17 Mar 2021
12th May 2020
What's life like for a Japanese foreign correspondent in the UK? Reflections on the pub!
Written by Mikako Yokoyama; translated by Jeremy Gordon.
Since October 2019, I have been working as a foreign correspondent in Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun’s general European bureau. As the name suggests, while the office is in London, we cover news across the whole continent. Personally, I am primarily responsible for covering the UK and European economy.
Covering business and economics, I write articles on topics like the key economic data published by governments or changes to monetary policy made by central banks, analysing and contextualising these developments. However, by looking at those things alone, you cannot grasp what the lives and work of the people living in those places are really like. By meeting people and actually hearing their stories, our understanding deepends.
An interesting place to gather material for stories in the UK is the pub. Last autumn, I went to Swindon, where there is a Honda factory which is set to close down. In the morning, I interviewed the Conservative candidate who was standing in December’s general election, Justice Secretary Robert Buckland, about his plans to improve the local economy. After that, I headed to a pub where I had heard Honda workers often gathered. There, the plan was to chat with a few local drinkers. After talking to several people, I was able to strike up conversation with a group of three men who worked for a company related to Honda. It was the middle of the day on a Friday.
“Because work has quietened down, Fridays have become mornings only,’’ they confided. For a reporter, this was the valuable voice of those directly involved. When it came to politics, they had quite different perspectives but agreed on some things.
“At any rate, I feel sorry for the young people. It’s a problem, they thought they might have a job for life, and now their jobs are disappearing,’ agreed the men in their 50s, rather angrily.
“This is becoming a warehouse town,” they worried, about the fate of Swindon following the factory closure.
Do we have somewhere like this in Japan, I wonder. There are plenty of izakayas in Japan that you can pop into casually, but often the staff will tell you where to sit and I've never talked to people I don’t know at other tables. At the kind of small izakayas, often run by one person, where the counter is the main place to sit, I’ve often talked to fellow customers. But going and doing that for the first time I feel is a rather difficult thing.
For someone like me, living in a foreign country for the first time, not knowing too many British people, if I’m struggling for a story, heading to the pub and just striking up conversation is an important technique for gathering material.
Even without talking to people, after going to a pub for the first time you learn a lot. Last year, when Japan hosted the Rugby World Cup, I wanted to go and support England after they had got to the final, so I went along to a local pub that morning. I was surprised at pubs being open so early, and not just open but packed. The way everyone stood up together to cheer was my favourite part. Of course, there were South African spectators there too, and when their team scored their supporters cheered loudly and enjoyably. I thought the whole scene was rather unique to Britain due to its history and diversity.
When I went to cover Brexit-related demonstrations taking place in Parliament Square too, on my way home I dropped into a pub nearby. The pub was full of protesters. As here and there they argued about politics, I felt like I could see the origins of the pub.
To an ordinary Japanese person, who might enjoy drinking alcohol alongside ‘otsumami’, or beer snacks, the typical ‘pub style’ of drinking beer after beer without eating is unusual. And at first I wasn’t used to it, but now it's alright. However, I never expected the day to come when I wouldn’t be able to meet and interview people in that way.
Because of the spread of the coronavirus, pubs remain closed for the time being. Recently, while visiting local takeaways to order, it’s been possible to have a chat, but having an in-depth conversation with a shopkeeper in the middle of work is a difficult task. I can try things like striking up conversation with shoppers in a supermarket car park, but it’s tough for me talking to someone for the first time while maintaining social distancing. Either way, I’d rather hear what people living in Britain really think while sipping a beer and relaxing. Because of the coronavirus, I think the way we live and work is going to have to change, but I hope some way will be found to preserve the good features of that cornerstone of British society known as the pub.