Japan Society Chairman’s Blog – 6


Whenever I visit a city abroad, whether for work or for pleasure, I look out for smaller, less well-known museums and galleries to drop into. I think this habit began 40 years ago when I was doing some writing about Dutch politics and my boss said that when in The Hague I should be sure to leave enough time between appointments to drop in on the lovely little Mauritshuis gallery. So when in Tokyo I make sure I can call on the wonderful Nezu Museum in Aoyama, which although quite popular has the added bonus of an incredible garden too. One favourite discovery, though, was in Paris, where thanks to a long ago BBC documentary I learned of the existence way out in Boulogne-Billancourt of the Musée Albert Kahn. This French banker and philanthropist visited Japan in 1909 along with a photographer, an experience that began a long love affair both with Japan and with the idea of building a photographic “Archive of the Planet”, for which he sent photographers and film-makers all over the world. The museum, in his former home, hosts exhibits from this collection, of which some of the most interesting – at least to me – are from Japan, and in the extensive grounds there is also a Japanese garden which he had laid out during his lifetime.

You will now understand why I am looking forward to the Japan Society’s online talk on May 12th by Frederic Aranda in which this very modern photographer will be looking at Japan through his lens, just as Kahn’s photographers did more than a century ago. The photographer’s art tells us so much about his or her subjects but also about their own reactions and conceptions. Which reminds me to mention another favourite gallery of mine in Tokyo: if ever I am in Tokyo Midtown, I try to walk by Fujifilm Square on the ground floor across from the main entrance, for there is always a small exhibition of photographs, often historic. Their current exhibition, sadly suspended by covid-19, concerns Kenji Shimomura, described as Japan’s first wild bird photographer.

This week’s Zoominar on the repercussions of the pandemic took us flying to the heights of the United Nations agencies and the so far strangely small role that has been played in this crisis by international collaboration. One speaker, our long time member Mami Mizutori, now in Geneva as UN Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction, pointed out that one necessity when working for the UN was to be an optimist, since getting countries to collaborate is so often an uphill struggle. But both she and Lord Malloch-Brown, former UN deputy secretary-general, voiced a clear expectation that as countries had to deal with the increasingly complex and tricky socio-economic consequences of the crisis, so they would come to see the value of working together. Mark Malloch-Brown offered the view that while “austerity” had become the watch-word in the years following the 2008 financial crisis, on this occasion the word “resilience” was likely to predominate. Building resilience, whether as national, international or corporate strategy, had looked costly before the pandemic struck; now, as Mami Mizutori said, the failure to build resilience was looking the truly costly option.

Mark Malloch-Brown sagely commented that one misunderstanding in the early phase of this pandemic had been to think of epidemiology, the study of health and the spread of disease in a population, as if it were a hard science like physics or chemistry. In reality, while virology itself is a hard science, epidemiology is a social science. Rather as with economics, what matters is how humans behave and interact, as well as what the virus does. Next week, on May 14th, I am delighted that we will have two experts on both the hard science and the social science to talk about what we now know about covid-19, Peter Piot and Kiyoshi Kurokawa. I was interested to learn from the New York Times that research at the University of Ghent in Belgium, where Dr Piot began his medical studies, has found that antibodies from llamas have shown promise as a treatment for the new coronavirus. I will be sure to ask him about that, as about other research that is under way.

Regrettably, I must end this blog on a sombre note. I was very sad this week to learn of the death from covid-19 of Yukio Okamoto at the age of 74. Ambassador Okamoto had a long diplomatic career, following which he became a private consultant and special adviser to several Japanese prime ministers, including Ryutaro Hashimoto, Junichiro Koizumi and latterly Shinzo Abe. I often encountered him at conferences on international affairs, most recently last December in Tokyo with the Japan Institute for International Affairs. He was a man with a strong intellect and strong views, but always delivered in a very courteous and gentlemanly manner. He will be sorely missed.