Japan Society Chairman’s Blog – 14


As a boy I was always more interested in subjects like history and geography than in science, but for some reason I have always remembered watching Professor Eric Laithwaite of Imperial College giving a lecture about magnetic levitation, a topic which as with many of the greatest technological innovations seemed to the youthful me to be akin watching magic. I think it must have been one of the Royal Institution’s Christmas Lectures, that wonderful series begun in 1825 by Michael Faraday and rather more recently broadcast every year by the BBC. Laithwaite’s pioneering work on maglev technology came back to mind many decades later when I was fortunate enough to be giving my own then-annual lecture to managers and stakeholders at JR Central’s HQ in Tokyo, and as a side-treat the chairman, Yoshiyuki Kasai, kindly invited me to their Chuo Shinkansen Maglev test track in Yamanashi for a demonstration ride. The ride was of course very impressive, but even more so was the company’s vision of constructing a maglev line to connect Tokyo and Nagoya in just 40 minutes, to open as soon as 2027, financed chiefly by the very profitable Shinkansen service between Tokyo and Osaka.

We British have long suffered deep railway envy about the Shinkansen, and whenever our own, less advanced, “High Speed 2” enters service between London and Birmingham it will be a fair bit later than 2027. Whatever happens about HS2, today’s ultra-cheap borrowing costs for government debt does, however, improve the prospects for a lot of infrastructure innovation and improvement in Britain in coming years, as our prime minister said a few days ago. Railway envy aside, I was nevertheless sorry to read in the Japan Times this week that the opening of the Tokyo-Nagoya maglev line will be delayed owing to a dispute with Shizuoka prefecture about the effect that part of the railway’s route may have on groundwater. I hope this can be resolved. With Professor Laithwaite’s lecture still in my mind (he died in 1997), I am very much looking forward to travelling on the new line to Nagoya late in this decade, and to Osaka something like another decade later.

Our webinar this week concerned a rather different issue in which technological progress also features, if in the less positive form of nuclear weapons. Our discussion was of the Korean peninsula, which for centuries has been of great strategic concern for Japan and for the nearly seven decades since the Korean War has been a vital concern for the peace and stability of the whole world. As our speakers, Chung Min Lee of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Seoul and John Nilsson-Wright of Chatham House, agreed, the future peace of the peninsula currently depends on the ambitions of three men – North Korea’s Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un, America’s President Donald Trump and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-In. Since 2018 these three have combined forces to produce some truly historic meetings, especially the three between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump in Singapore, Hanoi and Panmunjom, but without making any apparent progress towards a resolution. As the old adage goes, the three have been in the same bed, but with different dreams. Our speakers felt there was little or no likelihood of North Korea giving up the nuclear weapons capability it has spent more than 30 years to create, but also little likelihood that economic pressures either through sanctions or border closures caused by covid-19 would make the North Korean regime any less resilient. Other countries, including even China but certainly Japan, can only watch from the sidelines.

One reality that also emerged from our discussion was of the fraying of traditional alliance structures in East Asia, in particular because of tensions between South Korea and the United States over paying the costs of US troops on the peninsula, and what both speakers argued were parallel concerns in Japan about the long-term reliability of the US partnership. Whatever the future might hold for that partnership, recent events have underlined the value to both our countries of building other close friendships. That, indeed, will be the topic of next week’s webinar, when I will welcome Tomohiko Taniguchi, special adviser and frequent speechwriter for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, to speak about what he sees as the special value Britain bears for Japan, and the Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP, to speak correspondingly about what value Japan holds for Britain.

I am also delighted that the following week, on Tuesday 14 July, our webinar will shift our attention to the arts and to cultural institutions, with Rebecca Salter, President of the Royal Academy, and Mami Kataoka, Director of Mori Art Museum, as our speakers. Before we take a break for the summer, we will then hold one more webinar, on Thursday 22 July, when we will examine efforts in both Japan and the UK to increase the number of women holding senior managerial roles and board directorships, notably by the UK and Japan chapters of what is known as the 30% Club. And our final event for this month will be the Japan Society’s AGM on 28 July, which thanks to holding it this year by Zoom will feature speeches both by Ambassador Yasumasa Nagamine, President of the Japan Society, in London, and Ambassador Paul Madden in Tokyo.