Tokyo Brief

    And it’s a wrap. The annual gathering of the global sustainable investing elite, PRI in Person, is over for this time, and the delegates spill out of the enormous conference centre in a hurry to squeeze in a few hours of Tokyo sightseeing before they head back home. At this point, the mood is anything but reflective. Most of us are battling the combined effect of jet lag and information overload. So, rather than profound conclusions and deep analysis, I’ll treat you to some random thoughts and observations instead.

    Japan certainly delivered. Mr. Kishida, the Prime Minister, caused a stir beyond simply making an appearance at our humble gathering. He managed to impress us, finance nerds in particular, by announcing the birth of the world’s first government-issued transition bonds designed to help his country achieve net zero by 2050.

    I am now also officially a fan of Mr. Shimizu, the President of Nippon Life. It is a big deal that an insurance company should be the lead sponsor of the event, I believe. As the president pointed out, there was no commercial incentive for them to host us, as the vast majority among us are neither current nor potential clients. All the more credibility to the serious intentions of Nippon Life to promote responsible investing.

    Showcasing the beautiful country of the rising sun was part of the event, naturally, and we got our fair share of delicious sashimi, kabuki, and geisha encounters in stunning Japanese gardens despite not being invited to the more exclusive sake-tasting and fine-dining side events. Yet the most Japanese experience came towards the end of the conference, when Emi Onozuka, adorned in an elaborate kimono, took the stage. The charismatic CEO of Eminent Group used both elegant Japanese expressions and even a pop song to demonstrate the importance of connecting the dots, whether between academia and industry, corporate sustainability and sustainable finance or simply between personal passions and global movements.

    I’ll admit, there were plenty of soporific sessions during which I wished I had taken a seat closer to the door so I could pop out for a cup of double espresso without losing face. Yet, and you’ll have to trust me on this, I actually attended one where people wouldn’t leave the room until the polite but firm Japanese hosts had to usher us out, more than half an hour after the official end of the session. Mind you, coffee and fresh macarons were being served in the exhibition hall next door.

    The break-out session in question was advertised as a dialogue on the role of responsible investors as system actors. Admittedly, the speakers were good (AP7’s brilliant Emma Henningsson especially), but the discussion really kicked off during the Q&A. For me, it was highly indicative of the mood among my sustainability peers. The frustration over merely scratching the surface when there are enormous system-level challenges to address was palpable. Yet, despite acknowledging the limitations of investors, even the behemoth institutional ones among them, there was a certain optimism there as well, a belief that individual investors or small groups do have the power to change parts of the system.

    The PRI in Person is often criticised for being one of those preaching-to-the-choir gatherings. And yes, most of us attending the event are already convinced that responsible investing makes sense; why else come here at all? This year, however, I spotted quite a few investors who do not have ‘sustainability’ anywhere in their job titles. A former colleague of mine, the head of asset allocation for a financial institution, was just as excited to attend as a finance professor from an Asian university I talked to. The word is spreading, apparently. Maybe sustainability as a narrow specialisation within investing will become obsolete one day.

    Now the conference is over, I’ll head to the iconic Tokyo Tower. Another brief bird-eye view of this fantastic labyrinth of a city before it’s time to get down to ground and grind level.

    Image courtesy of Julia Axelsson
    Julia Axelsson, CAIA
    Julia Axelsson, CAIA
    Julia has accumulated experience in asset management for more than 20 years in Stockholm and Beijing, in portfolio management, asset allocation, fund selection and risk management. In December 2020, she completed a program in Sustainability Studies at the University of Linköping. Julia speaks Mandarin, Bulgarian, Hindi, Russian, Swedish, Urdu and English. She holds a Master in Indology from Sofia University and has completed studies in Economics at both Stockholm University and Stockholm School of Economics.

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