Japan Society Chairman’s Blog – 9


There can be no doubt that the pandemic and associated lockdown has at times been a test
for our imaginations, although the idea of taking a nearly 60-mile drive to test your eyesight
did rather take the imaginative biscuit this week. Moving swiftly on from that dismal tale –
although I can’t resist commenting that one thing currently uniting the UK and Japan is that
both our governments’ approval ratings have recently plummeted – I rather enjoyed an
article in the Financial Times on Wednesday by David Pilling, their former Tokyo Bureau
Chief and a past speaker to the Japan Society. In a travel series entitled “Wish I Were
There”, in which writers say where, in their imaginations, they would most like to visit
during the lockdown, David wrote of Tokyo’s Shitamachi, and in particular a restaurant in
Ningyocho called Homitei, which since 1933 has been serving western meals in a very
Japanese style. I too could imagine eating there, but his article – which if the paywall
thwarts you will I imagine be in Saturday’s Weekend FT print edition – also appealed
because he cited one of my favourite books on Tokyo, the late great Edward Seidensticker’s
"“Low City, High City” ; (1983) and its sequel on the post-earthquake city, “Tokyo Rising”

One imaginative pleasure I do intend to explore and exploit, though confess I still haven’t got around to starting, is the wonderful season offered by the British Film Institute’s BFI Player of Japan 2020: Over 100 Years of Japanese Cinema. They began with a collection of Akira Kurosawa’s movies, inevitably, but have also provided a list of what they think is the best Japanese film in every year since 1925, which certainly stretches well beyond my limited knowledge. While I’m on Kurosawa, however, I’ll mention that another past Japan Society speaker, Peter Tasker, published a fine study of him last year, called Kurosawa: A Tribute to the Master Director.

The theme of this week’s webinar was communication rather than imagination, but Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice at London Business School, rather refreshingly answered my question about how much of our current remote working practices would endure after the pandemic by saying “we simply don’t yet know”. What this expert on the changing nature of work and on the implications of “the 100-year life” went on to say is, essentially, that it is up to us and to each and every organisation to answer this question ourselves, in our own ways. Some form of “blended working” will suit many, in which part of the time may be spent working remotely and part in the office, but how procedures, management methods, training and all the rest will need to change to facilitate and exploit this will need both leadership and collaborative consultation to work out. The abrupt change caused by the pandemic and the sudden and largely successful proof of our technological capabilities have created an opportunity for many organisations to reset and rethink how they do things. But there is no set formula for how this can and should be done. The new book by Lynda Gratton and her LBS colleague Andrew Scott, launched on the very day of our webinar, “The New Long Life: A Framework for Flourishing in a Changing World” was naturally written before the pandemic, but that will only have accelerated and accentuated many of the changes the authors were examining.

Next week’s webinar will also be looking at changes that may be accelerated and accentuated by the pandemic, namely to energy and climate change. The slogan “Build Back Better” keeps on being bandied about, but while I feel confident that with interest rates low and economies depressed governments around the world will feel compelled to “build back”, whether the word “better” will actually apply remains to be seen. And in any case the pandemic has brought turmoil to the energy market itself, with oil prices falling even to giveaway levels at one point in the United States. So I’m delighted to be welcoming two very expert speakers on this topic: Jun Arima, formerly of METI and known to many of us from his time running JETRO London, now a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Public Policy; and Nick Butler, a professor at King’s College London who spent a long and successful career at BP, and who writes frequently about energy for the FT.