Japan Society Chairman’s Blog – 11


If recent events have taught us anything, it is that in these British Isles we are rather nicer to our famous past writers than we are to the historical figures whose statues have been ending up toppled or vandalised. I admit to being puzzled as to how Robert the Bruce, the 14th-century King of Scotland, can be accused of having been racist, though it is easier to understand why Churchill can attract that slur given his pro-empire views, saddening though the defacing of his statue was. Coming to terms with all the bad and good in our own countries’ history is not easy, though it is no less necessary for that. At least we economists can note that the famous slur on our profession by the Victorian historian Thomas Carlyle, that we are “the dismal science”, was provoked by economists’ opposition to Carlyle’s 1849 proposals for the reintroduction of slavery in the West Indies, the evil trade for which Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol was removed.

It is rather more cheering to look back to our great novelists, as Westminster Abbey did on 9 June for Charles Dickens when it held a much quieter than originally planned commemoration of the author’s death 150 years ago. Carlyle’s far nobler act than his appalling views on slavery was his foundation in 1841 of The London Library, of which I am a proud past chairman, and, much more notably, Dickens was an early member and borrower of books to research his great novels. Moreover next Tuesday my new home city, Dublin, will hold its annual Bloomsday Festival marking the day, 16 June, on which James Joyce’s character Leopold Bloom wandered through the city in 1904 in his novel “Ulysses”. In non-pandemic times the day is usually celebrated by people visiting pubs dressed, like Bloom, in a blazer and straw boater, and, like him, ordering a glass of Burgundy and Gorgonzola cheese before making or listening to readings from the novel. This year will of course be a little quieter but a certain amount of Burgundy is bound to be sampled.

Living much of my time now in Dublin, I am known to the Irish as a “blow-in”, a phrase perhaps connoting a gaijin carried on the breeze across the Irish Sea. Some friends here kindly invited this outsider to join their local book club, currently of course conducted by Zoom. Each of us takes turns to suggest the next book, and at our May meeting I was prevailed upon to suggest something Japanese. Rather than choosing a contemporary novel I decided to try them first on a classic, so at our meeting on 10 June we discussed Kobo Abe’s “The Woman in the Dunes” (“Suna no Onna”, made into a fine 1964 film by Hiroshi Teshigahara available in BFIPlayer’s Japan 2020 series). I was curious about what my (mainly Irish except for one Scot) book-clubbers would make of Abe’s 1962 blend, as I saw it, of Franz Kafka, Alice in Wonderland and Jean-Paul Sartre, and I’m delighted to say that they very much enjoyed (if that is the right word) this bleak tale of a holidaying insect-collector taken captive by villagers in the sand dunes. Perhaps confirming that culture is our most powerful connector, several likened Abe’s thoughts on the nature of human existence to the work of their own Samuel Beckett and his play, “Waiting for Godot”.

I’m not sure that Beckett ever tried his hand at writing Haiku, but if he did I hope he would have sent them in to the Japan Society. You will all, I hope, have seen the announcement of this week’s launch of Haiku Corner on our website, with its inaugural lockdown Haiku by Jenny White, but if not, do look and do send in your own. I have never forgiven my American editor on my second book about Japan, “Japanophobia”, for commenting that the classic Haiku I used to open each chapter “did nothing for him”. Philistine: I’m relieved to report that I prevailed.

Our webinar this week was about a sector that tends to do well out of crises, unless they are its own, namely financial services, and specifically the global centres of London and Tokyo. Hiroshi Nakaso, chairman of Daiwa Institute for Research and of the promotional group instituted by Governor Yuriko Koike in April 2019, FinCity Tokyo, gave a very upbeat impression of his city’s plans to attract new firms and new activity. Michael Mainelli, chairman of the commercial think-tank Z/Yen and Aldermanic Sheriff of the City of London, put forward the view that the combination of advancing technology and the shock of the pandemic could damage middle-ranking financial centres, leaving London, Tokyo and New York in a league of their own. Both felt that the continued primacy of the US dollar in international trade and finance helped their cities, a topic we may well return to on June 25th when we discuss America’s political economy with former ambassadors Kim Darroch and Kenichiro Sasae. Next week, our webinar moves to Friday, 19 June, and will look at how the sector most directly affected by the pandemic, travel and tourism, can be restored and revived in both Japan and the UK. Do join us and send questions: I know you are unlikely to be travelling that day.