My Japanology / Hooked for 40 years since a visit to Ryoanji temple

Tsuyoshi Yoshioka/The Yomiuri Shimbun

British Ambassador Timothy Hitchens speaks during an interview at the British Embassy in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo.

The Japan News Britain made a decision in June to leave the European Union, affecting the post-Cold War global trend of seeking ever freer movement of people, goods, and capital. What roles would Britain like to play in an increasingly fluid world with the rise of populism and protectionism? Why does the country need Japan for those aims? British Ambassador Timothy Hitchens gave important clues to answering these questions in an interview on Tuesday. Having completed his term, he will leave Japan this weekend.

Q: This four-year stint was your second diplomatic assignment to Japan. What events or scenes were the most impressive for you during this stint?

Hitchens: There are too many for me to list in full. But among the highlights, I would say, when we had Prince William visiting two years ago, and instead of driving in from the airport in a car, we got onto a speedboat and we went by speedboat from Haneda Airport through the Rainbow Bridge and to Hamarikyu Gardens.

I then also took him up to Tohoku. We went to Ishinomaki [in Miyagi Prefecture], sharing with him the experiences of people in Ishinomaki [from the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake]. We spent a night at a ryokan [inn] in Tohoku, with Prime Minister Abe.

I suppose I’ve done quite a lot with Prime Minister [Shinzo] Abe. He’s visited London twice. I was able to be with him when he called on Her Majesty the Queen, which I think is the first time in many many years a prime minister has done that.

There’ve been all those little acts of kindness that people have shown me personally over the four years. Every Saturday I have practiced kendo, and I’ve met so many different kinds of people from different walks of life.

Q: Would you talk about your first encounter with Japan?

A: I first came here almost exactly 40 years ago. I was 14. My father worked here in Japan, so I was very open and interested to be in a completely different culture. I was just at the age where I was very interested in ideas.

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  • Tsuyoshi Yoshioka/The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Ambassador Timothy Hitchens talks to The Japan News on Tuesday afternoon.

I remember going to Ryoanji [temple] in Kyoto, and just realizing that there was a completely different world. I’d have to give up a lot of my assumptions, my Western assumptions, to start to understand what it meant. From that moment I was hooked, and I’ve never been unhooked since.

Ryoanji — in some ways you can go and there’s nothing there apart from stones and rocks. A Westerner might look at that and think, there’s nothing to see, really. But it clearly had meaning and value to the people who had built it and enjoyed it. I had to turn my perspective around. Instead of looking for the highlight, I would look for the space that would make you understand everything around you.

I remember learning my first characters, and realizing that you did, often, the outside of the character before the final main stroke, which came last, whereas for a Westerner you’d always start with the main stroke. I remember, when you build a house in Britain you start from the bottom and build it slowly upwards, whereas in Japan you often build the roof first, with a great space in the middle, and then fill the middle in.

Q: I think you are talking about the Japanese concept of ‘ma,’ or space. What would be the contemporary and global significance of this concept?

A: I do my Twitter feed and I’m constantly putting things out on Twitter, 24-hour information is there, and people don’t have the time to digest it and think about it. We’re getting less good at listening to other people, what other people are thinking.

I do think that if we’re going to have a successful 21st century, we need to learn a little bit from Japan’s way of pausing and giving space to listen to what other people are saying. If we only listen to our own voices, we won’t have a true broad view of the world. If I look at what’s happening in the U.S. and in Europe and in Russia and in China at the moment, I think we’ve all got a lot to learn from that sense of pausing, creating a space, and listening.

Roles of royal ties

Q: How have you observed the importance of the role the British royal family and the Imperial family play for bilateral relations?

A: It’s curious because in a way neither the British royal family nor the Japanese Imperial family have very much political power. And yet, both have the enormous affection of their people. I think that because the links between the two families go back a long, long way, they are in touch with each other in a very familiar way, as if they are from the same family.

When Prince William visited, he was very graciously given lunch by His Majesty the Emperor and the Empress, and the crown prince also gave him time. I was in on some of those meetings. You could tell that immediately they were able to understand each other, that in some ways they are facing these similar issues. Their perspectives are very similar.

I think both the British royal and the Japanese Imperial family feel that they need to be not just a symbol of their nation, but they need to be out among the people and acting within the people, and that that is as important a role in being a monarch as the role of signing papers or attending ceremonies.

Q: How do you compare the liberal democracy practiced in Japan with that in the U.K.?

A: I remember reading a book by [former U.S. Ambassador to Japan] Edwin Reischauer, the great student of Japan. I think he put it very well, which is that in Britain, certainly, the starting point is that we have 65 million people all with different opinions, and how are you going to govern a country with 65 million people with different opinions, and liberal democracy is the route to do that. In Japan you have a country of 130 million people who all want ‘wa’ and consensus, so how do you deliver that consensus? Liberal democracy is the way that you do it.

As an observer of Japan in the last four years I’ve often seen debates in the Diet go on much longer than I thought necessary, because it was clear the government was going to pass this legislation but they carried on many more weeks than I thought was necessary.

Q: How about the speed with which the security law was passed in 2015 by the Diet?

A: The British government was strongly in favor of the legislation. We have for many years been wanting Japan to do more. We thought that the government had very clearly explained the case for the legislation, and the government had a clear majority. It was therefore interesting for me to observe that in the Japanese political culture it was necessary to spend several more weeks to ensure that everyone felt that their opinions had been heard before the vote finally passed.

Q: Did you find anything interesting in the way Japan has reacted to the Brexit decision?

A: I’ve always been impressed in the Japanese reaction, that people have never questioned the right of the British people to express their view, that they have respected the democratic decision. They’ve also respected the fact that we are pursuing that decision according to the rules as they are set out. But in addition to that, one thing that I’ve been struck by, is that some Japanese commentators have assumed that Brexit will happen to them in a rather passive way.

I think most now understand that as we leave the European Union we will be doing so with major consultation with our biggest foreign investors, and they are the United States and Japan. Japan has a major role to play in telling us what its interests are, as we prepare to leave.

I was very impressed that the Japanese government and our friends in the Keidanren (Japan Business Federation) and others were able to move so quickly to produce 17 pages of very specific indications of what Japanese companies were interested in. That has been enormously useful to us, because we are busily preparing for the negotiations. I think no other country has given us that kind of in-depth analysis.

I’ve been able to get, coming out to Japan over the last six months, about 11 different ministers, each of them focusing on one of those areas in the Japanese paper. That has meant there feels like a real dialogue between what the Japanese side is concerned about and what we will listen to and answer. I think that has worked extremely well.

I don’t like the phrases soft Brexit or hard Brexit. I think what we’re after is what we call “smart Brexit.” The way we will do it will be appropriate to the relations between the European Union and Britain. I think the challenge before us all is to identify the smartest Brexit we can. The smartest Brexit is one that will actually serve the economic interests of all the main players. That’s our determination.

Respect with strength

Q: Britain’s Typhoon fighter aircraft recently conducted a joint exercise with Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force. Britain’s ambassador to the United States recently said that British aircraft carriers will sail in the Pacific once they become operational. Is Prime Minister May implementing tougher China policy than her predecessor?

A: In October and November, British Typhoon aircraft — these are the aircraft which are busy normally conducting operations over Iraq — the squadron of them came right the way across from Middle East to Japan and held joint operations. They were very successful, up in Misawa [in Aomori Prefecture]. When they flew back, they flew over the South China Sea. We put out a photograph of them flying back over the South China Sea. Of course, we fly over the South China Sea. It’s international air, we would fly and do that.

We also are busy building two new aircraft carriers. When those are ready, they will in due course be coming out to this part of the world, because we recognize that the Pacific — Asia and the Pacific— is not simply a place where we trade, it is a place in whose security we have a very, very strong interest. Because Britain (is a) permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, we have an interest in peace and security everywhere in the world, in the rules-based system, and we have as much an interest in what happens in the South China Sea as we do in the South Atlantic, for example.

In our national defense review published last year, we said that Japan was our most important security partner in the whole of the Asia-Pacific. One of the things I’ve been proudest of in my time as an ambassador is the amount of growth we’ve seen in that defense and security collaboration.

When you have a relationship with a country as important as China, it will be a multi-layered relationship. Like Japan, we will want to have a very big economic relationship, both in terms of export and inward investment. It will be vital that China is a world leader in issues like climate change. We will have an entirely proper security relationship, so we will have contacts with the Chinese military. We will be very clear that there are certain lines in the rules-based international system that must not be crossed.

I think that realism as well as commitment are probably good hallmarks of what Prime Minister May is as a leader. I think it’s probably a very good relationship, a good basis for our relationship with China. But we also need to respect each other as well. We respect people with strength and China respects people with strength.

Q: Prime Minister May expressed her plan to aim to reduce the corporate income tax to the lowest amount in G-20 nations. How would you respond to concerns that an international race to lower corporate tax will distort competition among companies?

A: At the moment we have corporation tax at 20 percent. Next year it goes down to 19 percent, and by 2020 it will be at 17 percent. If we were reducing tax down to 3 percent, or zero, that would be taking competition too far. But we feel that 17 percent is a good level to be competitive in the international arena without creating any sense of being a tax haven.

I think that if you look around the other G-20 countries they are all trying to reduce their corporation tax, because people know that if you want innovative economy, you need to make it attractive in tax terms to international corporations.

Q: What is the significance of the transatlantic alliance with Washington under President-elect Donald Trump?

A: I think that the British approach is very similar to the Japanese approach. The alliance with the United States is absolutely central to Britain’s future in the same way that with Japan the alliance with the U.S. is central to Japan’s future. So our approach has been to give our unwavering support to President-elect Trump, to engage with him very early, and to set out our views on events around the world.

I think we don’t really know what the next administration’s policies will be. We know that they want to bring a new approach to things, and we’re certainly open to a new approach. What I detect is a new administration that is interested in strengthening alliances. It seems to me that if strengthening alliances is the primary focus of the new administration then that has to be good news for Britain and that has to be good news for Japan.

Q: What are the roles of the U.K. and Japan in a world which appears to be facing the rise of protectionism and populism?

A: There are probably two. One is international, one is domestic. When Prime Minister Abe and Prime Minister May met for the first time at the G-20 summit in China, their conversation concentrated exclusively on free trade and the importance of continuing to make the case for free trade. Now we know that the TPP is not moving as smoothly as some might have hoped, and that means that finalizing some of the other big free trade deals quickly becomes even more important.

For us that means the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement, which, at the moment, it’s looking extremely hopeful. The final negotiations are happening in Tokyo this week. We hope that before we get to the end of the year we will be able to have a ministerial meeting where the broad agreement, political agreement, can be reached.

It will be even more important, I think, for the world to see that global free trade deals can be done. That’s one very specific part where Britain, as the strongest EU advocate of the EPA, has a role to play, and Japan has played a significant role.

The other is to address your point about populism. I think we need to be honest among leaderships around the world that we have not always paid proper attention to those members of our society who have been, who’ve lost out from some of the kinds of prosperity we’ve had. And in the British context that means a lot of the people who are people in the white community who have not been to university, and they have not gained from Britain’s recent prosperity as much as the others in society.

In Japan, divisions in society are not nearly as great, but there is a gap of sorts between people who are enjoying great prosperity and those who’ve seen their living standards stay relatively still. It’s important here too for the political leadership to try to bridge those gaps.

It is clear that the whole migration debate in Europe has been a major cause of populism. It seems to me that political leadership across the continent of Europe needs to address the concerns of its people on migration. You cannot simply say that they are xenophobic and don’t like foreigners.

The more that established political parties address those concerns, the weaker the case for the more radical parties becomes. I hope that by autumn next year we will actually have a moderate president in France and we will have a moderate chancellor in Germany, and we will all think that we have come out of that era of populism and we are now addressing these issues seriously.

Last haiku as starting point

Q: You are a prolific haiku writer. Would you read us your last haiku before leaving Japan?

A: I enjoy practicing kendo. In kendo there is a concept which is “zanshin” (remaining spirit or heart). In Europe when you fence all you have to do is hit somebody on the right place and you get your point. Whereas in kendo you have to hit them on the right place and then stand back and have balance and have zanshin.

So I wrote. It’s not a very good haiku but it’s a little poem for my teacher. I wrote, “Sensei to wakare te mo tsuneni zanshin.” I meant my heart will remain with him. You could say also, “Nippon to wakare te mo tsuneni zanshin” (My heart will remain with Japan).

I find it impossible to imagine a life without a future engagement with Japan. When I get back to London, I will certainly be joining the Japan Society, which is the organization of people who love Japan and are engaged with Japan. I will be thinking a lot about my future and what I want to do. But as part of that mix of things that I’m doing in the future, working with Japan will be one key aspect of it. And I’m hoping to find a way to get tickets to the Rugby World Cup in 2019, and the Olympics 2020 and Paralympics 2020, and then I’ll definitely come back for that.

I’ve seen over the last four years an extraordinary emergence of confidence in Japan. Now I know that inflation is still not really moving very fast and economically Japan is not motoring yet, but the sense that Japan matters in the world, the sense that Japanese politics can have a voice in the world, the sense that Japan can be confident in its future, I think over the last four years those things have become stronger.

The question for me looking four years into the future, to 2020, is will that process have continued and will Japan feel even more confident about its role in the world, or will we look back on 2012 to 2016 as a short burst of confidence which then couldn’t be sustained.

It seems to me that’s why watching Japan is so fascinating, because I have no idea which way it will go, and it could equally go either way. But for those of us who really care about this country, we know which way we want it to go.

This interview was conducted by Japan News Assistant Editor Michinobu Yanagisawa and Yomiuri Shimbun Deputy International News Editor Akihiro Okada.

Graduating from Christ’s College Cambridge, Timothy Hitchens entered Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1983. He was posted to Tokyo as second secretary from 1985 to 1989. His other overseas posts have been Islamabad and Paris. He was Deputy Private Secretary to The Queen from 1998 to 2002. He took his current post in December 2012. He is 54.

(From December 15, 2016, issue)

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