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Top>Opinion>Britain, as Viewed from Japan: On the Occasion of United Kingdom Week


Masaki Orita

Masaki Orita [Profile]

Britain, as Viewed from Japan: On the Occasion of United Kingdom Week

Masaki Orita
Professor, Faculty of Law, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: International Law

United Kingdom Week

Chuo University, which was originally founded as Igirisu Horitsu Gakko (the English Law School,) has a special historical relationship with Britain. Therefore, the fact that this year Britain has been selected as the theme country for the University's International Week is of great significance. For the period from October 17 to 21, lectures, symposiums, film screenings and bagpipe performances, etc. are scheduled to be held and, in addition, it will be possible to buy British goods in the University's Co-op shop and to try British food. I hope this will be an opportunity for both students and faculty to experience something of Britain at first hand so that they feel more familiar with the country.

Of the 40 years I spent as a diplomat before joining the faculty at this university, I lived for a total of 7 years in Britain, and I served as Japanese Ambassador to the United Kingdom from 2001 until 2004, so Britain has a special place in my heart. I have had the opportunity to come into contact with many, many British people working in the British government, parliament, universities, mass media, economic world, as well as in the arts and culture, etc., and I have discussed a wide range of topics with them, and worked together with them.

Britain's Importance

In Japan today, when one mentions overseas, people immediately tend to think of America or emerging nations such as China,, and it is these countries in which people tend to have the greatest interest. Of course, our relationships with these countries are important for Japan. However, America's position of overwhelming supremacy in the world in terms of politics and economics has been relatively reduced, and in a world situation that can now be referred to as multi-polar or even apolar, and in which each country must cooperate with other countries, I think it is necessary for us to reaffirm the importance of countries like Britain.

In contrast to its past era as the home of the British Empire, Britain can probably no longer be described as a Great Power. It has only half the population of Japan, and its economy is ranked 5th in the world, after America, China, Japan and Germany. However, Britain was the first country to experience the Industrial Revolution, and it has had many valuable experiences in developing its parliamentary democracy and welfare system, etc. Moreover, Britain is not only a Permanent Member of the United Nations Security Council and an important power within Europe, but it has also built up a global network through its Commonwealth, etc., and remains a significant presence within, and an influential member of, the international community. Britain has a close relationship with the countries of Europe as a member of the European Union as well as having what is often referred to as a special relationship with America, similar to Japan's alliance relationship with America. In the field of non-governmental organizations too, Britain was one of the founders of the Red Cross, and the British private organizations, such as Oxfam, conduct their activities all over the world.

The Relationship between Japan and Britain in terms of International Relations

In recent years, and since the 9.11 terrorist attacks ten years ago, the cooperative bilateral relationship between Japan and Britain has been deepened, including with regard to issues such as the response to international terrorism, the question of Afghanistan, and the issue of Iraq, etc. Both Japan and Britain, while basically cooperating with the US, do not necessarily agree with America about everything. At various times, both Japan and Britain have been uncomfortable about aspects of America's policy, and the amazing similarity of this sense of discomfort with US policy held by both Japan and Britain is something that I have become strongly aware of from my discussions with members of the British government, parliament and intellectual world. How to respond to the American tendency to act unilaterally and to see complicated phenomena only in terms of clear-cut black and white is an issue which both Japan and Britain face, and it is important for both countries to find ways of telling America about areas where its policy is lacking. Moreover, both Japan and Britain are island nations situated off the coast of a large continent, and thus share the element of having to address the issue of what sort of relationship to build with their continental neighbors: Asia, in the case of Japan, and Europe, in the case of Britain.

Common Challenges faced by Japan and Britain

As democratic countries with mature market economies, both Japan and Britain share similar challenges and can learn from one another.

During my time working in Britain, many politicians and officials visited Britain from Japan, seeking to learn from the British system. It is fair to say that we have learned about a debate between party leaders in the Diet, a single-seat constituency system, and about manifestos, etc. from the British. The concepts which form the basis of modern British democracy were produced from the cumulative inheritance of traditions, and Britain continues to develop its parliamentary democracy today. On the other hand, the British also constantly take the attitude that even if a system has been created at some point, as the work of human hands, it will not be perfect and is likely to contain some errors, and so should be repeatedly re-evaluated. Just as can be seen in Churchill's often quoted dictum, "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time," nothing should be seen as absolute, and there is a lot that Japanese people can learn from this attitude of trying to keep one's thinking flexible and pursue the possibilities presented by different perspectives. Even today in Britain, considerable debate is being conducted into the problems with the single-seat electoral districts and bicameral system.

In terms of the economy, too, both Japan and Britain, while seeking to achieve a stable international economic order, are being forced to respond to the remarkable growth of the newly developing countries, and both face the issues, as advanced economic powers, of what sort of economic growth policy to construct and how to try to conduct fiscal reconstruction, etc. Britain experienced a period of economic stagnation in the 1970s to the extent that it was dubbed the sick man of Europe, and it continues to face a harsh economic climate. Japan has also experienced the lost decade, or even the lost 20 years. Japan has received considerable assistance from Britain in the aftermath of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, and Britain is very interested to watch and learn from how Japan goes about its reconstruction efforts, including the issue of the nuclear disaster.

In addition, both countries are now facing the important challenge of how to reform and maintain their respective welfare and education systems. In terms of university education, Britain also has the same problems that Japan is experiencing caused by massification of the university system and faces similar financial issues including the increase in tuition fees. In Britain, however, the emphasis is being placed upon a liberal arts education, and there is a strong desire to seek to develop an intellectual elite with an international outlook, possessing wide-ranging knowledge and a high level of individual reasoning abilities. Moreover, there is also a lively ongoing debate about how universities should go about making the most of their individual strengths.

Intellectual Exchange between Japan and Britain

It is reasonable to say that the further promotion of bilateral intellectual exchange between Japan and Britain regarding the areas described above would not only be beneficial for both countries concerned, but is also likely to make a intellectual contribution to international society.

It is my sincere hope that United Kingdom Week will provide an opportunity for both Chuo University and Japan to think again about the importance of Britain today.

Masaki Orita
Professor, Faculty of Law, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: International Law
Born in Tokyo in 1942. Graduated from the Faculty of Law, University of Tokyo in 1965. Entered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the same year, and went to study abroad at Oxford University. From then until his retirement in 2004, he served in domestic posts in the Treaties Bureau, the Asian Affairs Bureau, etc., followed by appointments as Private Secretary to the Prime Minister, Director-General of the Treaties Bureau, Director-General of the North American Affairs Bureau, and overseas posts in America, France, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom. He was subsequently appointed as Consul General to Hong Kong, as Ambassador to Denmark (and, simultaneously, Ambassador to Lithuania), and as Ambassador to the United Kingdom. After his retirement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he has continued to serve the government as Special Envoy for United Nations Reform (Responsible for European Affairs), etc. He was appointed to his current position in 2007. He teaches International Law in the Faculty of Law and Graduate School of Law in the Chuo University, and at the Chuo Law School. In addition to his teaching, he is Director of the International Affairs Research Institute, World Politico-Economic Research Foundation [Sekai-seikei Chosa-kai Kokusai Josei Kenkyu-sho], and, based upon discussions with other policy advisors, occasionally makes recommendations to the Cabinet regarding important international issues.