Naomi Osaka’s success reflects well on mixed race people







“How do you say it was difficult?”

That was the English question Naomi Osaka asked when talking to a reporter from Japan about her victory in the final of the US Open tennis championship.

“Muzukashii” replied the reporter. “Yes, it was muzukashii,” replied Naomi.

Legendary victory

It was something of an understatement. To beat the legendary Serena Williams in straight sets at one of the most important sports events in the world was a huge achievement.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe praised Naomi for raising the spirits of a country plagued by severe weather events this summer, including typhoons and an earthquake.

Double heritage

The media is curious about her background.

Naomi Osaka was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and a father from Haiti. Some Japanese media reports said her mixed race identity made it hard for her to be accepted as a young child and that was one of the reasons the family moved to America when she was three years old.

She now holds dual Japanese and American citizenships.

The South China Morning Post says that people of mixed descent or from ethnic minorities “often face discrimination in Japan”. It suggests that people with Japanese and Caucasian parents have typically been welcomed but people of African or other Asian descent encounter prejudice.

Discrimination is hard to measure but perhaps sometimes it creeps into the language which people use to talk about race in Japan.

Not half but double

One of the words which sometimes irritates people who have international parents is the word hafu, which comes from the English word “half”. Some people feel is implies that mixed race people are not “whole”.

I remember a discussion about this on Japan Today in which a mixed race person took issue with the phrase “hafu”. He said: “I am not half: I am double – one scoop of vanilla, one scoop of green tea.”

Perhaps Naomi Osaka’s great tennis victory will help to counter any negative perceptions of people who have a mixed racial heritage.

Does Japan undervalue women?

This week, the Financial Times – which is usually very balanced in its coverage of Japan – ran a piece with a headline condemning “Japan’s culture of discrimination” against women.

Gender roles in Japan often provoke negative reporting in the international media.

For example, the Diplomat recently ran an article about Japan’s “embarrassing ranking” in the latest global gender gap index. Apparently, it  ranked 111th out of 144 countries, just behind Ethiopia and Nepal.


Actually – as is often the case on the website version of newspaper pieces – the headline in the FT suggested more drama than the actual article.

The piece was by the Tokyo Bureau Chief, Robin Harding and Kana Inagaki, a female correspondent who was brought up in the US. They explained that there has been slow progress in the number of high level managerial jobs obtained by women in Japan, despite a push by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to open up the boardrooms of large organisations to women.

This policy is known as Womenomics. Everyone in Japan is familiar with the term.

Although women may not be making the board very often, they are working more. The FT article also makes the point that a sharp increase in the rate of female employment has been an important factor in terms of the country’s recent strong economic growth.

Family or job?

That reminded me that until fairly recently, most women in Japan would have regarded it as crucially important that they were able to marry and have a family before considering what they might do as a job.

I was discussing this issue with friends the other day when a Japanese woman asked me whether I, as a foreigner, thought that Japanese women “look unhappy” about their work situation.

A glance around the table suggested no such thing.

We were having lunch with a family in which the mother has a full-time role caring for two young children and the father has a stimulating and well paid job at a university.

All four of them looked extremely happy and close.

Who’s happy?

My friend’s question left me wondering about the most helpful way to think about gender in a country like Japan. Is it appropriate to judge Japanese women harshly for being less “successful” than women in other countries?

I often hear women in Japan say that they have little wish to be burdened with the heavy obligations, long hours and boring meetings which go with senior roles in big companies.

That’s not to say that they don’t want to work hard or to be leaders: it’s more that the idea of being a “salaryman” of a different gender doesn’t sound particularly appealing.

Ask women if they’d like a well paid exciting job, though, and most of them say yes – provided they also have the freedom to pursue their own interests and, in many cases, have time for a rewarding family life.

Outside perspective

Women’s roles are going through profound change.

I think the best way for an outsider to understand the role of women – and men – is to try to gain a feel for the value system which guides Japanese society.

Otherwise, there’s a danger that foreigners will go seeking signs of discrimination – whereas in fact most women are asking themselves how they can best find happiness, in accord with their personal values and social expectations.


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.

North Korea still sees Japan as Enemy Number One

People in Japan, who are struggling through an intense heat wave, may take some relief from the fact that North Korea has not fired any missiles in their direction recently.

However, Japan is still being targeted by North Korea’s propaganda.

The Associated Press bureau in Pyongyang reports that state-run media is continuing with its “vitriolic” criticism of Japan.

Apparently it still blasts the Japanese for insisting that independent inspectors must verify the North’s claims of dismantling its missile launch sites and nuclear facilities.

The US-based monitoring group 38 North says that North Korea appears to have begun dismantling part of a rocket launch site in Sohae.

As usual, though, no outside inspectors have visited the location. Nor were any inspectors allowed to see another military site which was blown up before Mr Trump met the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in June.

Change of tone

The hostility shown towards Japan contrasts with North Korea’s new, softer tone towards the US and South Korea.

This week, I attended a meeting with the South Korean foreign minister Kang Kyung-wha claimed that the change of approach is very significant.

“We see this is a sign that the path is set for negotiations to proceed,” she told a briefing at the Chatham House think tank in London.

The minister also claimed that a “future partnership” between North and South Korea could turn the peninsula into “a bridge” between different regions of Asia, bringing many advantages.

She claimed that the “political context has changed” since the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore last month.

Minister Kyung-wha described the North Koreans as “very tough, smart negotiators” but emphasised that peace with the South presents a valuable economic opportunity for the North.

She said the South Korea and the United States have jointly agreed to suspend military exercises but stressed that the withdrawal of American forces from South Korea is not under discussion in negotiations with the North.

Common Goal

Asked about Japan, she said: “I am in frequent contact with Taro Kono, my Japanese counterpart. There are frequent trilateral meetings with the Chinese, too, up to the Prime Ministerial level and this frequent communication assures us that we move in the same direction.

“The message may be different but I think the ultimate commitment to our goal is one that we all very clearly share.”

And in another sign that the relationship between South Korea and Japan is in a good state, the South Korean government has donated 100 million yen to Japan in response to recent natural disasters.

The EU and Japan claim to “light up the darkness”



Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says that Japan and the European Union are “leading the world as the champions of free trade at a time when protectionism has spread.”
He was speaking in Tokyo after signing a sweeping free trade deal with the EU.

The BBC says companies from the EU, the world’s biggest free-trade zone, currently export more than $100bn in goods and services to Japan, the world’s third-biggest economy, every year.

Most of the media reports have contrasted the deal with the protectionist approach of President Donald Trump, who is pursuing an “America First” policy.

This approach is seen as stoking up a trade war with China and has also led to tariffs on imports from US allies, including Japan and the EU.

Tusk talking

There was particularly good analysis of the deal in the Guardian newspaper, written by its Brussels correspondent Daniel Boffey. It includes a long and revealing quote from the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk.

Mr Tusk said: “Politically, it’s a light in the increasing darkness of international politics. We are sending a clear message that you can count on us. We are predictable – both Japan and [the] EU – predictable and responsible and will come to the defence of a world order based on rules, freedom and transparency and common sense. And this political dimension is even more visible today, tomorrow, than two months ago and I am absolutely sure you know what I mean.”

“It’s a light in the increasing darkness of international politics” EU Council President Donald Tusk
He continued: “Let me say that today is a good day not only for all the Japanese and Europeans but for all reasonable people of this world who believe in mutual respect and cooperation …We are putting in place the largest bilateral trade deal ever. This is an act of enormous strategic importance for the rules-based international order, at a time when some are questioning this order.”

Asked how he would respond to concerns that free trade could threaten jobs, Tusk responded: “Political uncertainty, tariff wars, excessive rhetoric, unpredictability, irresponsibility; they are a real risks for our businesses, not trade agreements.”


The Japanese government is presenting the free trade deal with Europe as a successful outcome of Prime Minister Abe’s “Abenomics” policies.

They are designed to stimulate the economy by promoting Japanese businesses and brands internationally.

The Japanese Foreign Ministry says it expects “even higher growth and economic returns moving forward due to the Abenomics policy, promoting free, fair and open trade through agreements like the EPA and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP 11).”

That is a reference to the ambitious multilateral TPP trade deal initiated by Mr Abe. It previously had the backing of President Obama but President Trump withdraw America from the negotiations soon after taking office.

Mr Abe is now trying to revive the arrangement without the involvement of the United States but has left the door open for America to join, if it wishes to do so.

SoftBank has China and the US singing its tune






Billionaire Masayoshi Son has pulled off another clever deal involving Japan, China and the United States.

Mr Son, the founder and CEO of SoftBank, has announced that his company will buy $2 billion worth of stock in the internet portal Yahoo Japan.

Unlike in Europe and the US, where Yahoo has long been out of fashion, Yahoo Japan is still the main site through which Japanese people access the internet, including news and social media. Bloomberg says Yahoo Japan is a “cash cow” that reliably generates $2 billion of pre-tax earnings per year.

Grand ambition

Mr Son is an ambitious investor who has spent a vast fortune buying stakes in tech companies.

Reuters points out that this deal with Yahoo Japan is funded by money from the Chinese internet giant Alibaba, channelled through an investment fund which is listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

Mr Son is adept at keeping a foot in both the Chinese and American camps, despite the rivalry between the countries which recently led to an all-out trade war over tech.

Asian plan

So what will Mr Son do with Yahoo Japan? I expect he will try to integrate it into a network of businesses which are broadly based on “the internet of things”.

An important aspect of his investment strategy is to make the most of economic growth in Asia. So I wasn’t surprised to read on Bloomberg that SoftBank will try to use its investment in Yahoo to target vibrant markets such as India.

New competition

Over the past five years, SoftBank has completed $89 billion of deals. The Economist says this makes the SoftBank Vision Fund, which is managed out of London, the most important investor in the world.

The Financial Times recently published an article which said that the Chinese have been watching Softbank’s strategy and have set up a rival, modelled on its business. The FT says that a state-owned company called China Merchants Group has been enlisted to buy up technology, especially Chinese tech start-ups. The FT says the China New Era Technology Fund will be launched in direct competition with SoftBank’s $100bn Vision Fund.

But I wonder – is it really is a rival to SoftBank? Given Mr Son’s careful diplomacy with the Chinese government and his ties to the business establishment, isn’t it possible that he would quietly support a project that has many of the same goals as SoftBank?

Perhaps he would also be a good person to advise on how to prevent the trade war escalating and damaging the economic and business interests of America, China and Japan.