Image of the Torii shrine
In praise of Japanese culture. Torii shrine. Photo ©

Pixabay, adapted from the original.

March 2018

As the forthcoming Rugby World Cup and 2020 Olympics/Paralympics in Japan get closer, Matt Burney, British Council Country Director in Tokyo, explores the steps the country is taking to build its international cultural connections and the opportunities for the UK from closer cooperation with Japan.

Natural partners

Japan is the third biggest economy in the world, and one of the world’s leading diplomatic, cultural and soft power players. The UK and Japan are big mutual investors and natural partners with shared values and challenges. Both are islands off the coast of larger continental states, currently looking to redefine their role on the global stage. Japanese companies invest more than £40Bn in the UK and employ 160,000 people here. The UK government rightly sees Japan as a major trading partner. That is why we need more cultural exchange in order to maintain, and build on, the level of trust that exists today. The more Japan recognises our friendship and the value our cultural and educational assets and language, the more Japanese investment there is likely to be in the UK. 

The UK government rightly sees Japan as a major trading partner. That is why we need more cultural exchange in order to maintain, and build on, the level of trust that exists today

Fortunately, according to the British Council’s latest research on the views of young people in the G20, the UK is one of the three most attractive countries in the world for Japanese young people, and joint second for arts & culture. After the EU referendum there was also a significant increase in the number of young Japanese people considering the UK as an attractive country with which to do business / trade. 

Japan is currently doing a great deal to enhance its own international standing. One of the major soft power initiatives that Japan has invested billions in is the JET (Japanese Exchange and Teaching) Programme to give international graduates experience of teaching in Japan. Recent research suggests that the Programme has been a hugely effective means of increasing Japan’s soft power. As a result of Japan’s significant investment in the programme, it has created a cadre of thousands of people who have essentially become fans of Japan. The importance of the people-to-people contact that programmes such as JET facilitate cannot be overstated. 

Japan is also investing a huge amount of resource into the establishment of soft power institutions such as its Japan Houses. These are new cultural centres showcasing the best of Japanese culture. Encouragingly, it has chosen London as the host of one of its three Houses – the others being in LA and Sao Paolo. Japan House, London will further strengthen the cultural links between the two countries. It’s a great initiative for communicating things about Japan that people might not know. That said, it is the people-to-people programmes such as JET that will create most long-term impact for joint cooperation, growth, and security. 

Like the UK, Japan recognises that, as a relatively small island nation, there are challenges in encouraging young people to experience different cultures. It recognises, too, that its future prosperity and global competitiveness rests on its developing a diverse workforce able to understand difference and communicate across borders. To this end, it is also putting resources into encouraging more young Japanese people to spend time overseas – including in the UK - through its Tobitate Programme for international study opportunities for Japanese school and university students. Japan sees educational cooperation as a means to developing a society equipped to deal with 21st century challenges. This in turn presents the UK with real opportunities. That is why there has been an agreement with members of RENKEI - a consortium of twelve UK and Japanese universities - to develop more joint research on ageing, dementia, health and other areas of common concern. 

Learning from each other

A Season of UK Culture in Japan was recently announced, to be led by the British Council. This will coincide with the start of the Rugby World Cup in 2019 and run through to the end of the Olympics and Paralympics in 2020. It will showcase the UK through some major artistic tours in Japan, another important focus will be developing a strategic dialogue with Japan about inclusion and wellbeing, technology and innovation - and art and city development. These are all areas where Japan tells us it wants to work with us. And they are all areas in which the British arts and education sectors have obvious strengths. 

The UK will also work closely with Olympics and Paralympics partners in Japan to share our experience from London 2012. The Japanese are keen to ensure that the Olympics/Paralympics isn’t seen merely as an ‘event’, but acts a catalyst for societal change. They see it as an opportunity to ask the question ‘What kind of society do we want to create for the future?’ They saw us asking ourselves that question in 2012 in relation to disability. Japan is keen to create a society that enables everyone - disabled or non-disabled - to participate using their talents. There is a long way to go (in both countries) but the Season and the Olympics/Paralympics present us with great opportunities to share ideas and effect real change.

It would also be good to see more young British people coming to Japan to study and more educational and cultural exchange in general between the UK and Japan. These relationships will encourage the ties we enjoy in commerce, politics, and security to prosper

The UK and Japan are already close partners in trade, security, culture and education. And, whilst we have many similarities in terms of the rule of law, democracy, and human rights, there are obviously differences – weaknesses and strengths. The UK can for example learn from how Japan deals with a rapidly ageing society. The two countries are sharing experience about how arts institutions can work with people with dementia. In turn, Japan wants to learn more about how the UK deals with diversity and inclusion – particularly in the area of disability. 

It would also be good to see more young British people coming to Japan to study and more educational and cultural exchange in general between the UK and Japan. These relationships will encourage the ties we enjoy in commerce, politics, and security to prosper. 

Matt Burney, British Council Country Director, Japan, in conversation with Alasdair Donaldson, Insight Editor

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