The British Museum’s Love Letter To Japan

When people from Japan and China come to London, nearly all of them try to pay a visit to the British Museum.

It is the leading tourist attraction in the UK, attracting nearly seven million visitors each year, many of them from East Asia.

The Asian visitors are able to see some remarkable collections of treasures from their own countries and from around the world. This autumn, the Mitsubishi Corporation Japanese Galleries will re-open at the museum, including some lovely objects which haven’t been displayed there before.

A refreshed gallery

The gallery’s curator, Tim Clark, says he is particularly proud to show some “sublime works of art of the highest quality” including a picture entitled Courtesan Reading a Letter, which was made in about 1806 by Kitagawa Utamoro.

It depicts a lady wearing sumptuous robes and hair ornaments, signs of her high status, while she stands reading a letter. The letter’s contents are illegible, leaving the viewer to guess at its contents and the identity of its author.

There are also some striking new modern pieces in the gallery, such as a new contemporary acquisition called Time Waterfall created in 2017 by Miyajima Tatsuo. Mr Clark explains that it shows “digitally generated, differently sized random numbers, which tumble endlessly down an LED panel, in a mesmerizing kinetic performance. ‘Keep Changing; Connect with Everything; Continue Forever’ – these are three basic principles of Miyajima’s art, reflecting his Buddhist worldview,” he says.

Art or craft?

There is often a debate in Japan about the distinction between art and craft.

Many everyday objects, such as ceramic pots or tobacco pouches, have been regarded as precious – sometimes even more so than the exquisite statues to be found in ancient temples.

I have a theory that the Japanese tend to treat material things with rather more respect than people often do in the West. If you look at the objects in museums from pre-modern Japan, even the most utilitarian of them are often characterised by high stands of workmanship and an elegant simplicity of design. These qualities are still upheld today as models for Japanese designers to follow and there is a connection between this aesthetic and the philosophy of minimalism, which runs through Zen Buddhism.

Historically speaking, Japan has had limited natural resources. This appears to have inspired its craftsmen to be especially creative and careful when working with rare materials – such as ivory, gold or even paper.

Of course, I have observed that in contemporary Japan, there is a tendency towards consumerism, which is rather wasteful – just as there is in most places.

But if you look around, you’ll see plenty of examples of the old values of craftsmanship – including in shops like Muji, which often pays respect to the traditional crafts of Japan.


The old tensions between China and Japan are being resolved





Looking through recent newspaper archives about Japan, I found this chilling headline: Is World War Three about to start by accident?

It was the title of a piece by an eminent historian called Max Hastings in the British tabloid newspaper, the Daily Mail.

“The tensions between Tokyo, Washington and Beijing have been increasing for years,” wrote Mr Hastings.

He warned that “many wars have been triggered by miscalculations” and said that there was “a profound fear in Washington, in Tokyo, and maybe also in Beijing, that one day something unspeakably ghastly could happen by mistake.”

I am pleased to say that since the piece was published in January 2014, the relationship between China and Japan has improved significantly, and although America is playing a new role in Asia, it is not stoking up a fear of war.

Human relations

In Osaka, Tokyo and Nara, Chinese tourists appreciate Japan’s famous hospitality, known as the generous spirit of omotenashi. Some Japanese shopkeepers greet their customers in Chinese. Chinese tourists pose for pictures wearing kimonos.

Japan and China have cultural connections which pre-date recent differences over ideology and territory.

Mr Hastings was right to observe in the Daily Mail that until recently there was a poor relationship on the diplomatic level. So in 2014, the idea that Japan, of all places, would sign up to support China’s international expansion would have seemed quite implausible.


Yet this September, a meeting will be held in Beijing at which senior representatives from China and Japan will decide how to cooperate on projects which are part of China’s One Belt One Road Initiative, such as a railway in Thailand.

China and Japan have different visions for the world. Projects associated with the Belt and Road initiative are based on the idea of Socialism with Chinese characteristics. Japan has another system. But I sense appreciation for projects which would benefit for Asia and the wider world.

Yasukuni visit

It was significant that neither Prime Minister, nor any other Japanese cabinet ministers, visited the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo this month to mark the anniversary of the end of the War.

The shrine commemorates people who died in battle but this includes soldiers who were convicted of war crimes in Asia. In the past, visits by Japanese politicians to Yasukuni shrine have provoked resentment in the Chinese media. Such unpleasantness has been avoided for a few years now.

Clause Nine reform

Also, there has been very little mention of Mr Abe’s plan to reform Clause Nine of the Japanese constitution. A change to that clause would open the way for Japan to significantly expand the role of its military – changing it from a Self Defence Force into an army with the capacity to fight internationally.

I don’t believe the goal has been abandoned. However, Japan, like China, knows when to soft pedal on sensitive matters. In particular, the Japanese would prefer to avoid any confrontations ahead of the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020.

Tensions over territory

There remains worry about the flashpoint the Daily Mail mentioned in 2014 – the Senkaku islands, claimed by China as the Diaoyu. Yet most people go about their lives without worrying too much about uninhabited rocks which are barely specks on the map.

A lasting settlement over that contentious issue would be a big step forward in improving Sino-Japanese relations and make the threat of an accidental war still more remote.

Japan’s enthusiastic mature people empower the world of work


How can companies in Japan make the most of their experienced, older workers?

Half of Japan’s population is aged over 50 and 27% of people are older than 65, the official retirement age.

That often leads to negative headlines in the international media about a “demographic time-bomb” – a phrase I dislike.

However thoughtful reporters – like the Financial Times’ Tokyo correspondent, Leo Lewis – take a more balanced view.

Opportunity knocks

I liked his excellent analysis in the FT on August 9th, which suggests that changes in demographics bring with them opportunity.

He draws on research by the Japanese Cabinet Office which suggests that most people would rather like to carry on working until at least the age of seventy – or longer if their health permits them to do so.

On my visits to Japan, I’ve seen many examples of older people contributing to the workforce in positive ways. I fondly remember meeting people who are in their sixties and seventies who work at the Yamaha musical instrument factory in Hamamatsu.

Many of them enjoy passing on their own knowledge – and also learning new skills. This is a good example of the kind of balanced working environment which is being encouraged by the Japanese government, employers and unions.

Pension pot

Currently, Japanese people can choose to start receiving the state pension anytime between 65 and 70, with bigger monthly payments on offer to those willing to delay.

Under Japan’s mandatory retirement system, people currently usually leave the payroll at 60, although this is set to rise to 65 in 2020.

Lessons for Britain

It’s interesting to compare the situation in Japan with that in the UK, which also has an ageing population.

In response to that challenge, the British government has decided to increase the state pension age to 68 and there is an ongoing debate as to what year that change should come into place.

But for people who want to work into their sixties, seventies and beyond, there are often frustrations.

Alistair McQueen the head of savings and retirement at the insurance firm Aviva says British companies have been poor at investing in training for workers over the age of 50 – even though they now make up one in three of the workforce.

He told the BBC he is also disappointed employers do not offer greater flexibility in the working hours of older people, especially those who have caring responsibilities.

Aviva, Co-op, Boots, Barclays and are among the businesses in the UK which have promised to increase the number of over-50s they employ.

“Our findings suggest that older employees have a lot to offer at work,” says Mr McQueen. In that many people in Japan will heartily agree with him.

Should foreigners trust the Japanese to tell us about Japan?







“Just because a Japanese person tells you something about Japan does not necessarily make it true.”

That’s the advice of a business blogger I greatly admire, Steven Bleistein.

His blog is always insightful and often amusing. He recently warned about taking advice from self-appointed experts.

“Being Japanese does not make a person an expert on business in Japan. Take advice from such people with a massive grain of salt,” wrote Steve.

Understanding leadership

Steve Bleistein from Relensa has the inside track on how Japanese organisations work because he advises many of their leaders. I’ve also been fortunate enough to meet many Japanese CEOs, including the bosses of big companies like Toyota, Nissan and Sony. (These leaders speak to the foreign press directly. They especially like TV and my background is in broadcasting.)

The problem comes, I think, when Japanese people make statements about their culture which are presented as “facts” that are “universally true.”

Although it’s possible to make generalisations, there are often many exceptions. So although it might be said that in general, Japanese businesses are led by people who are averse to risk, Steve Bleistein makes the good point that many successful businesses in Japan buck the system.

He cites the examples of Fast Retailing, the Japanese owner of Uniqlo and my favourite company, Softbank which has made a series of daring business deals worldwide under its remarkable CEO, Masayoshi Son.

So what makes a good leader?

This is Steven’s guidance to international companies looking to establish a subsidiary in Japan: “A superlative leader for the business is crucial for success. A Japanese guy with industry contacts is not enough.

The conventional wisdom is often to hire an older Japanese man with industry experience and connections to lead your business. I have never seen a successful case using this approach. Industry experience does not necessarily translate into business acumen and leadership capability.”

That idea challenges the approach that some traditional Japanese companies take towards leadership. Senior people are often elevated to the board due to their age, experience and loyalty.

According to this way of thinking, Japanese managers deserve promotions because they have been diligently learning about the business from the inside for many years. The hope is that this provides them with a long-term vision and a deep insight into the organisation’s strategic objectives.

When it comes to money, though, key decisions about expenditure are rarely thrown open to group discussion. They are made at the top and cannot be challenged by those who sit further lower down the managerial ladder. It is assumed that those who set the budget will have insight into the company’s whole financial situation. Expenditure is regarded as investment, so the watchword is prudence. Money is rarely splurged. A good Chief Financial Officer sees himself as a steward of his team’s resources.

Hierarchy and Trust

In this hierarchical culture, successful business relationships depend on personal trust. Several managers have told me that although it takes time to build this trust, once it is achieved, decisions, even those with significant financial consequences, can be taken quickly, without having to go through a lot of time-consuming consultations.

Steve Bleistein has prioritised building trusting relationships with the Japanese. He also refreshingly open-minded about how the Japanese think and he often challenges the idea that there’s a universal Japanese mindset.

I look forward to sharing ideas with him in Tokyo (and of course through LinkedIn) and I’m grateful for the time and care he takes over his thoughtful and engaging blog.

Has a muddle over mixed marriage marred the UK’s relationship with Asia?

The most popular news website in the UK, operated by the BBC, carried a rather strange story relating to Japan which became its most read article on one day this week.

The story was based on something the newly appointed British Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said about his wife Lucia during his first official visit to China.

According to the BBC, Mr Hunt was at a meeting with the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, when he said, in English: “My wife is Japanese – my wife is Chinese. Sorry, that’s a terrible mistake to make.”

“My wife is Japanese – my wife is Chinese. Sorry, that’s a terrible mistake to make” British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt

Impressive skill

In trying to explain the muddle, Mr Hunt said that he and Mr Yi spoke in Japanese during the state banquet.

As a learner of Japanese for many years, that information impressed me. I know that is not easy to keep up one’s language skills. It takes constant practice. Mr Hunt has a busy job in politics and is the father to two young children.

According to the profile he wrote for his parliamentary profile, he spent two years in Japan in the 1990s and his main purpose was to learn the language. “I struggled every day to master the writing system – you need to learn 3,000 characters to read a Japanese newspaper. It’s definitely a comparable challenge to getting elected,” he wrote in 2005.

To pass the highest level of the Japanese language certificate, candidates need to know around 2,000 kanji (Chinese characters). This is a very rare achievement among foreigners. I know some kanji but I quickly forget them, which is why I always say the hardest aspect of learning Japanese is memorising Chinese.

This is because much of the Japanese written language is based on an old form of Chinese – although there are profound differences between contemporary written Japanese and the writing system which the Chinese now use. Furthermore, the spoken languages have almost nothing in common – so it’s interesting to hear that Mr Li from China can speak Japanese, too.

Was it a bad mistake?

Returning to Mr Hunt’s remarks about his wife, the BBC’s story, written by Helier Cheung, asks why it was such a “bad mistake” to muddle Japan and China in this context.

Ms Cheung claims that China and Japan have “had a particularly bitter relationship for decades. They fought each other in two Sino-Japanese wars, and are also in a dispute over territory in the East China Sea.”

She goes on to claim that “among China’s older generation, there are plenty of people who are reluctant to buy Japanese products or go to Japan on holiday – because they accuse Japan of playing down its wartime atrocities.”

Outdated picture

This seems a rather outdated and negative interpretation of the situation. There are a record number of Chinese tourists in Japan at the moment and the political and diplomatic relationship between the countries is in the best state it has been for years.

The Chinese premier Li Keqiang met Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo earlier this year, and Mr Abe is expected to go to Beijing in the autumn. The Chinese president Xi Jinping may well go to Japan next year.

The Financial Times also covered Mr Hunt’s visit to China, focussing on the business and trade implications.

The FT’s Tom Mitchell did not write much about Mr Hunt’s wife but noted in his article that “painful memories of Japan’s occupation of China in the 1930s and 1940s are kept alive by government propaganda and nationalist activists.”

Although the Chinese state-media can be belligerent in its rhetoric towards Japan, the Japanese rarely stoke the resentment in return. For the sake of Britain’s international reputation in Asia, a Foreign Secretary who is friendly towards both China and Japan is the best person to represent the UK.