Behind the Scenes

Two conferences on UK-Japan bilateral relations

Mami Mizutori, Executive Director
Mami Mizutori, Executive Director

With the summer behind us, September is usually a busy month with a lot of activities heating up. As the Executive Director of the Institute, I was invited to two very different conferences during this month which made me realise once again, the depth and significance of the UK-Japan bilateral relationship, not to mention its long history.

The first event was the 34th Annual Meeting of the UK-Japan 21st Century Group, held at Churchill College Cambridge. This Group was established by the two Prime Ministers, Margaret Thatcher and Nakasone Yasuhiro, in the 1980s and has been moving from strength to strength over the last three decades. It is a forum where a diverse group of people from both countries, including politicians, civil-servants, business people, and members of higher education, gather and discuss not only immediate issues of concern that exist between the two countries, but more on how we can further our collaboration bilaterally and globally in the mid and long-term. The themes we covered over a three-day conference in a rather secluded atmosphere ranged from challenges facing UK-Japan trade and investment relations in the post-Brexit era, defence and security challenges we face in the current tense environment in East Asia, to opportunities for further collaboration with the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympics in sight. One important feature of this body is that at the end of the conference the group comes up with a set of recommendations that are presented to the Prime Ministers of both countries. Therefore, the forum is not merely a ‘talk show’, which quite a lot of conferences end up unfortunately being, but is rather an event where agendas can be set for the future.

This year there was a specific session titled, ‘UK-Japan Research and Strategic Partnerships in the Higher Education Sector’, which is a theme close to the hearts of SISJAC and UEA. At the outset of the session, presentations were delivered by Dame Julia Goodfellow, the immediate past President of Universities UK and Professor Anzai Yuichiro, President of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. These were followed by a lively discussion. Unanimity arose concerning understanding the need to maintain and increase international partnership in research as well as augment the flow of international students and researchers. Furthermore, as both the UK and Japan are world leaders in promoting innovative technology, the Group strongly felt that there was a lot of mileage in establishing a joint programme for bilateral collaboration in the translation of research into applications in areas extending from AI, robotics, life science and energy and climate adaptation. Having said that, it was also acknowledged that both the UK and Japan face challenges, namely that the UK higher education sector is not immune from the uncertainty that Brexit will cause, while the Japanese universities need to reform their governance and management structure to adapt to a more competitive international environment. In addition, the decline of public funding to the higher education sector, in particular towards the humanities in both countries, was seen as a trend not easily reversible and where the business sector could also contribute further by providing scholarship and internship opportunities.

I have been attending these annual meetings of this Group since 2011. In the first few years, if I may be candid, although there was always a great atmosphere of camaraderie among the members and an eagerness to keep this esteemed forum continuing, there was almost a lack of urgency to push concrete agenda items forward in strengthening the bilateral relationship. I can even recall a few tense moments when discussions evolved around British members feeling that Japan as a country was becoming more nationalistic, while the Japanese members were concerned by the China-focused policy of British diplomacy in East Asia. However, in recent years I have detected a notable change in the dynamics of the conference for the better or worse. First, with the UK decision to Brexit there is a strong recognition that we need to work together closely to, more than anything, ameliorate the damage that this policy may inflict upon the bilateral relationship. There is an enormous presence of Japanese business in the UK, such as automobile factories in Sunderland (Nissan) and Derby(Toyota), and major Japanese trading houses and mega-banks have established London as their European headquarters. Furthermore, the impact of Brexit does not end in the areas of trade and investment, but extends to many other areas including the higher education sector. Second, the increasing security threat coming from North Korea, combined with a volatile President of the United States, is not a concern limited to Japan and East Asia. If North Korea acquires the capability of a long-range missile that can carry a nuclear weapon, the UK may also find itself within reach of this threat. The potential proliferation of nuclear technology from North Korea is a significant global threat with no regional limitations. These developments call for the need to increase an urgent dialogue between the UK and Japan across sectors.

The second conference which deeply impressed me concerning the richness of the UK-Japan relationship was organised by the Japanese Garden Society (JGS), celebrating their 25th anniversary. This conference was also held in Cambridge at the Kaetsu Centre, housed in Murray Edwards College. There were a few academics and gardeners in the group, but the majority members were British individuals who happened to have fallen in love with Japanese gardens. Operating as a British charity, JGS organises garden visits, including trips to Japan, workshops and lectures, and issues quarterly newsletters. They are also actively involved in designing, restoring and maintaining Japanese gardens throughout the country, mainly in England and Wales.

Japanese style garden in the Norwich Cathedral grounds
Japanese style garden in the Norwich Cathedral grounds

One of the gardens that was designed and created by a JGS member is the karesansui (dry rock garden) named ‘Tokuon no Niwa’ in the Norwich Cathedral, right next to where SISJAC is located. When the Cathedral recreated its Hostry building in 2010, given the existing link with Japan through the Institute, a longtime tenant in the Cathedral Close, a decision was made to create a Japanese garden connecting the newly constructed Hostry and the main Cathedral structure. SISJAC helped raise donations to create the garden. We find that Japanese gardens are one of the key elements of Japanese culture that inspire not only academics but also large non-academic audiences outside Japan. We have hosted many lectures as part of our Third Thursday Lectures on Japanese Gardens, some of them given by JGS members, and it is also an important research topic for the Institute.

The JGS conference was organised over a weekend in late September. I must confess that when the organisers informed me that it was a paid event, I was a bit dubious about the attendance level. However, it turned out that the Kaetsu Centre auditorium which can seat around 150 people was packed with JGS members and other Japanese garden enthusiasts. Lectures were offered by academics and practitioners from the States, the UK and Japan on various aspects of Japanese gardens, with a focus on how they have been promoted outside Japan and where do they stand at present. One of the main themes that came out from the lectures and discussions was the important operative function of Japanese gardens as not only a beautiful place in which to contemplate things but also a place where visitors can proactively engage. Focusing on the healing effect that Japanese gardens possess, projects to create Japanese gardens in hospices have been taken forward by JGS in the UK. In the States, as well, Japanese gardens are used for therapeutic ends where vulnerable people such as terminally ill patients or youths with substance abuse problems can engage in maintenance activities. The discussion led us to think whether Japanese gardens can be built in places such as refugee camps, prisons and hospitals for mentally ill patients possibly expanding their role and function.

Another core issue was the challenge to maintain Japanese gardens created abroad. A large number of Japanese gardens have been built throughout the world on basically all the continents, some in private residences and others in public spaces. It was once very trendy to build a Japanese garden abroad to celebrate the establishment of sister-city relationships, or on the occasion of large Japan-themed cultural festivals. The downside of this story is that many times a structure and the resources necessary for the upkeep of its gardens are not built into the project, and as a result there is a long list of Japanese gardens which have fallen into decay. There was a lot of discussion regarding how to design a structure that would allow skill-sets for the maintenance of Japanese gardens to be shared among and used by gardeners and keepers of Japanese gardens abroad.

My small contribution to the conference was to point out in my presentation that the maintenance of Japanese gardens is also an issue in Japan itself where there is less and less business for gardeners and hence a scarce reserve of these professionals in the coming generation. I also pointed out that the new and innovative ways in which Japanese gardens are appreciated outside Japan should be introduced more actively to Japan in an effort to broaden the debate about Japanese gardens in the 21st century. Cultural exchange needs to be a reciprocal affair. Once upon a time Japanese gardens were imported from Japan as a representation of our culture. They have turned into a major phenomena abroad, so much so that it is now time that Japan can learn from abroad about the nature of Japanese gardens.

It is certainly encouraging to see so many things happening around the bilateral relationship at various levels of society. SISJAC aspires to be an active part of these ongoing and future debates and activities.

Mami Mizutori
Executive Director

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