Report on the talk ‘A Diplomat’s Guide to the Geography of Japan’

Image: Paul Madden CMG’s latest book, Sankyu Japan, based on a series of 39 tweets he put out before completing his term as Ambassador in Tokyo. available to download as an e-book from Amazon. For hard copies, please contact the Kawauso Press on Thekawausopress@gmail.com.

On Thursday 25th December, the Sainsbury Institute welcomed his excellency, Paul Madden CMG, former British Ambassador to Japan and Special Adviser to UEA’s Centre for Japanese Studies (CJS), for the final Third Thursday Lecture of the year. As a special bonus for a select group of UEA students, Paul also kindly led an hour-long seminar prior to his lecture on the topic of Japan-UK relations from the perspective of his experiences as Ambassador.

The seminar provided a wonderful opportunity for some of East Anglia’s brightest young minds to supplement the theoretical side of their international relations studies by engaging with a practitioner of the highest level. What was perhaps particularly most striking for those in attendance was the human element of professional diplomacy, as Paul recounted a dazzling array of anecdotes, from hosting (then) Prince Charles for a sleepover to leading a team of over 100 negotiators to get global Britain’s first major post-Brexit trade deal over the line for (then) Secretary of State for International Trade, one Liz Truss.

The evening’s lecture was equally impressive, with Paul dissecting Japan through the dynamic lens of geography. In multi-fold regards, this served to bridge the gaps for many among the interdisciplinary Sainsbury Institute and UEA communities who come together as one through their shared interest in Japan. To this end, Paul expertly navigated over 400 years of international history, not to mention the full spectrum of four major islands and forty-seven prefectures, from the most northerly heights of Hokkaido to the subtropical beachheads of Okinawa. By doing so, he demonstrated an astute awareness of Japan’s geographical and historical position and context in a form that was both accessible to the lay person and remained engaging for Japanologists.

Image: Paul Madden CMG gave the lecture in-person at UEA campus, with Professor Simon Kaner, Executive Director of the Sainsbury Institute [currently on study leave], chairing the session.

Doubtless academic specialists of each section might have questioned some of the conventional wisdom assigned to Japan’s emergence as a great power following the Boshin, Nisshin and Russo-Japanese Wars, the country’s descent into militarism during the 1930s or the supposed success of its counter-COVID 19 policies. As someone with close connections with Okinawa, it was also somewhat concerning to hear the rape, robbery and murder of locals on Okinawa, in combination with military incidents and accidents (as well as massive levels of noise and environmental pollution) at the hands of the occupying US army, conveniently subsumed under the term “challenging”. Nevertheless, few could surely have been other than impressed by the linkage made between these hugely diverse topics, as everything from Geisha and cultural artefacts to conflict and high politics were seamlessly brought together through the narration of a series of beautiful thematic images.

Indeed, geography, both social and physical, is so central to Japan’s cultural heritage and international relations that it worked as the perfect framework through which to introduce such a huge subject in under one hour to hugely productive effect! Paul was also able to skilfully and seamlessly work the discussion of how Japan has developed into such a unique and iconic country into the promotion of his enthralling new book, 三九Sankyu Japan: Twittering thanks to Japan, which has brilliantly struck upon the fascination among the local population with foreign residents’ tastes for Japan’s unexpected delights and delicacies. In so doing, this unique volume engages with thirty-nine (san-kyu (also the transliteration for the English ‘thank you’) in Japanese) of Paul’s favourite things from more than a decade of professional and personal life spent in-country.

The result of his original thirty-nine tweets was something of a social media storm, as residents from various prefectures, addressing a diverse range of the cultural and culinary aspects of life in Japan that had been experienced through the eyes of a senior diplomat, rushed to applaud, offer advice and express their gratitude for the affection he showed to their country. The book, like the man, is set to be a great success in both Japan and the UK.

As the lecture was drawn to a close, Paul responded positively to questions on the current UK-Japan relationship, as well as the state of Japan’s political economy and technology industries, highlighting how whilst Brexit has been a challenging event for the one-time alliance partners, ultimately Anglo-Japanese ties now include a bespoke trade deal as well as substantial alignment and active cooperation in the security sphere.

Paul and his delightful wife, Sarah, exited the room to rapturous applause, indicating the depth and power of the impression left by this geographical guide to one of the planet’s most significant international arenas. Indeed, for any who might have lingering doubts as to the future of Japan and its role in the world, this final Third Thursday Lecture of the year served as a powerful reminder that, as former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo used to say, Japan is back! Sankyu Paul for reminding us!

Dr Ra Mason is Associate Professor in International Relations and Japanese Foreign Policy in the School of Politics, Philosophy and Language and Communication Studies at UEA. He works extensively on Okinawa.

e-Bulletin contents: