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An Englishman in Japan

An Englishman in Japan

Dr Carl Hunter formerly served as an officer with the Green Jackets, and is now the managing director of Coltraco UltrasonicsHe travels extensively in Asia, and is a member of the RSAA. Here, he writes a letter on a business trip to Japan.

I smoked a cigarette on an immaculate sidewalk in Tokyo. A well-dressed man in overcoat and face-mask passed by waving his hand across his face. I was unclear whether he was waving away the smoke –  he was 10 yards away from me after all – or whether he was really waving away the foreigner.

I am not suggesting that this gesture was grounded in a dislike of foreigners; rather, that it felt as though some Japanese feel it might take a life-time to explain Japan to the foreigners, and that ultimately it might be fruitless as the foreigner can simply not become Japanese by knowledge alone. I have never been to a cleaner or more orderly city or populace anywhere in the world. The rest of the world must look a very dirty, violent and disorganised place when viewed through Japanese eyes.

I arrived in Japan in a snow storm that paralysed the country. Sadly 12 people died, but interestingly the UK floods and USA storms captured the international broadcasting  networks to a far greater extent. Their response at the airport ? To shut all the information counters, stop all the taxis, hire car companies and hotel booking agents. I called the hotel without getting through; they simply did not pick up any calls. arrived to the hotel 12 hours late and at 5 in the morning. My hotel told me later that they stopped taking calls as they could not help their guests. Our partner company, whose representatives I was visiting Japan to meet, however arrived to collect me punctually at 9am – even though I had told them at 6 that I had only just arrived…

The meeting with the partner company was extraordinary. As we knew, their business development plan is predicated entirely on the radioactive competitor sales and it took some gentle effort to encourage them through their great reticence to see beyond those, or to pass through their “salary-men” mind-sets to think more entrepreneurially .They needed constant praise to see their own market potential. They were subdued in front of each other and quick to be embarrassed but responded with child-like encouragement to leadership when I presented to them.  There exists an over-reliance on the “organisation” which in itself is almost an excuse for detailed thought. Having said that, they are the finest partners we can find and if we help them along with precise messaging I feel they will do well. They love the concept of us manufacturing products specific for their market in Japan and I feel they will all come together through this. Portalevel MAX Nippon –koku was warmly welcomed, though we laboured the use of the word “koku” as this indicates “Japanese State” with unwanted Imperial overtones. So the models we will produce are to be called Portalevel MAX Nippon and Portalevel Mini Nippon (based on PM). I am going to check on the order of these words just in case ..

In dress, Tokyo’s inhabitants were relatively uniform. Only the young exhibited any independent style, and that variance in style was certainly influenced by the West, and I felt the young were themselves set apart from wider Japanese society as a  consequence.  I asked some young people of their hopes; they seemed subdued, only one had aspirations for success and that involved leaving the country. I went to a meeting with the state-owned airline, Japan Air Lines. There was no doubt in their engineering and commercial competence, which was world-class, nor in their ability to interact with Westerners, but when tea was brought it was delivered by two Japanese ladies who bowed before placing ones tea, and bowed smiling at 30 degree intervals as they turned 180 degrees from one, that is 5 turns per person. There were 12 of us in the meeting. It took some time to complete. Curiously it took me back to another time. Relationships with Japanese seem far easier to achieve abroad than there. I was on a train with a young Japanese man from the partner company. I asked why ladies were not extended the courtesy one anticipates from the Japanese. Why does no man give up his seat for a lady I enquired. After many attempts to avoid the question it eventually transpired that we must not never forget the rules of society there, that male primacy exists in Japan ..

Fukishima is seen in a forlorn and embarrassed way. I sensed it might also have been seen a disappointment that the industrial success that Japan is had been imperilled, that it had humiliated itself in front of the world. They shut down the entire Nuclear power industry shortly afterwards, though the newly elected Mayor of Tokyo is now agitating for its resurgence.

The war lingers. A certain prissiness exists on the surface but you do not have to dig too deep beneath it to find the seismic effect that is, not was, 1945. While their neighbours in Korea and China, and their Western friends in the USA and Europe, encourage Japan to apologise for the atrocities of WW2, I wonder if we wholly understand the damage done to Japanese society by the war. It is seen there as an Imperial war, led by the Emperor, and defeat seems to have tempered the societal and spiritual link between the people and his descendent. Japan seems somewhat rudderless without it, as England would be without its Monarchy perhaps,  and its relentless pursuit of industrial success presumably sought to replace it. Defeat seems to have damaged them from within as much as they damaged the world from without. There are no comparisons with Germany because of this. Hitler had no divinity. Its very homogeneity drives its exhaustive reluctance to explain itself and how can it apologise when it itself has not been apologised to by its Emperor ?  It pursued wealth creation on an industrial scale, immersed itself in its achievements and became the world’s second richest country on earth. Its very impenetrability is stark and obvious. It is opaque and mysterious. One feels the sense of a thousand customs one will never understand and never be asked to understand.

Strategically there is no doubt in my mind that whilst the West quivers before Chinese expansion, the nations of Japan, Russia and India will not cede a millimetre of ground to it and will go to war with China if pressed. If they do, the USA will have to as well, given its treaty obligations to Japan. I am not convinced that the Chinese believe the USA would however, and feel they doubt America’s defence commitment to Asia. I think the Chinese will continue to probe this until a flashpoint occurs. Seen through Chinese eyes, and excepting N Korea,  the whole region seems set against it strategically. After all, it is. But for Japan there is no option. It will as a  consequence continue to warm relations with Russia despite the longstanding hurt of the Kuril Islands taken by Russia as “spoils of war” in 1945. The essential importance of Japanese territorial integrity seems coupled to the sense of spirit that exists there because of it. This is a spiritual land. It is one and the same it seems to me. Without every part of it, the country feels diminished and incomplete.  Seizing a part of it will not go unanswered. Their military is so advanced that it would bode well for the UK to develop further the early indications of defence technological co-operation that our Government has recently initiated.

Japan may have physically recovered from the blasts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but not from the foreign poison it left on their sacred soil. And I do think Japan a sacred land. Few others beyond India, Ireland and parts of England have felt like this to me. You walk amongst spirits there and they are welcoming ones, no matter how foreign one might be.


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