Japan Society Chairman’s Blog – 8


Vladimir Lenin, the former exile in London whom your chairman has at times been accused
of resembling,
 was a fine provider of useful quotations. One of the most often cited is his
statement that “There are decades when nothing happens, and there are weeks where
decades happen.” The difficulty during this covid-19 pandemic, however, has been to decide
which of those phrases is most applicable. I don’t know about you, but for me there are
times when it feels as if the clocks have stopped working. And there are other moments
when it feels as if trends we have been talking about for years have suddenly been
accelerated, in just the manner of which Lenin was thinking. China’s rising role in the world
and America’s decline is one of those seemingly accelerated forces. Another is the changing
nature of work, towards remote working, management-by-video-conference and all the
rest. But are these trends really accelerating? Or might we just be being induced, partly by
the sense of clocks stopping, into jumping to hasty conclusions?

That, really, was the sub-text of this week’s webinar on China, which featured
Professor Kerry Brown from King’s College London and Professor Akio Takahara of the
University of Tokyo. Perhaps as is befitting their roles as leading scholars of China, both
speakers resisted drawing hasty conclusions about China’s rise or asking, like the former
Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani, Has China Won?; Their feeling, rather, was that
all the superpowers had made both gains and losses during the so-far short period of this
pandemic, and that China anyway shows little current interest in exerting global leadership
or hegemony beyond opportunism and occasional necessity. The binary view of dealing with
China that is common in London and Washington, that the country must either be
confronted or embraced was rejected by both. China is a reality that needs to be faced up
to, both for good and for ill, and any policy towards it has to encompass both.

For me, this webinar particularly confirmed the value in having experts in both the
UK and Japan discussing an issue such as this, for it reveals the differences in perspective as
well as the similarities. One British attendee wrote to me afterwards with an in-part tongue-
in-cheek summary that nevertheless captured the reality of what Professors Brown and
Takahara taught us: as he wrote, they drove “toward a conclusion that…the Japanese
understand the Chinese and know the stakes are so high that their room for manoeuvre is
limited; we have just discovered China in a broad sense, and are groping unerringly toward
the wrong policy outcomes.”

Next week’s webinar will concern itself with the second of those perhaps accelerated
trends, namely the changing nature of work. This time, I will discuss the issue with just one
speaker, Lynda Gratton of London Business School, but as her books on work and on “the
100-year-life” have been bestsellers in Japan and led to her joining Prime Minister Abe’s
advisory commission, in this case I think she can speak for all of us. I am pretty sure she will
not so much speculate as to where things might lead as advocate how British and Japanese
companies alike can turn the pandemic into an opportunity for a rethink of working
practices which in many cases was long overdue.

One working practice that never seems to change is the tendency of organisations to
respond to criticism in the media by shooting the messenger. This week, this sadly was the
case when the Japan National Olympic Committee lashed out at the tiny-circulation
magazine of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, The Number 1 Shimbun,                                                threatening costly legal action because it had used on its latest cover a graphic that blended
the Tokyo Olympics logo with the covid-19 virus. But what is wrong with associating the
Olympics postponement with covid-19 in this way? As an editor myself I learned many years
ago that logos and images can be tricky territory, for whenever anyone published either a
“smiley” face (this was the pre-emoji era) or anything resembling Mickey Mouse they would
get a threatening letter from Disney’s lawyers. But even so, creative combinations of
graphics are an essential tool of the trade and convey a story simply and clearly. For the
Olympic Committee to bully the FCCJ in this way is outrageous and nonsensical, not to say
somewhat Leninist. And rather sad, really.