Sunday 14 April 2019

Reception at the British Embassy: Cherry Blossoms, Chandeliers, and Bilateral Relations

With the cherry blossom peak over, the petals (hanabira =花びら) are falling which makes for a lovely sight on the waterways (such as Meguro Rover) in Tokyo as they blanket the water, with "flower-rafts" (hana-ikada =花筏) as they are called in Japanese. I got the chance to see the blossoms at their peak though last week when I visited the British Embassy for a reception for alumni from Durham University in the UK living in Japan. It was my first visit to the embassy, located across from the Imperial Palace moat or Hanzo-Hori lined with beautifully illuminated cherry trees (though the direction signs at the station - "Embassy of British" - could have done with a native-speaker check, like many instances of English on signs in Japan!). The cherry blossoms in the ambassador's garden were stunning; Japanese readers may be surprised to know that people in the UK also enjoy the blossoms at this time of year (though it is usually too cold to eat and drink under the trees...).
Most of the guests were Japanese who had come from all over Japan - from Hokkaido to Kyushu - for the chance to take a peak inside the luxurious Ambassador's Residence. The Ambassador's garden (pictured) was of course wonderful but the living room, decked out with antique furniture, chandeliers, and pictures of royalty was something else. The invitation was also written in very formal English, with "lounge-suit" for the dress code and "carriages" denoting the end of the reception (translated rather blandly as heikai=閉会 on the Japanese version). It was also interesting to see that the Japanese invitation added the explanation that there was to be a stand-up buffet, written as risshoku (立食). This is not to be confused with tachi-gui (立ち食い) which, though using the same kanji, denotes cheap and quick stand-up noodle shops and other street stalls!

Official Japan-British relations only began in 1854 with the Anglo-Japanese Friendship Treaty (日英和親条約) signed after the end of the "closed-country" (sakoku=鎖国) period though relations deteriorated rapidly during the 1930s (see here for a full time line). Today, relations are remarkably close: during Abe's visit to the UK in January, Prime Minister May described the two countries as "natural partners. Thriving, innovative, island nations – committed to defending the global rules." Brexit appears to have thrown a bit of a spanner in the works though, and Honda's announcement in February that it was withdrawing from the UK shocked many Brits. Japanese, though, remain pretty unfazed; an internal embassy poll apparently found that only about 40% of Japanese even know Brexit is happening! Certainly, there is a lot of love for the UK - especially tradition and pomp and ceremony - in Japan; September will see the launch of a new 'UK in Japan' campaign, beginning with the Rugby World Cup and continuing through to the Tokyo Olympics.

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For those want to learn a little more about early diplomatic relations between Britain (and other European nations) and Japan, I would recommend British author David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet which is set on the man-made island of Dejima between 1799 and 1817. While the story of a Dutch clerk on an isolated trading post is a lot more exciting than it sounds (!), for those of you wanting a more modern neon-Tokyo-yakuza-filled adventure, number9dream is probably more your cup of tea (the bowling alley scene still sticks in my mind...). The detail in both books makes it clear that the author knows Japan well (indeed, he lived in Hiroshima for eight years) - he is also married to a Japanese.