Japan Society Chairman’s Blog – 20


I cannot pretend that these are not turbulent times, when an American president refuses to confirm that there will be a peaceful transfer of power after the US election on November 3rd, when in the UK plans emerge to require access permits for trucks entering the county of Kent so as to control post-Brexit congestion, and when rising covid-19 infection numbers in the UK and some other European countries have led to the tightening of regulations surrounding businesses and social interactions. In Japan, thank goodness, things look rather smoother, despite a controversy even there about voting irregularities at shareholder meetings. A new prime minister has taken office and everyone, from political leaders to the head of the International Olympic Committee, seems eager to reassure the public that the Tokyo Olympic Games will be able to go ahead next year, with or without a vaccine. Let’s hope that this reassurance proves borne out by events.

On the topic of a vaccine, I found an article in the Financial Times this week especially informative about the work that is going on all around the world, on the nine candidate vaccines that are now in the final, phase 3 trials, and on the pretty good prospects that one or more may achieve regulatory approval before the end of this year. Given the well-publicised and highly concerning troubles the UK government has encountered in setting up and organising its testing and tracing system and its often rapidly changing communications about the pandemic, my eye was particularly and pleasantly drawn by a chart in the FT article showing how much money different countries have spent on pre-ordering doses of candidate vaccines and how broad is their portfolio of candidates. It showed the UK top in terms of pre-ordered doses per capita, with six different candidates being bought into stock, and more than 5 doses on order per person. The US ranks second and Japan fourth. Organising the distribution of vaccines will be another matter, but it is reassuring to see such a good stock being built up.

Our webinar this week, a video of which can be viewed here, focused very much on the politics of reforming and reorganising government, which has sprung up as a hot topic in both our countries. Bronwen Maddox, director of the always excellent and non-partisan Institute for Government, reassured us that the recent ructions in Whitehall which have hit the headlines should not be seen as a politicisation of a civil service the independence of which we British have long been proud, but rather as resulting from a mixture of a needed reorganisation and the coincident turbulence of the Brexit process. Koji Tsuruoka, former President of the Japan Society when he was ambassador to the UK in 2016-2019, made some especially interesting observations about how difficult the separation in the past between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development had made his task of trying to co-ordinate national policies and thinking between the UK and Japan. The merger of those two ministries should make such co-ordination easier as well as facilitating a more coherent national strategy which might later encompass trade as well. It wasn’t clear either to Bronwen or to Koji that such a strategy had yet emerged, but at least one would now become possible. Meanwhile, Koji explained to us the case for administrative reform and especially digitalisation in Japan, which Prime Minister Suga has made a central goal of his new cabinet. Whether it will be possible for such a reform to drive out or at least diminish the “silo mentality” in ministries of course remains to be seen, but it felt welcome that a determined effort to do so was being commenced.

This weekend, as mentioned in last week’s blog, I hope many of you will tune in to Japan Matsuri Presents, which will feel rather like an extended radio and TV broadcast and which should be fun to at least have on in the background of whatever else one is doing but then getting stuck in when something you find especially appealing comes on. I wouldn’t, of course, dare to suggest such an approach to the broadcasts of my guests at our next webinar on 29 September at 11.00am, for neither John Simpson nor Aiko Doden would take kindly to being thought of as background music. John has become one of the world’s most well-known foreign correspondents during his extraordinary half century of work at the BBC, and actually one reason I miss flying around on British Airways is my loss of his lovely monthly columns in their inflight magazine, High Life. Aiko is far too young to have worked anywhere for half a century, but whenever we meet I especially appreciate talking with her about Myanmar as well as South-East Asia, and she is forever interviewing interesting people for NHK World. So I look forward very much to discussing the modern role of the foreign correspondent and especially the way broadcasters in both Japan and the UK are handling foreign affairs these days.