Japan Society Chairman’s Blog – 18


I have to begin with a confession. In the blog that I wrote on August 31st, perhaps still feeling overly relaxed thanks to the summer, I said something foolish about Japanese politics. Well, not overly foolish you might say, but something that showed that I had not done my homework. My folly was to suggest that Shinzo Abe’s resignation as prime minister “may bring to an end Japan’s most remarkable postwar political dynasty”, the dynasty that had, as I wrote, provided three prime ministers (Nobosuke Kishi, Eisaku Sato and Shinzo Abe) as well as a foreign minister (Shintaro Abe). What was I thinking? In my defence, at least I did know that Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie have had no children, unlike the unfortunate Will Ripley, the CNN correspondent who mistakenly reported that Japan’s new defence minister in Yoshihide Suga’s cabinet is Abe’s son. No, Nobuo Kishi is Abe’s younger brother (61 to Abe’s 65) who was adopted into their mother’s (and prime ministerial grandfather’s) family soon after birth, following that very special Japanese custom.

So contrary to my hasty judgement, the dynasty goes on, even though it would be even more foolish to hazard a guess as to whether Mr Kishi stands a chance of ever becoming that political family’s fourth post-1945 prime minister. Moreover, while dynastic politics remain dominant in the LDP – both of Mr Suga’s rivals in this week’s leadership poll, Shigeru Ishiba and Fumio Kishida, are from political families, as are others who didn’t run this time such as Taro Kono and surely-too-young celebrity politician, Shinjiro Koizumi – a different sort of continuity was exhibited this week by the party which has been its coalition partner since 2012: New Komeito. That party also held a leadership election, but its leader, Natsuo Yamaguchi, was re-elected unopposed for his seventh term in a post he has held since 2009, during which he has used that longevity and close relationship with Mr Abe and Mr Suga to become highly influential. Mr Suga himself is a very different character to his dynastic colleagues. He is the son of a strawberry farmer from Akita prefecture who studied at Hosei University, a respected private university but not the more familiar To-dai, and so is a figure with what in Britain we would see as a back-story capable of appealing to the common man and woman. Should he, as many speculate, including the well-connected Professors Gerald Curtis and Heizo Takenaka in this excellent Japan Society of New York webinar on September 16th, end up calling a Lower House election later this year, we will see whether Japanese voters agree.

The economic climate will play a crucial role whenever such a vote takes place, so it was fascinating as well as a pleasure to host our former member, Noriko Hama now of Doshisha Business School, on our own weekly webinar (you can watch the video [here]) together with Gerard Lyons, also well known to us thanks to his work at Standard Chartered bank and for Boris Johnson in his time as London’s mayor. The topic was the state of our economies, so in my introduction I cited new forecasts that had been published that very morning by the OECD, suggesting that for 2020 as a whole Japan’s GDP may decline by 5.8% while Britain’s may shrink by 10.1%, with Japan expected to rebound gently in 2021 by 1.5% and Britain rebounding strongly by 7.6%. Noriko Hama was somewhat more pessimistic about 2020, arguing that the Abe administration did far too little to deal with Japan’s high levels of relative poverty (more than four times worse than Denmark, she said) which the spread of lowly paid, non-regular work has entrenched. Yet the resulting weakness in consumption would be a fair explanation for why the OECD expects the 2021 recovery to be so meagre. Gerard Lyons was somewhat more positive, both about Britain and Japan, but shared the view that what was going to matter in both countries was the emergence of a real strategy to promote economic growth alongside measures to improve both regional and societal distribution of income. Neither of our speakers could see evidence of such policies yet from the Suga or Johnson administrations, but the Suga administration is very new and the Johnson one remains dominated by the long tortuous saga of Brexit as well, of course, as the pandemic.

In a normal year, the Japan Society would now, along with many partner organisations, be hard at work on what has become a great annual London tradition, the Japan Matsuri held in recent years in Trafalgar Square. Sadly this year the real thing has not been possible, but on the weekend September 26th and 27th all the partners are coming together to put on what looks like being a magnificent online programme: Japan Matsuri Presents. Whether your interest lies in music or cuisine, dance, theatre, manga or much else besides, it will be well worth logging in.

I would be bound to say this, but the same applies to our next two webinars. The first will be on Wednesday 23 September when we will welcome back Koji Tsuruoka, a former president of the Japan Society as ambassador to London, alongside Bronwen Maddox, who heads the Institute for Government in London. Their topic will be the state of government and especially the reform of government, since both our countries’ governments declare transformation of government to be among their central goals. And then the following week, on Tuesday 29 September, we will be welcoming two star foreign correspondents, John Simpson of the BBC and Aiko Doden of NHK, to talk about how approaches to foreign affairs is evolving in our two countries media, especially on television. Do join us.