China smiles while Japan shows its dark side

China and Japan staged major cultural events in London this week and their approaches could hardly have been more different.

The Chinese New Year celebration in Trafalgar Square was an enormous, colourful show, designed for a wide appeal and maximum impact on television.

The Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme presented the dark side of Japan to a select audience of connoisseurs. Its title was intriguing: “People Still Call It Love” Passion, Affection and Destruction in Japanese Cinema.

I enjoyed both events. They emphasised important aspects of the way these two Asian countries see themselves.

Party in the square

China’s New Year party, staged under the famous statue of Lord Nelson, must have cost millions of pounds.

It carried a simple message: make friends with China and the benefits of international trade will flow your way.

I watched singers from the Peking Opera, some well known pop stars and troupes of dancers and drummers.

Belt and Road

Signs beside the stage drew the audience’s attention to the Belt and Road Initiative – China’s ambitious plan to restore the ancient silk trade routes taking goods from East to West. The project stretches all the way to London.

In fact, I moderated a conference about the Belt and Road the University of London last week, where many people expressed concerns about the implications of the project.

But the Chinese party in Trafalgar Square was not about political debate: it was a celebration, designed to show China in the best possible light.

Dark world

It takes less than five minutes to walk from Trafalgar Square to London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, where the Japan film festival took place. It was a completely different world.

I saw eight films over the course of the ten days and was fascinated by all the stories and characters.

The festival was brilliantly curated by Junko Takekawa, Senior Arts Programme Officer at the Japan Foundation. It provided an opportunity to see dramatic representations of many aspects of contemporary Japanese society.

Fighting and screaming

It was particularly interesting to see stories about working class people and rural communities.

The overall tone was dark. Here were the Japanese committing crimes, having affairs, fighting and screaming.

One striking film about sibling rivalry was called Thicker Than Water and showed the tensions between two brothers and two sisters.

After the screening, I asked the director Keisuke Yoshida if Japanese audiences take a visceral pleasure in watching characters express fury and passion on screen, given the taboo on such behaviour in real life.

He replied that the Japanese are patient and tolerant people – but only up to a point. He said that when their self-control is exhausted, they explode.


Was it brave of the Japanese to show this explosive aspect of their character?

Is China ready to get a bit more emotionally intimate with foreign audiences, too?

Perhaps other events will give me a deeper insight into China’s complex society and its people’s emotions.

I also hope I can get close enough to Chinese people to learn how they behave towards each other when they are not putting on a smiling face for foreigners.

Marie Kondo and the stereotypes of Japanese women

“You may be cute on the outside, but inside you really mean business.”

That was the response of an American man who invited the Japanese tidying expert Marie Kondo into his home.

Kevin Friend and his wife Rachel became the stars of a reality TV show made by Netflix about Marie Kondo, which provided an opportunity to notice some cultural gaps between the US and Japan.

But when the process of tidying was complete, Kevin was delighted. “Marie changed my life. It’s just insane how my mentality has changed. There’s a sense of relaxation in just doing all the things that we need to do. There is more time with the kids, especially when I come home from work.

“We’re really happy we’re just looking forward to living this way for the rest of our lives, hopefully.”

Fame and success

Looking at the show, I was struck by the persona Marie Kondo used on camera: cute, yes, but also empathetic and helpful. She didn’t resemble what a Californian American might think of as a business leader. But in fact, she’s now the most famous and successful Japanese woman in the world.

One great media source for business news about Japan is Bloomberg BusinessWeek magazine.

It asserts that Kondo is a bigger celebrity in the US than in Japan. “In the US, the Marie Kondo method has become a how-to for self realisation,” says Satoko Suzuki from Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo. “It is not about cleaning. Cleaning up is about how to help yourself, how to understand yourself and how to develop yourself. Whereas in Japan, it’s really more about tidying up, the process.”

Franchise queen

Bloomberg also explains that apart from her books and television series, Marie Kondo makes money from schooling others. Anyone aspiring to become a tidying consultant must first read her books and then submit photographs of their own homes which have been made immaculate according to her method. Those who want to teach the method further, must also must pay for training which can cost up to $2,700 and an annual fee of $500 to maintain certification.

The magazine implies this is expensive but I am not convinced. Is it a high price to pay to be involved with such a high profile international franchise?

Goodbye CDs

I must admit that I have a bit of a challenge in tidying my possessions, particularly my old CDs.

I love rock music and have assembled a big collection CDs over the years but I don’t play them much now and they are rather cluttering my home.

I recognise that it is time for me to take action but without Marie Kondo standing over me, I am finding my heart is not really in it.

Still, watching her on TV reminds me that I probably need to be more sophisticated in the way I view Japanese women, especially those in leadership roles.

As Kevin Friend observed on Netflix , they may be cute but their inner core is often marked by determination, focus and remarkable patience to ensure a task is completed properly.

What difference would it make if the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meets the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-Un?

Mr Abe said this week he would like such a meeting but he didn’t set any date for it.

Al Jazeera says that the comments come as Mr Kim prepares for a second summit with US President Donald Trump, which is likely to be held towards the end of next month.

Of course, the aim of the talks is to try to make North Korea give up its nuclear weapons programme but the BBC reported that there appears to have been little progress in that area, despite the Trump Kim summit held in Singapore last year .

It quoted a US intelligence report which says that North Korea plans to hold on to at least some of its nuclear weapons, despite the hopes of the Trump administration.

The report explains that North Korea remains “unlikely to give up” its weapon stockpiles and production abilities while it tries to negotiate “partial denuclearization steps to obtain key US and international concessions”.

Having nuclear weapons is seen as “critical to regime survival”, it reads.
Another complex issue for Japan is its relationship with South Korea.

The countries have shared a bitter history since Japan’s 1910-45 colonisation of the Korean peninsula and its use of forced labourers and abuse of ‘comfort women’ – girls and women forced into sex slavery at military brothels – during the second world war.

The conservatives in Japan feel this issue should be laid to rest but the South Korean government often brings it up at international meetings.

In fact, the South Korean foreign minister even used a speech at Davos to call for another international conference on the matter, which further hinders the prospect of reaching a more normal relationship with Japan.

It also stands in the way of the two countries reaching a solid alliance on the best approach to North Korea.

The puzzle of prayer in secular, modern Japan

I am curious about Japanese people’s attitude towards spiritual matters, such as worship and prayer.

Is prayer simply a superstition? Does it aim to persuade the gods to intervene and do magic on earth? Or does it have a deeper purpose?

This week, a charming story appeared on the web about a 70-year-old Japanese woman named Yumiko Campbell, who lived in Australia for many years before returning to Osaka.

Divine reward

According to the Media Project website, Yumiko believes that if she tidies litter from the river near her home in Japan, the gods will reward her – especially if she finds significant objects such as children’s toys.

“We have a super strange religion,” Yumiko told the reporter Meagan Clark.

“We have a super strange religion” Yumiko Campbell

It is true that Japanese religious practice can appear strange to those from Christian societies, especially the United States.

But actually, the rituals would not look particularly strange to people from many Asian countries, where respect for the environment and one’s ancestors are central to religious thinking.

Yumiko leaves a cup of steaming green tea at her mother’s shrine every morning, then rings a bell. She was six years old when her mother died.

Spark Joy

The piece also suggests links between Japanese religion and the best-selling author, Marie Kondo. Her book Spark Joy is about how to achieve serenity through decluttering household junk. It has sold more than five million copies and has been turned into a Netflix series.

The article describes a scene from the series in which Marie Kondo enters the home of an American family, ready to help them tidy up.

“Eyes closed, Kondo leans forward onto her palms, facing backward, then folds her hands in her lap. The guys smile politely in amusement and curiosity. Kondo speaks to them through a translator she brings, who echoes Kondo’s soft, hopeful voice.

“I’d love for you to picture your vision for your home,” she says.

“Communicate that to your home.”

Shinto faith

The article suggests a link to Shintoism – an ancient form of religion in which humans seek to live in harmony with the divine spirits which inhabit everything, even inanimate objects such as volcanoes, rivers and buildings.

“Shintoism, for me, is not particularly a religion in my life, but it is a natural habit in our daily life,” Kondo told a reddit user in 2015. “Shintoism, for Japanese people, is not the same religious feeling as a lot of American people might feel, but is pretty much blended into our daily lifestyle or habits.”

Prayer for 2019

One of the national newspapers in Japan, the Sankei, provided a reminder of this in an article it published on New Year’s Day.

A celebrated calligrapher named Shoko Kanazawa has chosen the symbol for prayer – known in Japanese as inori – as the appropriate character for 2019.

The article explains says: “Prayer is very important for Shoko. She prays every time she begins a new piece of calligraphy. Her mother Yasuko – who has been raising Shoko by herself ever since Shoko’s father passed away when Shoko was just 14 years old – prays constantly, from the time she wakes up until the end of the day.”

I feel moved by those words. To ask questions about theology seems to miss the point. The challenge is to consider what place we give to prayer in our own lives and how that affects our thoughts, behaviour and relationships.

Japan braces for Brexit disruption

Japanese people are skilled at collaborating and the prime minister and business leaders are working together closely to face a serious problem in the UK at the moment: the Brexit.

Japanese companies which have invested in Britain – including Hitachi, Honda, Toyota and Nissan – expected to use the UK as a gateway to Europe’s single market.

They are therefore distraught by Britain’s plan to leave the EU and are especially concerned about the prospect of a so-called “no deal Brexit” which could cause massive disruption to their international operations.

Abe’s visit

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe lobbied on behalf of Japanese companies when he met his British counterpart Theresa May in London. He said he was was “in total support of the draft withdrawal agreement” which Mrs May reached with the EU and which was put to a vote in Parliament on January 15th.

It was rejected by a huge majority of MPs.

That leaves everyone – including Japanese businesses – wondering what happens next. If no agreement is in place by the time Brexit happens on March 29, then there will be severe restrictions on the movement of goods between the UK and EU.

Mr Abe said: “We truly hope that a no-deal Brexit will be avoided. And in fact, that is the whole wish of the whole world.”

Honda’s shutdown

The Japanese carmaker Honda has announced it will halt production in the UK for six days in April due to Brexit.

The company said in a statement: “Honda has been assessing how best to prepare for any disruption caused by logistics and border issues following the UK leaving the EU. To ensure Honda is well paced to adjust to all possible outcomes, we are planing six non-production days in April 2019.”

Hitachi’s nuclear problem

Meanwhile, the Nikkei Asian Review reports that Hitachi is about to suspend plans to for a new power station in North Wales.

Hitachi has strived to win foreign contracts since the Fukushima disaster, which has led to a suspension of new reactors within Japan.

According to the BBC, it has spent two billion pounds to develop the Welsh site but the investment will now have to be written off as a loss.

Hitachi is worried about the price the British government will pay for the electricity generated by the plant upon its completion.

Nick Butler from King’s College, London told the BBC: “Hitachi are exhausted that they can’t get a decision from the UK government and this is one of the secondary consequences of Brexit. The government is entirely tied up with one issue and unable to cope with others.”

Free trade hope

The nuclear power project is by no means Hitachi’s only investment in the UK. It is also involved in many other businesses related to transport and science.

Prime Minister Theresa May told Hitachi’s chairman Hiroaki Nakanishi last year that Britain would seek a free trade agreement with Japan following Brexit, although the time scale is unclear.

Handcuffed business hero protests his innocence from the dock

There’s been massive media coverage around the world this week of the court appearance by the former Nissan chairman Carlos Ghosn in Tokyo.

More than 1,100 people – some of them Nissan shareholders – queued for 14 seats in the public gallery.

Places for reporters were assigned by a lottery and no filming or photographs were allowed in court. However, artists were allowed to draw pictures of the accused and they provided the press with sketches of Mr Ghosn looking gaunt and stressed.

Detention without trial

Those images were beamed around the world, with a reminder that Mr Ghosn has been held in detention for fifty days without trial. He was led into the court in handcuffs and with a restraint around his waist.

Mr Ghosn was arrested out of the blue in November and accused of not disclosing his full compensation and of using company money for personal gain.

The court appearance itself was short – only ten minutes – during which he read from a prepared statement protesting his innocence.

He challenged allegations made by his former colleague, Nissan CEO Hiroto Saikawa, who has suggested that his former boss had “remained in charge too long and had come to treat Nissan as his personal fiefdom and was driven increasing by greed,” according to the Financial Times.

In response, Mr Ghosn said that he had dedicated two decades of his life to reviving Nissan and building its alliance with Renault. “I worked towards these goals day and night on earth and in the air, standing shoulder to shoulder with hard-working Nissan employees around the globe to create value,” he said.

Defence tactics

The BBC turned to an old friend, Seijiro Takeshita of Shizuoka University for analysis. He said: “Mr Ghosn wanted his voice heard. His tactic is to say that the top management of Nissan were aware of all his actions, so if Nissan knew about this, the focus will be on Nissan’s approach to corporate governance, rather than just Mr Ghosn personally,” said Professor Takeshita.

The FT’s Tokyo correspondent Leo Lewis discussed the case with Jesper Koll of Wisdom Tree Japan, a robust critic of Japanese business and government, who loves the media limelight. Mr Koll suggests that the arrest of Mr Ghosn is a national embarrassment which shows corporate reform in Japan has been an illusion.

According to that way of thinking, writes Leo Lewis, “Whether Mr Ghosn has been felled by a corporate coup or some other design, he has fallen victim to an insiders’ club he could never hope to join. These are the rules of Japan Inc – love them or leave them.”

Back to prison

Mr Ghosn has now returned to his cell. The next step is for the court to decide whether to release him. However, prosecutors could arrest him for a fourth time if they have fresh allegations against him – meaning he’ll be locked up for even longer.

The media’s appetite for information about the case is far from satisfied and the story’s likely to stay in the headlines for many months to come.


Whale hunters ride another wave of criticism

I have been writing about Japan for many years but I always try to avoid the subject of whales.

Whaling generates a great deal of emotion and leads to criticism of Japan in the media, with the strong implication that other countries treat animals much better than the Japanese.

I can remember taking a few phone calls on this topic when I was working at the BBC’s office in Tokyo. When asked by colleagues in London to write about whales, I am afraid that I made an excuse that I was “busy on other topics”.

I am not a person who spends much time thinking about animal welfare or hunting. Perhaps I should.

Headline news

The international press keeps the issue high on the agenda.

Last week, Japan withdrew from the International Whaling Commission and said it would restart commercial hunting.

This issue became the lead story for the BBC on both its domestic and international outlets. “It means Japan will be able to freely hunt species currently protected by the IWC, like minke whales. Conservation groups warn the move will have serious consequences,” said the BBC website.

Shock reaction

The Times newspaper picked up on the issue in an editorial on December 27th. It said: “Japan’s decision further undermines the principle of a rules- based system of international conservation. In a free for all of hunting, it is entirely feasible that, like the great auk in the 19th century, the whale could eventually vanish. No one knows the wide effect that would have on the ecosystems. The disaster must be prevented.”

The New York Times struck a similar tone: “There is no commercial, cultural or scientific justification for killing these magnificent creatures. Japan: Stop Slaughtering Whales!”

So, it is abundantly clear that Japan’s position on whaling brings a torrent of bad publicity with some unpleasant diplomatic implications.

And yet very few people actually eat whales. According to Japan’s Asahi newspaper, whale meat makes up only 0.1% of all meat sold in Japan.

Why do it?

The Financial Times reporter Robin Harding explained that most whale meat ends up in government stockpiles. But he says “the issue is totemic for nationalists and crucial to certain fishing villages represented by members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.”

I gained further insight into the rationale behind whaling by watching a documentary on Netflix which aims to present the issue from a Japanese perspective.

The film is called Behind The Cove: The Quiet Japanese Speak Out!

It claims that the traditional approach to whaling ensures the preservation of species and brings great social benefits to some coastal communities.

The film also shows the “quiet Japanese” loudly shouting at foreign eco-warriors from a group called Sea Shepherd, which stages protests against whaling in the fishing villages, without understanding much about Japanese culture.

The film also raises a question which was absent from this week’s media reports on whales.

Why do people in other countries – including Australia, the EU and the US – make such a distinction between the precious lives of whales and the lives other animals, such as cows, sheep and pigs – or even fish?

My new year’s resolution is to keep an open mind on this topic as I am sure whales are going to hit the headlines again soon.

Are driverless trains the future of transport?

How would you feel if you caught a train in Japan and it had no driver?

Train travel is one of my favourite activities and I’m a particular fan of the transportation systems in Osaka and Tokyo.

So I was intrigued to learn that human-operated trains may be on the way out. Tests for a new driverless trains are scheduled to begin soon on one of Japan’s busiest and most important urban routes – Tokyo’s Yamanote Line.

Ghost trains

The scheme’s still at a test stage, according to Japan Kyo. It says that next week, after the ordinary trains stop running, the automatic driverless train will start operating on the track in the early hours of the morning.

“The Automatic Train Operation (ATO) system will be implemented into the Yamanote Line E235 trains. When engaged the system controls every aspect of the train’s movement, including its acceleration, cruising speed, and brakes,” says the piece.

Railway Gazette adds the significant fact that the Yamanote Line in Tokyo does not share tracks with other services, and this makes the trial appear viable. It says there’s also a plan to test driverless trains on the Tohoku shinkansen, or bullet train, which runs from Tokyo to Eastern Japan.

Several websites suggest that one of the goals of the railway company JR is to combat future shortages of personnel that will inevitably arise due to Japan’s ageing and shrinking population.

No complaints

There’s no sign of anger or resentment among the JR staff about the tests of automatic trains. They are certainly not going to provoke a strike by drivers or train crews.

That’s a big contrast to the situation in the UK, where plans to reduce the number of staff on trains have led to a series of strikes which have been going on since 2016, according to the BBC.

I am annoyed because the RMT union has arranged a strike over Christmas on the route I use to visit my family for the holiday.

The railway company South West Trains says that: “By announcing further strike dates, the RMT has shown it has no intention of finding a solution and is only interested in inflicting more misery on passengers as they try to enjoy the festive season.”

The union says that removing guards from trains threatens the safety of passengers although personally, I have never felt unsafe on a train with doors which are operated by the driver, rather than a guard.

Strikes are extinct

I’ve never been affected by a strike at any stage during the many years I’ve been going to Japan. I learn from the Japan Times that the strike has virtually become extinct.
University teacher Hifumi Okunuki writes that students in his class have never seen or heard of strikes.

In the article he explains: “I teach labour law to teenagers and 20-somethings at university but the most challenging lectures focus on strikes. The questions I field: “What is a strike?”, “Why would anyone do something like that?” and “What is the point?””

I suppose of course that the teacher could explain the political theory behind strikes, in that they empower workers to influence managers to make decisions in favour of the staff.

However, personally I don’t feel very positive about the liberating power of strikes at the moment, so I’ll leave it to Professor Okunuki to explain their value to people who’ve never had their life disrupted by one.

What’s your view? Have you experienced a strike in Japan? Do you think the workers should be more assertive and threaten to withdraw their labour if conditions are bad? Share your thoughts below.


Angry Asian Girls target nude photo exhibition

Women have thrown down a challenge to one of Japan’s most famous and successful artists – the photographer, Nobuyoshi Araki.

Araki’s work is well known around the world: he’s staged major exhibitions at the Barbican in London, the Guimet Museum in Paris and his work is currently on display at a gallery called CO in Berlin.

As usual, alongside pictures of flowers and Tokyo streetlife, the exhibition includes images of naked women, including some who are restrained by ropes, in S&M style poses.

Angry Asian Girls

A group who call themselves the Angry Asian Girls Association staged a protest in Berlin this week. They held up signs reading “Are you sure your knowledge is correct?” and on Facebook alleged that Araki “has gained fame and reputation by exploiting female models.”

They say: “Women do not exist to be the mere tools to build the reputation of male artists. We demand changes in the art industry’s structure, which only wants to limit women to be the muse to inspire male artists. We demand changes. Be angry with us, and let’s take an action together.”

Kaori’s claims

The website Frieze Art explains that Araki was accused by his long-time model Kaori in April of several instances of exploitation and mistreatment during their working relationship. The website says that Kaori did not accuse the photographer of sexual assault but did allege emotional bullying, saying that “he treated me like an object.”

This is a point which the Angry Asian Girls Association highlight in their Facebook post, linking the allegations of exploitation to the Me Two movement through which women have highlighted occasions when females have been exploited or abused by men, including many powerful public figures.

Erotic tradition

The Japanese also have a long tradition of erotic art – some with a tendency towards extremism – and this might affect they way they regard Araki’s pictures.

I have visited his exhibitions several times and have often wondered what impact they have on non-Japanese audiences. Do they reinforce stereotypes in which Asian women are seen as the compliant playthings of men?

The Korean link

It’s hard to get much information about the Angry Asian Girls Association although I note that their webpost appears in English, German and Korean – but not in Japanese.

And that reminds me of a conversation I had with some South Korean professors earlier this year, who explained to me that the resentment in their country against Japan is based on the exploitation of women.

In particular, it’s widely felt that Japanese soldiers who invaded Korea about eighty years ago forced local women into sex.

The professors explained that the rise of the Me Too movement and a heightened awareness of feminist issues has encouraged Korean women to try to shame the Japanese into apologising.

Within Japan, there are mixed feelings on that issue but I think many people would sympathise with the stated aim of the Angry Asian Girls who say that they “dream of a world where the dignity of every individual is respected.”

Japan pleads with Britain to avoid a “no deal” Brexit

Japan’s prime minister and representatives from its biggest companies have been unusually vocal on the topic of British politics this week.

They are worried that a so called “no deal” Brexit could severely disrupt the business of Japanese companies based in the UK, especially car manufacturers.

More than one thousand Japanese companies operate in Britain and provide more than 140,000 jobs. Japan is the second largest investor in the UK, after the United States.

Abe meets May

When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met his British counterpart Theresa May at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires at the weekend, he pressed her to avoid no deal, as well as to ensure transparency, predictability and legal stability in the Brexit process.

Mrs May assured him that her plan was a good deal for business, including Japanese companies, who she said would be able trade well with the European Union.

Political problems

ITV’s political editor Robert Peston wrote about the meeting in his blog. He said: “When the Japanese PM publicly calls on May for “support to avoid no deal” – as he did in Argentina – because of the damage trade friction at the border would do to important Japanese companies with big factories in the UK, it is very hard for the PM to plausibly argue that she would simply let chaotic events drive the UK to the cliff edge of an un-negotiated withdrawal from the EU.”

However, when Mrs May came back to London she was reminded of the enormous political difficulties in implementing her plan. The government was defeated in several votes in the House of Commons on Tuesday and it is unlikely that MPs will back the prime minister’s proposals next week.

Toyota’s view

The car maker Toyota usually avoids politics but it sent its representative

Tony Walker to the House of Commons this week. He told a business committee that a no deal would be “very, very challenging” and would have a big impact on Toyota’s factory at Burnaston in Derbyshire.

Toyota exports the majority of the cars it makes there to mainland Europe. It relies on parts imported into Britain through the Channel Tunnel from France.

However, Mr Walker said Toyota is a “pragmatic” company and he was careful not to say that the British factory would close as a result of Brexit.

Soon after the result of the referendum was announced in 2016, the Financial Times predicted a 75% chance that Toyota and Honda would cease manufacturing in the UK if the Brexit leads the EU to impose an import levy on cars manufactured in Britain.


The Times newspaper also reported that Nissan, which employs 7,000 people in the North East of England, is under pressure from its partner Renault to move some operations to France. That was before the arrest of the Nissan chairman Carlos Ghosn in Tokyo last month. He still hasn’t been charged with any crime.

Takeda’s deal

Despite all the worries about Brexit, Japanese companies are still active in the UK and Ireland. This week, Takeda Pharmaceutical won shareholder approval for a £46bn ($59bn) takeover of UK-listed drugmaker Shire.

If it goes through this will be Japan’s largest ever corporate acquisition and the takeover is part of Takeda’s strategy to become a global pharmaceutical company.