I nearly reached for the headphones for the simultaneous English translation of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s speech to a standing room only Anglo-Japanese audience at the Guildhall on Wednesday when he kicked off with the story of a pre-war financier called Korekiyo Takahashi. Takahashi visited London to promote Japanese government bonds as part of trying to reflate the Japanese economy in the 1930s – and was helped in this by the head of the London branch of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, SIr Ewen Cameron, great-great-grandfather of David Cameron.
However, the speech became much easier to follow in Japanese thereafter, completely contradicting an earlier conversation I’d had with a fellow bilingual Japanese/English speaker about how Japanese, in its beautiful vagueness, enables a total lack of clarity and accountability.
Abe spoke with warmth and passion about how his illness, and inability to get hold of a drug widely available elsewhere that had not been approved by Japan’s very strict and slow moving regulatory authority, made him determined to deregulate the Japanese pharmaceutical market. In fact it was clear that his illness and presumably the fact that “doing an Abe” has become a common expression in Japanese for giving up too quickly, after he resigned as Prime Minister in 2007, has given him a new backbone. His speech was very clear on what Abenomics is trying to achieve, and – the clue being in the name – tthat he took full accountability for its success or failure.
I thought I recognised the animated white haired Japanese man doing the interpretation into English as being having been a Nikkei correspondent in London a few years ago, and indeed it turns it was Tom Taniguchi, who also wrote the speech. In fact, I may have misunderstood, but my source seemed to think that Taniguchi wrote the speech in English first, and then translated it back into Japanese. That would definitely explain the directness of the messages even in Japanese and the vivid, distinctive use of language in the English version (transcripts in English and Japanese available on the Chatham House website)
It was definitely not just Abe mouthing someone else’s words however. His responses to the questions afterwards were equally clear and he got a standing ovation as he left the room. It was a strong display of leadership – in the sense of setting out convincingly and concretely where the country needs to go. The “third arrow” of Abenomics of structural reform has been criticised for not having enough actions to back it up, but the clue is in the use of the arrow as an analogy. It pinpoints precisely where the target is, for others to follow with their shots.
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