Eradicating a well-established international brand in one stroke: how Brexit is perceived in Japan
Just a month after the referendum on 23 June, it is fair to say that we are already quite exhausted with the topic of Brexit. Following a traditionally disciplined British composure of ‘staying calm and carrying on’ we are now told that ‘Brexit is Brexit’, i.e. just take it. However, such a simple acceptance is not possible on many accounts. We have no idea where Brexit will take us, how bumpy the journey will be, and how long we will be living in this uncertainty. Important decisions usher forward even more important results. No matter how painful it may be, we need to continue talking about what Brexit will mean for the future of the UK. Furthermore, as it was a decision by the people, we cannot leave it only to those in Westminster to do the debating and deciding. The voters, who have spoken one way or another, need to remain engaged in the debate and try to minimize the damage, or maximize the benefits for those who have voted to leave.
It was always clear that the higher education sector would be dealt a severe blow if the outcome of the referendum would be to leave the European Union. EU citizens comprise a significant part of our student body and academic staff. It will also mean less funding for universities to conduct research. As the article ‘University and Brexit: A first-class mess’ in the July 23-29 2016 edition of The Economist tells us, ‘EU funding follows research quality, meaning Britain receives a hefty share of the kitty (63% more than it contributed, in 2007-13)’. Most importantly, from medieval times, universities were always a forum where academics and students from different parts of the world would come together in pursuit of academic inquiry and freedom. These institutions should be, by nature, an open place. This is why the Vice-Chancellor of the University of East Anglia, Professor David Richardson, who is also the Chair of this Institute, argued strongly and publicly to stay in the EU along with his many peers throughout the country.
So, how is Brexit perceived in Japan? In short, utter disbelief followed by astonishment. When Japanese talk about the UK and its people, the most frequently used adjectives would be ‘stable’, ‘ calm’, ‘ decent’ or ‘reserved’. This may sound stereotypical. But the important point is that these words are all used in praise, and reflect the positive image that the UK has wielded and continues to project upon the Japanese. This means, whether one likes it or not, the international brand that the UK had established, did not occur overnight. Yet, in the words of our Professorial Academic Associate, Professor Adrian Favell with whom I had a very sombre breakfast shortly after the referendum, the Brexit decision managed to deal a mighty blow to this positive international brand in a stroke. Ever since, I have been receiving inquiries from concerned friends and supporters in Japan whether ‘ the UK, and indeed SISJAC will be all right’? A rather simple question but, make no mistake, the message is that they do not feel that the UK will be all right. I hope I can reassure them but that would be disingenuous.
There is a further dimension to this. Ever since I took up my post at SISJAC, I have been trying to send out a strong message to Japan about how rich the cultural diversity is in the UK. The British have successfully added a new and distinct layer to their traditional image, one of openness and diversity without eroding their roots. Many times we hear forms of a cliché that the UK and Japan are very similar: island countries that border larger continents, both with a long history and tradition that house reserved and calm people, etc. I am not going to argue whether these beliefs are true or not. However, what I have been arguing is that contemporary Britain has been much more successful in embracing diversity, whether it regards ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, and this has led to the current richness of its society. This message to Japan was very important as there is ongoing concern about a growing inward looking tendency within Japan. After the referendum, I fear that my message will not carry the same weight as it may have in the past.
Where do we go from here? SISJAC will continue to move forward our outreach, research and education programmes that concern Japanese arts and cultures, and through our activities will reinforce our message of how important it is to expose ourselves to cultural diversity to learn about others and ultimately ourselves. Furthermore, one striking aspect of the result of the referendum was the magnitude of the divide in the UK. In the whole of Norfolk, only Norwich City voted to remain. SISJAC has been engaged in introducing Japanese culture to the younger generation of the UK, and we conduct educational programmes and exchange projects that bring the youth of the UK and Japan together. We also work with UEA to conduct summer schools for Central and Eastern European undergraduates in Norwich to teach them about Japan.
All is not lost and we realise the importance of these programmes even more strongly than before. But let’s not pretend that everything will be all right.
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