Japan Society Chairman’s Blog – 5


This week took my thoughts back five centuries but also just five months. Last November I participated in a conference about “Japan’s future and role in the world” at Ditchley Park, the very splendid country house in Oxfordshire famous, among other things, for having been used as a weekend retreat by Winston Churchill during the second world war. During a Friday afternoon pause in the conference, a party of us visited Broughton Castle, a part-medieval, part-Tudor house a few miles away. The family of our host and guide, Martin Fiennes, have lived there since 1554 (and in modern times are famed, too, for being noted actors, writers and explorers). But when told that our conference concerned Japan, Mr Fiennes brought out photos commemorating another historic fact: that during his time studying in Oxford in 1983-86, the now Emperor Naruhito had visited Broughton Castle several times, and on one occasion his parents, then the Crown Prince and Princess, had visited the castle with him for lunch with the Fiennes family. Had plans not been postponed by covid-19, one can only speculate whether the Emperor and Empress might have travelled to Oxford or even Broughton Castle next week, during what was to have been their state visit to the UK.

As you will see, Oxford, my alma mater, has been much in my mind this week, not least because of the exciting work being done at that university’s Jenner Institute on a potential vaccine for covid-19, which has already begun clinical trials. On April 30th I was thrilled – though must try hard to control my expectations – to hear Sir John Bell, a Canadian who directs that institute while also being Regius Professor of Medicine, tell Channel 4 News (5’35” onward) that preparations are proceeding so rapidly that if the trials go well, there could even be doses ready for a mass vaccination programme in September or October. This very optimistic prospect raised my spirits for “May morning”, a splendid annual ritual at my college, Magdalen, every May 1st for the past 500 or so years, in which the college choir climb to the top of the historic tower at 6.00am and sing verses in celebration of spring, to a crowd down below that back in the 1970s will have included yours truly, generally as the culmination of an all-night party. This year sadly the ritual had to be cancelled, but the choir produced a “virtual May morning” which is still rather lovely.

For our weekly Zoominar on the eve of that May morning we enjoyed the company of our former member, Tsutomu Ishiai of the Asahi Shimbun, amid Japan’s stay-at-home Golden Week, and John Peet of The Economist, discussing the political repercussions of the pandemic in both Japan and the UK. It is, as our speakers and several questioners noted, quite striking that while in Britain the government has enjoyed quite strong popular support despite a rather tragic mortality rate, Prime Minister Abe’s government has encountered a more critical or perhaps sceptical response amid lower rates of contagion and mortality than the UK. Nevertheless both governments enjoy rather strong parliamentary positions, which led our speakers respectively to expect Prime Minister Abe to endure in office past the hoped for Tokyo Olympics and even to have the option of calling a snap Lower House election before then, and for Prime Minister Johnson to be able to resist calls that he request an extension to the UK’s Brexit transition period to allow more time for negotiation.

That Brexit prospect, of renewed brinksmanship and tense negotiations with the EU, offered a less than happy addendum to the economic crisis already caused by the pandemic. It made our speakers doubtful about whether trade negotiations between the UK and Japan, or indeed any other major economy, could advance very much this year. But, as John Peet said, we must also remember that although the deadline to request an extension is specified in the Withdrawal Agreement as June 30th, in practice if negotiations are deadlocked there can be the option, by mutual consent, to “stop the clocks” at a later stage. This, he pondered with a somewhat weary sigh, may even be what the British government is counting upon. 

Yet I’ll finish with a more inspiring topic, more fitting to the historic themes with which I began. I was pleased to read in The Japan Times, also on May morning, that in coming days NHK will from May 2nd to 4th be broadcasting a shortened English version of its year-long Taiga drama, “Idaten”, which concerns the history of Japanese sport, or rather of sporting aspiration and excitement, from the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games up until Tokyo 1964. As a temporary substitute for the Games we were expecting to open on July 24th, this sounds an admirable idea, one that will only add to the hope that a vaccine from Oxford or elsewhere will be available well in advance of the new, July 2021, opening ceremony.