Image of Sake barrels at the Meiji Shrine.
Banzai to a new age. Sake barrels at the Meiji Shrine, Tokyo. Photo ©

Wikimedia Commons, under licence and adapted from the original.

May 2019

 A new Japanese Emperor ushers in a new era. But what does the future hold for the country, and what might it mean for the UK?

‘Ten Thousand Leaves’

Yesterday was the first day of a new age in Japan. With the accession of Emperor Naruhito to the Chrysanthemum Throne, the ‘Reiwa’ era officially begins. Naruhito replaces his elderly father, Akihito, who formally abdicated yesterday, bringing to an end his ‘Heisei’ imperial epoch.

The Heisei era has in many respects been a difficult one for Japan. When it began in January 1989, Japan was easily the second richest country on Earth after a startling post-War economic miracle. Days previously the Nikkei 225 index of stocks and shares had hit its record high of 39,000. A property bubble was reaching its apex: the land under the Imperial palace was reported to be valued higher than the entire state of California. Three decades later, after ‘lost years’ of stagnant growth and demographic decline, the Nikkei now stands at little more than half that level, and Japan’s economy has been overtaken in size by its long-term rival, China. Back then, Japan’s economic muscle led many to predict it would soon acquire equivalent diplomatic and even military heft, and it was subject to many of the fears in some parts of the world that are now attached to China. An American academic was about to cause a stir by publishing a book entitled ‘The Coming War with Japan’. 

Fortunately, Heisei – which means ‘Peace on Heaven and Earth’ – has indeed proved to be a peaceful period for Japan. It is striking that ‘peace’ was by far the most popular thing that young Japanese people chose as the value the world should support in a major recent international survey by the British Council. This result was unusual, and the highest score for peace amongst the G20 countries, and may reflect the devastation Japan experienced at the end of the Second World War, or perhaps the anxieties of a country that is now uncertain about its standing and security in a changing world. 

It is to be hoped that its successor era will similarly live up to its name: ‘Reiwa’ means ‘Beautiful Harmony’. Yet some Japan-watchers have suggested that contemporary geo-political tensions can be detected even in this benign formulation. The name Reiwa was selected by a 9-person panel of the great and good and announced in a live television ceremony. It is a reference to the 8th century Man’yoshu or Ten Thousand Leaves collection of poems. The Ten Thousand Leaves are amongst the earliest written in classical Japanese rather than Chinese, and this is the first time in the over 1,300 years of the Japanese imperial dynasty that the name of an imperial era is not taken from a Chinese-language literary reference. 

This slight change of precedent may be a conscious, if subtle, signal of hardening attitudes in Japan towards its giant neighbour - and as such an interesting example of cultural diplomacy

This could be a sign of growing Japanese self-confidence in their cultural identity. Yet as tensions have grown between Japan and a resurgent China in recent years – including a military stand-off over disputed islands in the China Sea – and with lower levels of trust between its peoples, this slight change of precedent may be a conscious, if subtle, signal of hardening attitudes in Japan towards its giant neighbour - and as such an interesting example of cultural diplomacy.

Yet, after many centuries of cultural influence in the other direction, as China starts to emerge from its own transformative economic miracle and faces similar demographic pressures, it may yet have much to learn from Japan.  Perhaps as its own rampant economy slows down and its huge population ages, China may in some respects come to resemble its prosperous but now more sedate island neighbour, just as it recently copied many aspects of Japanese export- and manufacturing- led growth policies, and investment in massive infrastructure projects like the famous bullet trains now seen racing across both nations. Some have seen signs of a thaw in the Sino-Japanese relationship in recent months, which may bode well for the future. 

The UK in Japan – & a Japanese Emperor in the UK

The UK and Japan may also have much to learn from each other, as the UK too looks to enter a new era in which it will be a smaller island nation off the coast of a much larger, continental power. Both countries are committed to maintaining the rules-based international systems that have underpinned much of their prosperity as trading nations (including significant bilateral trade and investment between the two). Both countries punch above their weight for creativity and soft power, and are often seen as amongst the most attractive and influential by people around the world. They are also linked by mutual admiration, with Japan viewed by young Brits as second most attractive G20 country for arts and culture, and the UK viewed by young Japanese people as one of the three most attractive G20 countries overall and one of the three they most intend to do business with. It was also ranked second (after the US) as a place to study.

The UK and Japan may also have much to learn from each other, as the UK too looks to enter a new era in which it will be a smaller island nation off the coast of a much larger

The new emperor Naruhito himself studied at Oxford in the 1980s, later publishing a memoir about his time there (The Thames and I: A Memoir of Two Years at Oxford). As such, he becomes yet another head of state to have been a student in the UK. Currently this is true of about a quarter of all world leaders – a significant soft power benefit to the country. 

Such benefits work both ways, of course. The UK Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, lived and taught English in Japan shortly after former emperor Akihito’s accession. There he learned Japanese and met his wife. In a recent official visit to a school in Japan where the British Council helps train English teachers to teach communicative skills, he described how the experience gave him a life-long love of the country and its culture, and suggested a new era of friendly UK-Japanese relations. There is lots of evidence that contacts like these can be important foundations for diplomatic and economic connections. 

Participation in cultural activities with the UK is associated with an increase in trust. According to a recent British Council report, 75% of people who had participated in a UK cultural relations activity with the British Council said they trusted the UK, compared to only 49% of people who had not. Increased levels of trust are in turn associated with an increased interest in doing business with, visiting or studying in the UK, and rises in foreign direct investment and exports. Recognising this, both countries have made significant investment in initiatives like the Japanese Exchange and Teaching program JET, or English language teaching activities like those supported by the British Council. 

In September this year the British Council and the British Embassy will launch a season of British culture, education, business, and sport entitled ‘UK in Japan 2019/20’, using this year’s Rugby World Cup and 2020’s Olympics and Paralympics as bookends within which to deepen existing – and create new – bilateral partnerships in all of those areas. In strengthening the cultural and education ties, it is hoped that ‘UK in Japan 2019/20’ will create a stronger foundation to allow the bilateral relationships in trade and security to deepen, so that both countries can look forward to an era of peaceful prosperity. That would indeed be a beautiful harmony. 

Alasdair Donaldson, Senior Editor and Policy Analyst, with thanks to Matt Burney, Country Director Japan

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