Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for May 18th, 2020

The Japan Affair

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 18th May, 2020

The Japan AffairIt has often been said that there are certain similarities between Britain and Japan, as island nations off the coast of a major continent, despite the self-evident differences. Relations certainly reached a nadir during the Second World War, but at other times the two countries have felt a degree of affinity, if only in being unlike the brash United States, which was still visibly an occupying force (notably in Okinawa) when I first went to Japan as a teenager in 1969, en route to Vietnam. Japanese prints and other aspects of the country’s aesthetics had a big impact on late 19th century English fashion and classics of English literature, from William Shakespeare to Charlotte Bronte, resonate surprisingly well with the concerns of a Japanese audience. With notable exceptions such as the Orientalist Arthur Waley and the novelist Francis King, surprisingly few British authors have really immersed themselves in Japanese literature or life, however. So a volume of short essays by a British politician that have appeared over the past 30-odd years as a fortnightly guest column in Japan’s English-language paper, the Japan Times, is a welcome novelty.

David HowellDavid Howell’s The Japan Affair (Gilgamesh, £19.95) offers a varied selection of these pieces, from 1985 to 2019. Though several of the early ones are broad-brush op-eds on geopolitics and economics, with intimations of Margaret Thatcher fandom, the style and to a certain degree the content become more personal and, let’s be honest, more interesting as the years go by. The truism that one learns how to write by writing seems borne out here. As David Howell — on several occasions a Conservative UK Government Minister, first in the Commons then later in the Lords — was Chair of the UK Japan 2000 Group between 1987 and 1997, inevitably issues studied by that bilateral forum form part of his text. But he comes to life when addressing more human stories, whether it is in reaction to the terrible Kobe earthquake of 1995 or the Japanese passion for Peter Rabbit and his creator Beatrix Potter’s cottage. There are interesting reflections on the transformation of soccer into a multi-billion dollar global enterprise, as well as musings on the core sociological issue of identity. Lord Howell continues to write his column, which only had a break during his time as a Minister in the 2010-2015 Coalition government. But he is able to use a postscript to this collection of pieces to make an over-arching point that perhaps Japan and the UK should put greater effort into nurturing their relationship, in an unsure world of Trump, Putin and Xi. “In areas of technology, defence, security, culture, research, innovation, the two island states are becoming steadily bound together,” he writes. “A little bit of recognition, a little bit (but not too much) of strategic push at government and ministerial levels, could make this a wonderfully strong platform for both nations in a very dangerous and uncertain world.”

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