Japan Society Chairman’s Blog – 27


“You are old, Father William, the young man said, and your hair has become very white; And
yet you incessantly stand on your head – Do you think, at your age, it is right?” Way back in
1865 Lewis Carroll captured admirably our societies’ blend of veneration and astonishment
at the achievements of great old age in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In Britain we saw
it in last year’s national admiration for Captain Sir Tom Moore, walking 100 times around his
garden to mark his 100th birthday with the thought of raising £1,000 but ending up raising
£33m for the National Health Service before taking a Christmas holiday in Barbados, helped
by British Airways, and then sadly dying on 2 February to widespread national mourning and
recognition. In Japan, where there are more than 80,000 centenarians compared with the
UK’s 14,000, such great old age has perhaps become almost commonplace, but still when
the artist Toko Shinoda had a book published in 2015 called Things I Learned When I Became
103 (“103-sai ni natte wakatta koto”), based on an interview with a journalist, the work sold
more than half a million copies and Shinoda-sensei became something of a reluctant TV
celebrity. I suspect I am not the only Japan Society member to have a few Toko Shinoda
lithographic prints in their homes, for her abstract, sumi ink calligraphic works are both eye-
catching and intriguing, and her output was prolific, right up to her death this past week, on
March 1 st , at the age of 107.

It was fitting that Shinoda-sensei’s passing achieved international recognition, for
tributes were published in both the New York Times and the Washington Post, for her work
is exhibited in big American museums and in the 1950s she was closely connected to the
American leaders of Abstract Expressionism such as Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. I had
the privilege of visiting Shinoda-sensei’s studio in Minami-Aoyama in 2016 to interview her
for my recent book, and I can attest that it looked very much like the photo in the
Washington Post obituary taken in 1966; I recall her showing me the huge inkstone which
she had bought from a shop in Kanda in the late 1940s and was still using, on a daily basis.

Friends at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Japan have reminded me that the
club has a Toko Shinoda screen that is now mounted on the wall of the lobby in their new
premises but which for many years stood in the dining room in the Yurakucho Denki
building, near a buffet table. A gift to the club from Hitachi, the screen eventually became
stained by spilled food and the shoe marks of passing staff, so much so that when Norman
Tolman, Shinoda-sensei’s main dealer, saw it one day he was apparently outraged. But he
wisely called Shinoda-sensei and invited her to the club with her brushes, with which she
deftly obscured the damage. Her grander works can be seen all over Tokyo, including an
extraordinarily massive calligraphic mural at Zojoji Temple and a smaller work produced for
the Yoyogi National Gymnasium at the time of the 1964 Olympics. When I interviewed
Governor Yuriko Koike for that same recent book I cheekily suggested it might be fitting to
commission Shinoda-sensei to produce another work for the 2020 Olympics, symbolising
continuity as well as Japan’s ageing society, but the idea did not appear to find favour.

A rather different sort of print restoration is the topic of a very interesting-looking
online event being staged by the Japanese embassy on 18 th March at 13.00pm: “Reviving
Yoshitoshi’s Moon: Restoration, Reprint and the Last Great Master of Ukiyo-e Woodblock
Printing”. The event will centre on the work of Yoshitoshi Tsukioka (1839-1892) and will
feature a discussion between Yukiko Takahashi, who is the 6 th -generation head of Takahashi                                          Kobo, a print workshop founded 160 years ago, and Alfred Haft, curator in the Department
of Asia at the British Museum. The event is open to all, and bookings can be made here.

Our own webinar on 4 March marked the forthcoming anniversary on 11 March of
the devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster that hit Tohoku, Fukushima and
really the whole of Japan ten years ago. David Warren spoke movingly of his experiences as
UK Ambassador when the triple disaster struck, and it was excellent to see several members
of his then staff on the Zoom call. Yoichi Funabashi has devoted much of his time in the past
decade first to directing an independent investigation into the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear
crisis, then to leading a number of enquiries in his think-tank, Rebuild Japan Initiative
Foundation (now renamed, with enlarged scope, as the Asia-Pacific Initiative) into Japan’s
future social, economic and political strategy, and most recently to chronicling the events
surrounding the crisis in his new book, Meltdown. His comments about the significance of
the tsunami and nuclear disaster for Japan’s alliance with the United States were especially
striking, as were his sense that while many necessary reforms had not been made during
the last 10 years the events of 3.11 had nevertheless brought about a lasting positive impact
on Japan’s security policy alongside the negative impact on nuclear energy. For those who
missed it, the video of the webinar can be found here.

Our next online lecture will be on 15 March, when Professor Peter Kornicki will talk
about Britain’s wartime Japanese language courses in both the UK and, more surprisingly,
Mauritius: How did Elizabeth Anderson learn Japanese in 1943? And then on 24 March Paul
Madden, who has just completed his four-year posting as our Ambassador in Tokyo, will
give his annual lecture to the Japan Society. We all look forward to toasting his return when
circumstances permit, but meanwhile do register for this always popular and informative
annual event, kindly hosted in normal times at Nomura Securities but this year on Zoom. As
usual, I will chair a discussion with Ambassador Madden following his lecture, when there
will be ample chance for the audience to ask questions.

Finally, having earlier mentioned Toko Shinoda and Yuriko Koike I should also
mention, for anyone particularly interested in the issue of gender in Japan, that on Friday 12
March at 9.00am GMT (18.00pm GST) I will be taking part in an online discussion for Tokyo
College, of the University of Tokyo, with Sawako Shirahase, who is a professor of sociology
and as an executive vice-president of the university is one of their most senior female
faculty members. Registration for the event, entitled “Japan Gender Update: Envisioning a
Far More Female Future for Japan”, can be made here.