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Number 1 Shimbun

Profile: Leo Lewis

No1-2015-11Leo

 

The Financial Times' correspondent

has been reporting on business and finance

in Japan and China for 13 years.


by Tyler Rothmar

L

eo Lewis, currently Tokyo correspondent for the Financial Times, grew up in England and hails from a family of academics. He was first drawn to Japan, he says, “for the worst reasons: video games and anime. Growing up in Oxford in the ’80s, you had these glints of Japanese culture which were impossibly exotic, and for the smallest reasons.”

Nobody could tell him, for instance, that the mysterious giant white vegetables one pulled from the ground in Super Mario’s second electronic adventure were in fact a kind of daikon radish. There he was surrounded by the finest academic minds, he recalls, yet it was up to him to unearth the solutions to this and other Japanese riddles.

Work on an undergraduate degree in oriental studies with a focus on economics afforded Lewis his first trip to Japan in 1994, where he spent a term studying at a local university in Minoh, near Osaka. Later, when a brief professional foray into the world of finance failed to scratch his creative itch, Lewis decided on journalism, leading to further study and a degree in the subject from City University London in 2000.

 

Nobody could tell him, for instance,

that the mysterious giant white vegetables

one pulled from the ground in Super Mario’s

second electronic adventure

were in fact a kind of daikon radish.

 

The journalistic bent that has led him to report on business and finance in Japan and China for 13 years and counting is perhaps an expression of the genes of his maternal grandfather, an Arabist and Turkologist “who did the same thing when he was my age,” Lewis says. “He disappeared and became a specialist in a part of the world that, at the time, people didn’t really know very much about.” Lewis sees himself in a similar light, as someone who helps to inform and challenge what are sometimes outdated opinions about the workings of Asia’s largest economies.

Although he writes on a variety of topics, financial journalism is closest to his heart. “When it’s done well,” he says, “you overlay a narrative and treat it as any other kind of journalism, in that you’re telling a story. The numbers are there as props and background, because at heart, you’ve got people making mistakes and errors and strokes of genius. There are petty arguments and big discussions about strategy and little ones about where to have the coffee machine. That’s business, whether it’s Google or a tiny Japanese construction company. It’s a series of stories.”

 

No1-201511Leo2

Lewis spent seven years from 2003 in Tokyo reporting for the Times before moving to Beijing in late 2010. He uses the word “brilliant” to describe his time there as bureau chief until April 2015, and likens it to being in the U.S. during the formative 1920s.

The breakneck speed of change, he says, was such that a massive cohort of newly white-collar Chinese were the first of their lines to buy cars, and did so almost simultaneously, meaning the rules, etiquette and future norms of the road were being formed before his eyes. “I don’t like to use the word, and it’s a shame there aren’t more synonyms, but I was using ‘unprecedented’ in copy all the time, because it really was,” he remembers.

NOW BACK IN TOKYO with the Financial Times, Lewis is genuinely excited to be reporting on a pivotal moment for a Japan that “cannot be the same place it has been,” he says, citing not only the increasing counterweight of China, but a demographic bind at home that many have seen coming but is only now becoming constrictive enough to force action.

Lewis acknowledges many of the criticisms of the current administration, but recognizes in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe a man “who has spotted that none of Japan’s issues are answerable without very substantial change.”

He feels Abe’s actions stem from a notion that the country does best “when it’s instilled with a kind of ‘ganbare Nihon’ nationalist fervor,” and that this constitutes “a fundamental misapprehension of what it is that gets Japanese people up in the morning.”

 

The leader who can harness whatever drives

the average person will be successful,

but that engine is not nationalism, especially not

for the younger generation, he feels.

 

Labor in the 1950s, he says, was for many a kind of atonement for the war, and as conditions improved over the decades before the bubble, “hard work became the currency, literally, of national gratitude.

“The problem is that work has lost the capacity to be either of those things anymore, and that is what Abe and this economy are dealing with.” The leader who can harness whatever drives the average person will be successful, but that engine is not nationalism, especially not for the younger generation, he feels.

Whatever eventuates, Lewis will surely be covering it in the pages of the FT, the purchase of which by the Nikkei group is likely to be finalized as this issue of No. 1 Shimbun goes to print. “Projects where both sides can see the value of cooperation have been identified in substantial number,” he says. “Some of those are already underway, and I’m delighted to say the Tokyo bureau is a big part of them, but I’m afraid you’ve caught me just a few weeks before we feel that warm glow.”

For Lewis, the thrill of spotting someone absorbed in his printed work on the train easily outstrips a glance at online traffic stats. He can still remember his first byline in the UK national press, a piece for the Independent for which he’d secured a choice quote on a hot-button topic of the day. “I remember thinking, ‘This is great. Everyone just says what they think! My career is going to be easy,’” he laughs. “And then of course I came to Japan, where nobody says what they think.”

Tyler Rothmar is a Tokyo-based writer and editor.

 

 

Published in: November 2015

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