What will make Japan quit smoking?

For a health-conscious and hygienic society, Japan has a shocking number of people who smoke.

According to an annual survey conducted by Japan Tobacco and published on Nippon.com, the percentage of male and female smokers in 2017 was, respectively, 28.2% and 9.0%.

The report also showed that people aged over thirty are more likely to smoke than younger people.

I quit

I gave up smoking in my forties. I wish other people would join me in quitting and enjoy, like me, a revival in their health and a precious sense of freedom.

I am also aware that most Japanese women don’t wish their partners to smoke, so surely it stresses them when their boyfriends or husbands come home stinking of nicotine?

However before I quit, I was rather fond of Japan’s permissive attitude and cheap cigarettes. They remain cheap – a packet of twenty costs around 500 yen (£3.73 GBP $4.61 USD) – about a third of the price in Britain.

Vulnerable to Covid-19

In the UK, the government’s chief medical adviser, Prof Chris Whitty, has said now would be a “very good moment” for people to quit smoking because it leads to “an additional vulnerability” in terms of coronavirus.

The BBC claims that experts in China, where the virus originated, “found that less fit people with medical conditions were five times more likely to have a worse outcome from Covid-19; and smokers three times more likely to have this result.” The theory is that people whose lungs have been damaged by smoking are more likely to succumb to pneumonia.

With these warnings in mind, I was pleased to hear that Japan is bringing in new anti-smoking laws this week. They are pretty limited in scope, though. Although you can’t now light up in restaurant chains, like Starbucks and McDonalds, the laws are only going to be enforced in Tokyo and not in the rest of the country.

Even in Tokyo, many small establishments are exempt, which means groups of men can still head off to izakayas and bars after work and smoke until closing time.

Villainous business

My view is that Japan Tobacco is the villain here. It is a staggeringly rich company: its website shows it made a profit of more than 500 billion JPY last year. This gives it great sway over the government, which still owns 33 percent of the business. Its products provide substantial tax revenue.

Reuters observes that it took two years for the partial smoking ban to come into effect, highlighting the hurdles facing anti-smoking activists in dealing with Japan Tobacco.

“This year’s law is still not sufficient,” politician and anti-smoking campaigner Shigefumi Matsuzawa told Reuters. “We had to set many compromises in order for it to pass, so there are several loopholes.”

Threat to life

The partial ban was part of Tokyo’s preparations for the now-delayed 2020 Olympics, and it seems to have been designed to appease foreign visitors, rather than address a national problem. Yet activists say second-hand smoke kills around 15,000 people a year, many of them women and children.

The new laws on smoking take effect as Japan is battling a coronavirus outbreak that has so far infected more than 2,000 people and killed 59.

Clearly, I support the measures taken to help prevent the further spread of the virus. But in terms of a danger to life, statistics suggest that smoking will kill many more people in Japan this year than the effects of Covid-19.

Big juicy watermelons are my dream for summer

 

For the past few days, my mind has been fixated on watermelons. You can buy watermelons all over the world, of course. But I want to eat them in Japan, as it seems to me that they are particularly delicious there.

They can also be very expensive. And to my surprise, a lot of people say they like to eat them with salt. Even more surprisingly, some watermelons in Japan are not round but square. Would you like to know why? Well the internet has plausible theories on all these issues.

Luxury prices

When it comes to price, it’s not only fruit in Japan which can seem expensive. Many vegetables, as well as special types of meat and fish, are pricey. On The Travel website, Lacy Womack notes that visitors to Japan “might experience some serious sticker shock when they visit the produce department” in shops.

Lacey says that’s because some consumers are very demanding and also because farmers like their fruit to look perfect. There are only limited supplies of the most premium products and of course fruit doesn’t last for long, hence the high prices.

I can imagine dollar signs appearing in the eyes of foreign farmers when they hear that in Japan, a few peaches can go for up to ¥3,000 ($300) and a big bunch of grapes can be sold for up to ¥5,000 ($500). But I think that’s only for fruit which is grown in Japan: imports don’t have the same appeal. And those inflated prices are only charged in a few high end shops, not in your average supermarket or konbini convenience store.

Salty sweet

But why eat watermelons with salt? Martin Schneider, a frequent traveller to Japan, told Quora: “Adding a bit of salt to any sweet dish will cause additional taste buds (the ones for ‘salty’) to fire when that food is in your mouth. If the dose is right, you won’t taste much of the actual salt – instead the taste signal level will make the sweet signal even more intense for your brain.”

Martin points out that watermelons are a seasonal food in Japan, almost always consumed on hot summer days. Therefore, if you’ve been sweating, your body will crave salt, and that will make eating a watermelon extra satisfying.

Other Quora users say that watermelon and salt is also a popular combination in Vietnam. And Amit Kaushik suggests “try it the Indian way for an even better taste: sprinkle some black salt and chat masala on your melon.”

Out of the box
It’s also possible to find watermelons in Japan which are shaped like cubes or hearts and pictures of these are popular on Instagram. Wikipedia reveals that cube watermelons were intended to fit more compactly into fridges and were invented by a graphic designer called Tomoyuki Ono in 1978.

How do they get their shape? Well, apparently the melons are grown in boxes and take the shape of the container. But to my dismay, Wikipedia says they taste horrible. “To retain the proper shape, cube melons must be harvested before they are ripe, rendering them inedible.” What a shame!

It is of course easy to take the flesh out of an ordinary round melon and cut it into attractive shapes such as hearts or cubes. I think I’ll do that next time I get one in Japan but I’m not planning to douse the fruit in salt.

Sadly, watermelon season seems a long way off at the moment. I am locked down in Europe, with no immediate opportunity to fly back to Japan. For now, I’ll have to manage my cravings. I’m dreaming of a real feast when the crisis is over, if not this summer, then hopefully the next.

The mighty drums beating on the world’s loudest island

I am determined to make a trip to Japan’s Sado island, home to one of the loudest groups in the world.

Sado, off the coast of Niigata Prefecture, is the base camp of the Kodo drummers. To my ears, the volume of the noise they make is at least as loud as a performance by a rock band, yet it’s achieved without amplification.

As a person with a passion for both Japan and for loud music, Sado sounds like the perfect destination for me.

Thrilling show

This week, I watched the drummers’ show at London’s Royal Festival Hall. I was thrilled by its energy but I was also impressed by the players’ discipline, which meant that every beat formed part of an intricate and highly melodic musical pattern.

They can also sing and play traditional instruments such as the bamboo flute, so this gives their gigs interesting textures.

Discipline is instilled during the drummers’ life upon the island.

A Financial Times journalist, Raphael Abraham, visited them there in 2016 and revealed that: “Six mornings a week in rain or shine, trainees get up at dawn to jog up and down hilly rural roads, followed by a ritual cleaning on hands and knees of the building in which they board, a converted schoolhouse with no central heating.”

He also explained that: “They grow much of their own food, carve their chopsticks and drumsticks, and are schooled in tea ceremonies. No computers or phones are permitted, and so their only contact with families and friends off the island is via handwritten letters.”

Devoted learners

 

 

 

 

 

 

For me, the most impressive part of the Kodo legacy show came at the climax, when a performer dressed in a white loin cloth beat out a rhythm on a drum known as O-daiko.

This mighty instrument weighs about 300 kilos and measures 145cm in diameter. It requires great power and an expert technique to make it resonate.

You can get an impression of what life is like on the road for the drummers by reading the blog of Shun Takuma, on the Kodo website. He writes: “As a foreigner abroad, I am relishing all the fresh experiences. Observing people, walking in the different cities and trying the local food. Yet at the same time there are moments of homesickness for Japan.”

Shun says audience responses vary from country to country. “In some places, the emotions are freely expressed. Elsewhere there is more reserve, rather like myself.”

Sado audition

When I go to Sado, I could ask to join the group. I have taken a few lessons in playing the taiko drums and I’m pleased that the group’s website states that Kodo welcomes apprentices from abroad.

It also warns that “advanced Japanese skills are a must to undertake the training.”

I expect that means a very disciplined approach to language learning is required, as well as a great commitment to understand the philosophy of this unique form of Japanese art.

Does Japan need a Greta to lead a climate campaign?

 

Politicians in Britain sometimes complain they are constantly bombarded by campaigners over issues relating to climate change and the environment.

Huge protests by a group known as Extinction Rebellion brought parts of London to a standstill last year. There was also a big climate change rally in the British city of Bristol this week, which included a speech by the teenage activist, Greta Thunberg.

According to the Guardian “As Thunberg spoke, onlookers clambered on to bus shelters and up trees and hung out of windows to catch a glimpse.”

Criticising governments and the media, she said: “Once again they sweep their mess under the rug for us – young people, their children – to clean up for them. We must continue and we have to be patient. Remember that the changes required will not happen overnight.”

Future Tokyo

Greta has her fans in Japan, too.

An organisation called Fridays for Future Tokyo, or FFF Tokyo, was created in 2018, soon after the campaigner started appearing in the global media.

When FFF Tokyo first hosted a protest in March, no more than 100 people showed up. However, the Japan Times reports that since then, there’s been a steady increase in attendance at climate protests across the country.

The paper carried an interview with a 22-year-old climate activist called Eri Okada who said: “In Japan, public demonstrations are seen as radical or dangerous, which might explain why people distance themselves from protests and marches.”

Less intense

I learned this week of an interesting conversation between a British and Japanese minister, which took place in Tokyo recently. It seems to illustrate the fairly mild approach towards environmental campaigning in Japan, compared to the UK.

“Don’t you get a lot of young people lobbying you to do more to protect the planet and prevent global warming?” the British minister asked his Japanese counterpart.

“Yes,” replied the Japanese minister. “We really must do more to awaken the young people to the importance of such issues and encourage them to be more involved.”

The British politician was taken aback by that reply and wondered if his question had become muddled in translation.

Natural disasters

Yet of course, the Japanese are not ignoring the issue of climate change. It is a subject on the mind of people of all ages, particularly in the wake of recent natural disasters linked to extreme weather, including a tornado last year which killed around 80 people.

The position of Minister of the Environment is currently held by a glamorous and popular politician called Shinjirō Koizumi.

He is the son of the former Prime Minister Junichirō Koizumi and has often been tipped to become the next leader of the ruling Liberal Democrat Party, once Shinzo Abe leaves that role.

I assumed Mr Koizumi was trusted to take on this important role because Mr Abe sees him as one of his most adept ministers.

However, a diplomat I spoke to this week had a different interpretation.

“It could be that Mr Koizumi’s been put in such a difficult job because it will scupper his political career and prevent him from making a challenge for the leadership,” said my source.

I hope that will not be the case. Japan, like other countries – including Britain – requires skilled and determined people to take the lead on environmental issues – right up to the highest level of government.

Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk

Kimono Exhibition, 25th February 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was lucky to attend the preview of a major new exhibition celebrating the elegant history of the kimono which opened at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum this week.

The exhibition called Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk, features more than 350 creations, including works by modern designers, such Alexander McQueen, John Gallianio and Rei Kawakubo.

“We want our visitors to gain an appreciation of the significance and the sheer beauty of the kimono and we want to show that fashion is able to transcend geographic borders,” says Anna Jackson, the exhibition’s curator and the keeper of the V&A’s Asia Department.

Timeless treasures

The exhibition includes many treasures, such as an 18th century summer kimono, which is yuzen-dyed and embroidered with golden-hued cherry blossoms. It is valued at around two million yen (about £14,000 or $18,000 USD) and it is too delicate to wear.

Despite being seen as uniquely Japanese, the kimono has had an influence on international clothing styles for nearly 400 years.

The Director of the V&A, Dr Tristram Hunt, believes its allure stems from a simple structure and the invitation to create intricate designs on its surface.

“When we talk about kimonos, we often think of a beautiful and remote garment, a long way from ordinary people. This exhibition challenges that perception and it reveals that the kimono is highly dynamic. It’s been the focus of a vibrant fashion culture which has existed in Japan since the 1660s,” says Dr Hunt.

Rare finds

The first part of the exhibition examines the history of the kimono, with many precious examples from Kyoto and Edo, the city which later became known as Tokyo. Some of the clothes come from the museum’s own archive – the V&A has been collecting Japanese art and design since it was founded in the early 1850s. There are also pieces which have been borrowed from all over the world, including the Tokyo National Museum and the Kyoto Costume Institute.

People have been wearing kimonos in Japan for more than a thousand years. However, it was not until the 17th century that nearly everybody, regardless of their social status, wealth or gender, began to use them on an everyday basis.

By that stage, there were a huge range of styles, patterns and materials. Each type carried much significance, according to curator Anna Jackson. “The surface was really important and of course the choice of pattern and the colour. That’s how you showed other people how wealthy you were, what your social status was and, most importantly of all, how fashionable and tasteful you were.”

Overwhelming demand

Some of the most fascinating exhibits date from the period between 1639 and 1853, when Japan’s borders were largely closed to the rest of the world and it was known as sakoku 鎖国 “the closed country.” Despite this isolation, some entriped Dutch traders purchased kimonos in Japan and shipped them back to Europe, where they tried to sell them on at a vast profit. Anna Jackson says: “At that time, Japanese manufacturers couldn’t keep up with demand, so kimonos were made in India to supply the European market.”

When Japan reopened its borders, western dress quickly became popular. Yet even during the early 20th century, the majority of Japanese women continued to wear kimonos. The cut of the garment remained unchanged, but the designs were often modernised. One charming painting in the V&A shows a kimono-clad woman as the epitome of modern sophistication, with a clutch bag under her arm and a fox fur draped over her shoulders. Although painted in 1935, she looks strikingly contemporary. One can easily imagine her sharing a selfie on social media.

Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk is held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London from 29th February – 21st June 2020. It is sponsored by MUFG
with additional support from Japan Centre, Japan Foundation, the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation and Toshiba International Foundation.

Good points about Sweden which Japan should learn to love

 

 

 

 

When I was flying back from Stockholm this week, I noticed a book on sale at Arlanda airport called Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works And What We Can Learn From It.

I didn’t buy it but I would like to read it. After all, on the surface Sweden seems wonderful – although it’s rather cold.

The parts of Stockholm I visited were clean, with lots of public art and smooth transportation. I was particularly impressed by the university. The service in the shops and restaurants was great. And a guided tour of the City Hall emphasised how much Swedes cherish democracy.

During my trip I learned that Sweden has the first feminist government in the world. The government’s website explains that this means: “Women and men must have the same power to shape society and their own lives. This is a human right and a matter of democracy and justice.”

I wonder if anyone has ever considered writing a book about Japan called Almost Kanpeki (Perfect). As a society, Japan works well. Like Sweden, it has good public transport, great customer service and sophisticated education. It’s a democracy and gender equality is enshrined in Clause 24 of the Japanese constitution.

Yet I doubt any publisher would welcome a book which only sings Japan’s praises and overlooks all its problems. After all, the media have been reporting that the country is on the way towards another severe recession.

“The future of the Japanese economy is gloomy and efforts to deal with the low birthrate and rapidly aging society haven’t worked,” says Akira Nagae, a 62-year-old former magazine editor and author from Hokkaido.

I used to like bookstores

I was struck by the title of Mr Nagae’s new book: “I used to like bookstores: Behind the scenes of the flood of hate books.” It was published last November by Tarojiro Editas.

In an interview, Mr Nagae explained that the “hate books” he sees flooding the Japanese stores are normally focussed on two other countries: China and South Korea. He thinks some writers are deflecting their own anxiety about Japan’s problems and turning into unfounded criticism of those nations.

“In 2019, the relationship between Japan and South Korea was the worst it has ever been,” Mr Nagae told Nikkan Gendai. “Around this time, I couldn’t help but notice the proliferation of so-called hate books. Set up in corners of the bookstores, stacks of such books using discriminatory words about South Korea were displayed to catch the notice of many customers.

“In my book, I try to clarify the backdrop of why bookstores in Japan are circulating hate books and what occurred to cause this to happen.”

Learn from the Swedes

I believe the Japanese can learn something from the people of Sweden. I can see from the Twitter feed of the author of the Almost Perfekt book, David Crouch, that he doesn’t regard Sweden as paradise. He acknowledges that it has economic and social problems, some of which are very similar to those in Japan.

But in highlighting the good points about Sweden, he tries to suggest ways other societies could implement ideas which work well. I doubt that his book praising Sweden will lead any reader to start hating its neighbours, such as Denmark, Norway and Finland. After all, why should praise for one country lead us to dwell on the shortcomings of its rivals?

Swedes, Danes, Norwegians and Finns have been enemies in the past. But they now co-operate in facing many modern challenges.

Japan and its East Asian neighbours are also deeply interlinked. For that reason, I support Mr Nagae’s campaign to get the hateful books taken off the shelves.

And if we can all manage to be a bit more positive, I am sure that our Swedish friends would give us an encouraging smile.

Olympics under pressure as Japan prepares for recession

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 was declared a global health emergency, the International Olympic Committee has been faced with the arduous task to decide if the Tokyo Olympic Games should go ahead this July.
The principle concern is that during a huge sports gathering, the virus could spread further.

China is planning to send more than 600 athletes to the Olympics, along with a large contingent of supporters.

In response to heated speculation in the press and on social media, the head of the coordinating commission of the International Olympic Committee, John Coats, denied that the games are in jeopardy. He told reporters in Tokyo: “The advice we have received from the World Health Organisation is that there is no case for a contingency plan to move or cancel the Games.”

Economic cost

Unlikely as a cancellation would be, it would not be without precedent. The Olympics have been cancelled five times in the past, including during two world wars.

There was also debate about the viability of the Rio Olympics four years ago because of a mysterious virus called Zika, which was blamed for causing birth defects.

At the press briefing in Tokyo, John Coats promised that lessons would be learned from Rio. “The World Health Organisation pointed out the likelihood of Zika being a problem at the time of the Games was very low,” he said.

“But we did lose some athletes and we didn’t communicate the information well enough.”

Rory Green, the China and North Asia Economist at TS Lombard said that if the Olympic Games were to be cancelled, this would have a very serious impact on the Japanese economy.

“There has been an expectation that the Games will spark an increase in domestic demand in Japan. There’s been a lot of government investment already in infrastructure and also investment by the private sector, for example in increasing room capacity in hotels,” said Mr Green.

“The Olympic Games are also a branding campaign for Japan Inc and an attempt to restore the national image of the country, as well as to give a shot in the arm to the whole economy,” he added.

Threat of recession

The problems facing Japan’s economy were clear in data released this week which suggested that the country is heading for another recession.

The economy shrank at an annualised rate of 6.3 percent in the final quarter of 2019. This figure was described in the Financial Times as “very weak, dismal and shockingly bad” by the chief economist of UBS, Masamichi Adachi.

In an interview with FujiSankei Business, the governor of the Bank of Japan Haruhiko Kuroda, said that coronavirus was “the biggest source of uncertainty for Japan’s economy” but insisted there was little chance of growth in 2020 falling far below 2019.

Mr Kuroda also said that the central bank would launch further monetary easing “without hesitation” should it prove necessary.

However, with overnight interest rates already at minus 0.1 percent, the options open to the Bank of Japan are limited. What seems to be required is an approach which is consistent with other parts of Asia, including South Korea and China.

Rory Green predicts a more or less simultaneous response. “Because the virus is spreading throughout the region, we expect all the Asian countries to take similar initiatives at around the same time,” he told me.
Japan is used to desperate struggles against recession.

Yet this is far from the optimistic messages sent by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at election time.
He promised a miraculous recovery. Unfortunately, the economy appears to be suffering from a chronic condition, with no immediate prospect of a cure.

Parasite and Shoplifters – Brilliant shocking stories from Asia

In winning an Oscar, the makers of the South Korean film Parasite have drawn attention to some serious social problems facing their country.

Parasite’s story focuses on inequality between rich and poor families. It shows the dreadful living conditions which are endured by some people in Seoul.

This dark tale is reminiscent of Japanese films which I have seen, which also used family stories to examine social issues. Sometimes, after watching one of those movies, I have left the cinema feeling uneasy but I was pleased to gain a fresh perspective on Japan.

Critics’ choice

For example, Shoplifters, directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda (above) took an unflinching look at child poverty and social exclusion. Like Parasite, it’s a deeply moving film and it had a fantastic cast – especially the child actors.

Critics have developed a taste for intense dramas from Asia and Shoplifters won the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

I expect more movies of this type will be commissioned both in South Korea and Japan. However in China, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to raise funding for films which expose the dark side of life.

Samsung’s riches

South Koreans often complain about inequality.

It’s therefore fitting that a film from that country exposes the gap between privileged people and those on the margins of society.

For example, the Chairman of Samsung Group, Lee Kun-hee, is due to receive 470 billion won – US $400 million – in share dividends for last year.

That’s despite the fact that Samsung’s profits were down sharply because of a slump in computer chip sales.

Sometimes, politicians in South Korea attempt to challenge the vested interests of chaebol conglomerates, such as Samsung. But it’s not easy to change a system which is so ingrained into the economy.

Stereotypes

Inevitably, there are stereotypes in the press about South Korea, just as there about Japan.

The journalist David Fickling recently set out to challenge some of them.

In a piece for Bloomberg Opinion, he analysed numbers from the World Bank and concluded that “South Korea is east Asia’s most egalitarian society.”

Those who have seen Parasite will be surprised by that claim. But Fickling argues his case well, based on extensive research.

Common challenges

Aside from inequality, South Korea, Japan and China share other challenges.

They all have ageing populations. Their cities are straining because of urbanisation. And they have had disasters linked to extreme weather and climate change.

They also, unfortunately, now all face a common threat from the coronavirus.

Films such as Parasite and Shoplifters have been rightly lauded for the skill of their casts and directors. They deserve attention and prizes.

For international viewers, they bring to the screen the struggles of life on the margins in East Asia. We are fortunate these stories are being told.

“Lands apart, shared sky” – Japan’s response to coronavirus

One of the leading experts on infectious diseases told me this week that he is encouraged that there has so far been no major spread of the coronavirus outside of China.

Professor David Heymann explained that it’s inappropriate to describe the situation as a pandemic, even though the disease has been recorded in about 25  countries and has led to deaths in two places outside of China.

High alert

Japan is on high alert.

According to the Japan Times, twenty cases of pneumonia caused by the new coronavirus have been reported, four of which occurred in Tokyo.

Dr Heymann, who’s a distinguished fellow of the global health programme at Chatham House in London, told reporters that “outside of China, it seems as though there has been great success in controlling the disease.”

I was somewhat reassured by his words, which were in contrast to the alarming stories which have been appearing in the media.

Alarm in the press

Beijing’s Foreign Affairs Ministry spokeswoman has complained about a global panic and has accused reporters of spreading fear.

At Chatham House, Dr Heymann said that some journalists are basing their stories about the dangers of coronavirus on speculation.

“We don’t have enough information to know if it’s a pandemic and I don’t like to make predictions,” he said.

Experimental measures

He also said actions such as banning people from flying, preventing them from leaving cities such as Wuhan, or trying to control crowds are “experimental measures.”

This is significant for Japan, where the authorities are trying to quarantine thousands of people on board a cruise ship called the Diamond Princess, which is docked in Yokohama.

Japanese TV has shown footage of medical officials on board the boat, checking the guests’ temperatures.

Lands apart, shared sky

Many Japanese are sympathetic to the problems facing people from China and their concern is appreciated.

Quartz reports that users of social media in China have widely shared a post showing boxes of face masks donated by Japan for people in Wuhan.

The picture apparently includes a message written in Chinese: 山川异域 风月同天 (shan chuan yi yu, feng yue tong tian), which roughly translates as “lands apart, shared sky.”

Limited protection

Unfortunately, from a medical perspective, the masks are of limited value.

Dr Heymann told the meeting at Chatham House that although masks are useful in preventing someone from spreading the virus when they sneeze or cough, they don’t prevent a person from catching a disease.

He warned that people will be at risk from infection if they take off the mask to eat, or if it’s not fitted properly, or if it gets wet.

He also said that a vaccine for the coronavirus remains a long way off and “there will probably not be a vaccine in time for this outbreak.”

What I learned by watching Davos from afar

One of my dreams is to be paid to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

It’s the best place to network with famous leaders and the guests there this year included President Donald Trump and Greta Thunberg.

When I worked at the BBC, I was always jealous of colleagues who were assigned as journalists to Davos. Now I am a freelance reporter, it’s out of my price range as conference registration, travel and a hotel room are all incredibly expensive.

Fortunately, I can get a taste of what’s being debated through the media.

Climate change and its economic impact was the most discussed topic at Davos 2020.

Jiji Press reported that the Bank of Japan Governor, Haruhiko Kuroda, said Japan’s economy probably fell into negative growth in October-December 2019, partly due to damage from a series of powerful typhoons which struck the country.

World of work

Another point of discussion was the impact of technology on work.

Jonas Prising, the chairman of the huge international personnel company Manpower, told the conference that “we are currently in a very good period for labour markets globally.”

He claimed that rather than reducing job opportunities, technology is creating jobs. “Automation and technology is having a very positive impact in terms of overall job growth,” said Mr Prising.

Yet he also noted that there are some people who are frustrated because they don’t have the right set of skills to take advantage of globalisation.

Immigration opportunities

Japan has a low unemployment rate – only 2.2 percent in November 2019 – so there is much talk about bringing in more foreigners to fill some of the vacancies.

Mr Prising said: “Demographic rates and birth rates are dropping all over the world, so many countries need immigration. It is important to ensure the health of the labour market and to enable economic growth,” he said.

My friend Yuuichiro Nakajima from Crimson Phoenix was invited onto the BBC to talk about Japan’s tight labour market this week.

He explained that managers are having to make some tough decisions, such as cutting the opening hours for restaurants, petrol stations and convenience stores.

Mr Nakajima said that that the government is trying to encourage immigrants to come to work in Japan, so it is issuing more visas, especially to skilled foriegn workers.

The role of women

He also explained that many more women are now part of the workforce than previously.

“I think there is a bit of a conundrum there, because the more women, especially the younger ones, you encourage to enter, or remain, in the labour market, the less likely they are to produce offspring, or to put off having children to a later age,” said Mr Nakajima.

He went on: “Unless the government encourages women to be productive in terms of producing more children as well as be productive in the labour market, then I think we are going to continue to be in a bind.”