic research in America and elsewhere has been spurred to look into whether women do speak for longer than men in meetings or political debates, finding (as everyone who pays attention surely knows) that the opposite is the case. But let’s be optimistic: perhaps in ways Mr Mori could not have imagined, his resignation will now act as a catalyst for change. It was certainly striking how the anger over his comments persisted and even intensified, and how emboldened Japan’s rather small number of female politicians became to stand up against one of the most prominent elders in the Liberal Democratic Party.
 
One rather different stereotype about business and even society that was particularly strong in the 1980s and 1990s was the idea that creativity is lacking in Japan and that as a result Japanese companies were terrific at making hardware but poorly suited to software. This view was bred by the era of the personal computer, and the sort of creativity critics had in mind was the coding sort, but in any case all sorts of studies were launched on how to reform education to encourage more creative thinking. That may or may not have been a good thing, but nowadays the whole idea feels a bit strange, for creativity, especially in the form of entertainment based on fantasies of various kinds, has become one of Japan’s biggest businesses and indeed exports, both commercially and in the form of so-called soft power. 
 
Whether it be video games from Super Mario to today’s Demon Slayer, branded merchandise such as Hello Kitty, the Tamagotchi and Pokemon crazes, or manga and the vast variety of anime films, pop culture has become integral to Japan’s image abroad and to society at home. For consumer electronics firms such as Sony and Nintendo it has become their core business. I was intrigued when an American based in Tokyo who specialises in this topic, Matt Alt, sent me his book Pure Invention: How Japan’s Pop Culture Conquered the World, for it was an eye-opener in many ways. One small surprise was when America’s notorious Proud Boys right-wing militant group cropped up in the book, for it turns out that the online network they grew out of, 4chan, had Japanese roots. We don’t, of course, have to blame the events in Washington on 6 January on Japan, but the connection does underline the innovative, often underground, nature of what has been pioneered in Japan in recent decades. So I am delighted that Matt Alt will be joining us for a conversation about the business of pop culture in our webinar on 18 February at 11.00am. His book title, by the way, is derived from this quotation from Oscar Wilde from his 1891 essay The Decay of Lying: “In fact the whole of Japan is pure invention. There is no such country, there are no such people…The Japanese people are, as I have said, simply a mode of style, an exquisite fancy of art.” Which tells us a lot about that great Irish wit and playwright, but also about the impact the Japanese pop culture of his era was having, at exactly the time the Japan Society was being formed.
 
Our 18 January lecture by Anthony Best dealt with just that period, drawing on his book, British Engagement with Japan 1854-1922. We didn’t go back quite that far in our conversation with Lord Howell on 30 January, but we did talk about David Howell’s more than 40 years of engagement with Japan, as a government minister, consultant, columnist and chair of the UK-Japan 2000 Group, as well as his very broad view of contemporary world affairs. If you missed it the video can be viewed here. On 4 February our topic was a more recent one, namely the first month of trading under the UK-EU Trade and Co-operation Agreement that was signed just before Christmas, and our speakers were David Henig, a trade expert at the European Centre for International Political Economy, and Pernille Rudlin, Japan Society board member and consultant to many Japanese firms. What was particularly clear from this extremely well-attended event (the video of which can be viewed here) is that along with the inevitable teething troubles with such an abrupt change of commercial arrangements between two huge trading parters, settled barely a week before coming into effect, there is also going to be a great deal of longer-term adjustment for businesses of all kinds. We will certainly keep an eye on this and return to the topic later in the year.

Bill

* Photo: © Max Conrad

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