The crystal ball

Business - January 30th, 2011

THE VIEW FROM HERE, by Ian de Stains OBE


As I write, a year-end stillness wraps Tokyo up in something mystical. Or perhaps it is simply just our neck of the woods, where the trees are stark against a bright blue sky, and the river glitters, and the water birds dance. But I do not think it is so. At the turning of each year, if you have an open mind and an open heart, it is not difficult to feel that Japan has a magic that is all its own.

How far we seem from the turmoil that is Europe — record low temperatures and the heavy snows to prove it. Airports shut, and airplanes are grounded, and thousands stranded; the elderly and the disadvantaged freeze in their homes (and die in the parks if they are homeless). And even when the thaw begins, pipes burst, leaving whole swathes of Northern Ireland without adequate supplies of water. Meanwhile, after a decade of drought, Queensland, Australia is dealing with floods of Biblical proportions.

It doesn’t take much more than a glance at the crystal ball to predict that 2011 is going to see a lot more in the way of unusual and potentially devastating weather patterns, droughts and floods, fires and famines sent to plague us in the months ahead. No one can say we have not been warned.

And yet, it seems, unless we are ourselves victims of such phenomena, most of us prefer to look the other way, putting off until some undreamed-of tomorrow what we ought to be taking care of today. I am, of course, no different, save for the conscience-salving donations here and there, the not-altogether half-hearted attempts to keep my own house in environmental order, and the calling attention now and then to the failures of our leaders to deal with some of the most frightening situations facing our fragile word. But I know it is not enough when I consider the injustices of the Middle East and the sufferings of the people there on both sides of the divide. Then there’s the threat of nuclear conflagration that will surely engulf far more than the regimes that brandish them.

Much closer to home, of course, and in a sense far easier to understand, are the problems facing the world’s major economies. I think of the euro in particular and its obvious inability to deal with the diversities of a so-called united Europe. The repercussions of a collapse of the euro zone are frightening to contemplate even if we live outside it.

As for Japan, my adopted and much-loved country, the crystal ball is ever more clouded and difficult to read. One thing is for sure, unless there is some genuine political leadership within the next 12 months, Japan will face its greatest test in decades. It is still not quite too late.

Ian de Stains is the Executive Director of the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan. The views expressed in this column are strictly his own and are not necessarily endorsed by or shared by the Chamber.