President Mar / Apr 2021

Taking inspiration from Tohoku

The magnitude 9.0 earthquake that occurred off Japan’s Pacific coast on 11 March, 2011 was the most powerful ever recorded here. It caused the Earth to spin faster, tilt on its axis, and shunted Japan’s main island of Honshu 2.4 metres to the east. Scientists estimate that the resulting tsunami that inundated coastal areas of the Tohoku region were up to 40 metres high.

Finding closure

In the town of Higashi-Matsushima in Miyagi Prefecture, more than 1,000 residents perished. Poignantly, this grim tally increased by one last month, with the discovery of skeletal remains on one of the prefecture’s beaches. It was identified through dental records and DNA as belonging to a mother who went missing on that day 10 years ago—consumed with so many other lives by the unimaginable and obliterating destruction of the tsunami.

According to the UK newspaper The Guardian, that mother’s family have at last found some measure of relief and closure. “This will allow me to get my emotions in order and move forward”, her son is quoted as saying. For others, particularly the families and friends of the 2,500 people who are still officially listed as missing following the disaster, the anguish continues. 

In Japan, 11 March will forever be an anniversary on which people solemnly reflect on the triple disasters: earthquake, tsunami and nuclear melt­down. It is also the day, 12 months ago, on which the World Health Organization labelled Covid-19 a pandemic. This time last year in my March 2020 column for BCCJ ACUMEN, I informed members of the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan (BCCJ) that the chamber’s immediate goal was to preserve the wellbeing of its personnel, members, and the community of which we are a part. I further noted that at the end of February 2020, we had decided to postpone face-to-face events for two weeks.

New normal

One year on, we are still living with the pandemic, and have not yet returned to the face-to-face event format. We have learned that recovery will require vigilance and lifestyle changes over a much longer period. At the time, however, a two-week mora­torium was a prudent and proportionate part of the BCCJ’s initial response. It also reflected our optimism that the BCCJ will weather the difficulties whilst continuing to serve its members.  

Although we have had to recalibrate our time­line, our sense of optimism remains undiminished. There are good reasons to be optimistic about the future of UK–Japan business, as signalled by the resounding success of the launch of a series of UK–Japan virtual trade missions on 2 March. 

Organised by the British Embassy Tokyo and BCCJ partner organisation Export to Japan, I was fortu­nate to address the audience of more than 550 people alongside trade specialists from the UK’s Department of Trade and Industry. Participants were able to hear from business leaders including designer Paul Smith, and the chief executive officers of dynamic UK companies Darktrace, What3Words, Hotel Chocolat and Balfour Winery, all of which are achieving success in Japan.

There is undoubtedly much to be positive about, and I hope that BCCJ members will be encouraged to remain steadfast in their determination to achieve their goals. To benefit from upswings in economic growth and business confidence, we must inevitably weather the dips that precede them. It’s at those times that we need to be resilient and remain optimistic. That is not always easy, but when in need of inspiration we need look no further than to the remarkable people of Tohoku.