Japan Society Chairman’s Blog – 13


In a week when pleasure at the prospect of returning to something closer to normal life has been balanced by concern about crowded beaches and a stubborn British resistance to learning from Japan by wearing masks when in shops and public places, I have found myself thinking about comedians, political talk shows and men with moustaches. I had better explain.

Despite all the forces that have globalised large elements of popular culture, especially the televisual sort, one element of continued differentiation lies in the style of political talk-shows. Japan’s NHK had its “Close Up Gendai”, anchored by the excellent Hiroko Kuniya in a prime-time 7.30pm slot for 23 years until she was ousted in 2016 seemingly for the temerity of trying politely to insist on an answer to a question she had posed to the chief cabinet secretary. Although it does have the fine Channel Four News in a prime-time slot, Britain has tended, like other Japanese talk-shows, to push its main political interviewing into what in broadcasting terms are the quiet hours of Sunday mornings, though it also uses breakfast shows and BBC’s daily “Newsnight” at 10.30pm, on which another excellent female anchor, Emily Maitlis, annoyed the Conservative government on 26 May by accurately summing up the majority public view about the breaking of lockdown rules by Dominic Cummings, chief adviser to the prime minister.

America however is an exception, as in so many things. The United States also, of course, has a lot of breakfast and Sunday political shows but, as if to emphasise its exceptional nature, is truly unusual in featuring some of its main political commentary and even interviews on an array of daily late night comedy-and-music shows. These are the heirs to Johnny Carson’s famous “Tonight Show”, hosted by comic stars such as Trevor Noah, John Oliver, Jimmy Kimmel, James Corden and Stephen Colbert.

Even though two of those names – Oliver and Corden – are British, this is not something British TV has ever managed, or perhaps chosen, to pull off – although perhaps a channel ought to see whether the stand-up comedian Yuriko Kotani, who joined the Japan Society for an entertaining event recently, might like to try. She could usefully unsettle our politicians, at least at first. Nevertheless we can find the US shows on the internet these days, which is why this week I found myself watching the great Stephen Colbert interviewing the former US National Security Advisor whose publishing decision has made him the American, even global, man of the moment: John Bolton. Thanks to a friend having sent me a PDF copy I had already been reading Ambassador Bolton’s book about his 17 months working for Donald Trump, in which he is at pains to deny the frequent claim that President Trump especially disliked his moustache. Colbert’s respectful, but gently teasing, interview of this rather hardline, right-wing figure, was rather illuminating as well as good fun. It formed a great background for our webinar this week, in which two recent former ambassadors to the US for Japan and the UK offered their analysis of current trends in what we both see as our closest ally.

What the Bolton book (“The Room Where It Happened”) especially reminded me of is how much continuity there has been in American attitudes and policies in foreign affairs, connecting together the Republican presidents for whom Bolton worked, which extend from Ronald Reagan through both Bushes and then Trump. It has been Donald Trump’s capricious personality, impulsiveness and his disdain for allies that has marked him out. People like Bolton decided to work for him because of the continuity and because they thought they could manage him – a delusion which, as Stephen Colbert pointed out, has resulted in a large alumni group of former Trump administration officials.

The central puzzle of November’s election will be how much continuity to expect regardless of who wins and how much change. During the pandemic, we have often worried about a lack of US leadership. Yet, just as often, if we are honest, we have at times worried about there being too much US leadership, when President Trump has thrown his weight around or, in the case of North Korea, suddenly surprised us – and caused nightmares for a hawkish advisor such as John Bolton – by holding three summit meetings in 2018-2019 with Kim Jong Un. That will be the subject of next week’s webinar, at which I will welcome Chung Min Lee, a former South Korean ambassador, distinguished scholar and author of a recent book “The Hermit King” about what he calls “The dangerous game of Kim Jong Un”; and a face that will be familiar to many, John Nilsson-Wright, of Cambridge University and Chatham House, who is that rare thing, a scholar who combines deep knowledge of both Japan and the Koreas. It should be fascinating.