Japan Society Chairman’s Blog – 2

01.04.20 Publication:

In early March, in what now feels like a distant memory, I gave a talk to sixth-formers at a
state school in the English countryside, as part of the excellent “Speakers for Schools”
charitable scheme set up some years ago by the journalist Robert Peston, now a prominent
political anchor on ITV. During the Q&A after my talk one boy asked an especially prescient
question: “I’ve heard that the economic impact of the coronavirus could be worse than the
2008 crisis,” he said. “Do you agree?”

I have to admit that his question rather woke me up, even if it certainly proved he
was wide awake. This covid-19 crisis has taken us all by surprise, in its dimensions as a
pandemic and as an extraordinary global economic shock. I am relieved to say that I didn’t
dismiss his fear but answered that there was no need for this crisis to be worse than 2008
and that I hoped it wouldn’t be. I said the outcome would depend on whether the economic
demand that would be lost during any shutdown proved to be just deferred to a later date
or whether it was lost altogether, and outlined what governments could do to maximise the
amount just deferred and minimise the permanent loss. We’d have to wait and see, I said.

Well, here we are, a month later and we’re certainly still waiting to get our arms and
our minds around what is going on and how long it might last. One thing that is striking,
however, is how different the evolution of both the health and the economic impacts have
been in the UK and Japan, despite our many similarities and despite this pandemic’s global
reach. Corporate decisions to change policies about meetings and events came much
sooner in Japan than the UK, as did the decision to close schools, but sports events, cultural
programmes and entertainment venues such as Pachinko parlours stayed open much longer
than their equivalents here.

Such differences, as well as the fact that we are all getting accustomed to working
from home and using video conferencing, gave rise to an idea. Next week we will begin
holding a weekly webinar using the Zoom platform, which will enable us to do something
we cannot do in our normal live events in London: to feature a discussion between a
speaker in the UK and one in Japan.

In next Wednesday’s opening webinar, as I hope you will have seen, I will chair a
discussion between two old friends, Ambassador Koji Tsuruoka in Tokyo and Sir David
Warren in London, about the role of government and the public response in our two
countries. Do please sign up and ask plenty of questions. In subsequent weeks we will talk
about topics such as the economic response, how investors and businesses are responding,
and about the scientific lessons. Please let us know what you think about these webinars
and do suggest future topics and discussants.

Perhaps after several of those discussions I will have a better answer to questions
such as that from my prescient sixth-former. Part of the answer will certainly be that
whether this shock is worse or better than 2008 is to compare apples and oranges: each
economic crisis is different, for it is the unexpected consequences in politics, business and,
above all, in our own behaviour that tend to be influential, whether for good or for ill.
Finally, one silver lining to today’s clouds is the way that videos and other forms of
entertainment are circulating between friends and family.

This week my two favourites were, first, a sad but inspiring video from the other country that I study,                                  Italy, a song about re-birth disseminated on You-Tube in aid of a hospital in Bergamo, that country’s worst-hit
town: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D5DhJS5hGWc. And, second, a literally more
hopeful example of UK-Japan communication, being a performance by a Devon-based group
of drummers, Kagemusha Taiko, from 2017:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rWxhMwmW2QM. It made me look forward to the
time when I will be able to travel to Sado Island to witness the home of Taiko drumming.