Chapter 25 – More Life Decisions: China or Japan?


The Dragon or the Samurai?

1. A China Opportunity
2. The Call of Japan
3. The Moment of Deciding
4. Back to Japan via ‘The Australian?’
5. The PhD Thesis Problem
6.  Rationalisations

With the door closed firmly on me in Australia, I began to look abroad for the job I needed after I finished my thesis. 

1.  A China Opportunity

I wrote to Derek Davies, the well-known editor of the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review, with whom I had had a friendly relationship earlier in Hong Kong (we were also to co-operate on the Francis James affair). 

In those days the Review was an authoritative and generally progressive source of information on China and the rest of Asia. It was far removed from the pro-business slants and the anti-Beijing rants it was to acquire under its later owners, the Wall Street Journal. 

Davies wrote back saying he could give me the job as chief China watcher. 

The offer was very attractive. 

Not only would I have a chance to get back into the China field. Over the years the Review had nurtured some of the West’s best China watchers  – Mirsky, Gittings, Bonavia etc. 

But the pull of Japan was to prove to be too strong. 

2. The Call of Japan

The fact my In Fear of China book was about to published in Japan, in Japanese, gave me a base from which to work – something I certainly did not have with China.

Most of all, there were those happy memories from my one-year student existence in Japan, and what I call the Yasuko tapes.

While in Tokyo I had tried to improve my grip on the language by taping radio broadcasts of interest and listening to them concentratedly. 

One broadcast I liked especially was called Watashitachi no Kotoba – readings of letters sent in by public minded citizens, most elderly, suggesting ideas for improving the society – proper garbage disposal, removing abandoned bicycles, better school education, etc. 

The letters taught me a lot about Japan — the strong public consciousness especially (image a  radio programme like that in Australia!). The concentrated listening taught me a lot of language. 

Back in Canberra I had wanted to keep my Japanese up. 

Yasuko would tape the Watashitachi no Kotoba broadcasts for me each week, and send them to me regularly by mail. 

She would also write charming letters in simple Japanese telling me what was happening with her and her friends. (It was typical of the gentle consideration the Japanese, the women especially, can show in personal relationships.) 

Stuck in the cold, antiseptic, bitchy world of Canberra academia, those letters were a lifeline – a lifeline of memories pulling me back to Japan. 

3. The Moment of Thesis Decision 

Meanwhile I had to prepare the final version of my thesis. No amount of nostalgia for Japan could help me there. 

Sometime when I was about to deliver my second draft to the typist for the complete and meticulous re-type demanded by the primitive technologies of the time, the futility of it all began to crowd in on me. 

Why was I doing all this? The establishment had already made it clear I would have no career in Australia, even after I had submitted the final version and had it approved. 

In effect, I still had another month or so of exhausting editorial work to get the document into the shape demanded by academics who were determined to make sure that I would never get a job, let alone academic recognition, in Australia. 

Even Arndt, my one point of honest contact at the ANU, had made it clear I was on my own once I finished the thesis. As he saw it, my China book (of which he disapproved mightily) meant I was still more of an international relations specialist than an economist. 

Maybe he was right. But it was already clear I would not going to go very far even in the international relations direction. 

He thought he could help me get a job with the Asian Development Bank in Manila (where by coincidence my Japanese speaking brother, Christopher, had ended up), but that was about all.

Worse was the pretentiousness of it all. 

PhD theses have to be presented as original contributions to knowledge fit for book publication. Yet everyone knows that the research is often either too narrow or too superficial. 

Being able to add the words PhD to your name may give you an academic meal ticket. 

But in the social sciences at least, it often means little more than that you had nothing better to do for three years of your life than engage on some area of useless esoteric research – years in which you could have been out in the world doing something useful. 

It can be academic credentialism at its worst – wasteful, and at times quite damaging.

I see the damage in the way some Japanese universities insist on recruiting English language teachers who have PhDs, usually in something called linguistics. 

Invariably these people have spent years researching some quite irrelevant branch of their alleged science. 

Worse they are determined to impose the results of that research on hapless Japanese students who simply want to learn how to say: “What is the way to the train station.” 

Post-graduate study for mature students makes more sense. 

In my own case, the exposure to good ANU economics teachers at a stage of life when, as my father had told me many years earlier, I had the maturity and experience to understand what was being taught, was invaluable. 

That, plus the chance for hands-on experience in Japan, was greatly to expand my academic qualifications and career possibilities. 

But for those who were coming directly from the under-graduate world, post-graduate economics would simply guarantee they would become fundamentalistic slaves of the theories of the day or to the theoretical economists who have often done more harm than good to economies in recent years.

Hardly any of the thick, carefully bound and annotated documents produced by most PhD candidates in the social sciences could qualify for book publication. Few would deserve even summary publication in an academic journal. 

So why was I, at age 33, going along with these intellectual pretensions, simply to satisfy a bunch of people who deep down hated my anti-Vietnam War guts. 

They would get deep pleasure from seeing me as a newly minted, anti-Vietnam War activist PhD seeking futilely for some kind of employment in Australia. 

4. Back To Japan via ‘The Australian?’ 

It was just at this moment of doubt and indecision that I ran into Eric Walsh again – the consummate fixer who had given me my valuable introduction to The Australian four years earlier. 

I told him my problems. 

Why not get a job as Tokyo correspondent for The Australian, he said. 

It was still Australia’s only progressive newspaper, and its editor, Adrian Deamer, remembered my earlier Vietnam and China article contributions. 

As well, the Japan-Australia business relationship was heating up. 

Lacking a Tokyo correspondent, The Australian was being hammered almost daily by big headline articles in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Financial Review, breaking news about new major resource export contracts with Japan, from their active, Tokyo-based stringer, Max Suich. 

The Australian badly needed someone in Tokyo to match the competition, Walsh noted. 

He said he would check possibilities with John Menadue – the same Menadue he had introduced me to when I had wanted to get to Whitlam in 1966, and who was now the business manager for The Australian. 

I had to say yes, even though I had no experience of journalism, or of Menadue. 

Menadue was receptive enough. 

But he said that while the newspaper could not afford to have someone in Japan purely as a news correspondent (the paper was still suffering heavy red ink) they could send me there if I would help garner Japanese advertising – yet another area where The Australian was being beaten badly by the Fairfax Press. 

I was agreeable.

But Deamer, who was also keen to have a Tokyo correspondent, was not happy about the idea of my having to handle advertising too. Good newspapers try to keep a clear barrier between advertising and editorial, he warned. 

Later I was to discover that he was not entirely wrong – not so much because the ads influenced the editorial, but because of the demands on time. 

5. The PhD Thesis Problem 

But if I was to take up the Tokyo job, what was I to do about the ANU thesis? I still had at least a month or so to go before I could hand over the kind of document demanded by the PhD system. 

On the other hand, both Menadue and Deamer wanted me to get to Tokyo quickly. And I did not want to lose this golden opportunity to get back to Japan, with a job. 

I decided to try to find a compromise. 

I wrote to the ANU, telling them that while I was close to finishing my thesis, I was sure I could write a much better thesis if I could get back to Japan. 

Which was true. A lot more information on Japanese overseas investment was coming out of Tokyo at the time (the Export-Import Bank people were finally publishing the detailed statistics demanded by the IMF). 

As a correspondent for a major Australian newspaper, I would also have chances to get into large Japanese firms and query them on their overseas investment policies – chances I rarely had had as a struggling researcher two years earlier when all I could do to get detailed information was to pore over magazine articles and limited statistical data looking for clues. 

In short, I could say in all honesty that the job offer from The Australian would let me get back to Japan to get the extra information that I needed to prepare a better thesis, and at no expense to the ANU. 

The ANU establishment was not impressed. Crawford came back with a blunt letter saying they would give me a six months unpaid extension, and no more.

To some extent I could understand his position. 

The ANU provided quite generous three-year PhD scholarships. The university had a right to demand that people finish their research in the time allotted. 

I had already been given an extra year because I had to learn Japanese, plus another six months unpaid to write my China book. 

But few can learn Japanese even to semi-fluency in one year, even if they have Chinese. And the China book had taken a lot more than six months to research and write, and was a lot more important in potential policy formation than any number of PhDs. 

As for my PhD research, the fact that if it was to be handled properly the topic required a very wide range of sensitive inside information from businessmen and bureaucrats in a very foreign nation meant it was never going to be easy. 

In this situation, if people are willing to spend their own time and money to complete research of some importance, exceptions can and should be made. 

6. Rationalisations

What to do? Deep down I already realised that the work demands in my new job would make it hard to meet the six month deadline. 

Apart from anything else, I would have to spend two of that six months in Sydney learning how to be their Tokyo correspondent. 

So should I abandon all academic pretensions and just head off for Tokyo? 

I tried to rationalize: Maybe I would have to give up hope of the PhD tag. But that would not stop me from putting out a worthwhile book out on the subject sometime later while I was in Tokyo and had more time to prepare. That, I was sure, would be seen as much more important than any PhD – assuming I would want to go back into academia. 

True, all that would take a lot more than six months, years even. But in the meantime I would be gaining valuable experience in a variety of other Japan fields – politics, foreign affairs etc. 

Hopefully by the end of all that the political climate in Australia would have improved to the point where I could finally return and use my experience to get a job there. 

Besides, I had already prepared the basic data and conclusions of the thesis. Even if I did not do a book, I could get that material published in Japan (which I did, two years later, via Ajiken).

The Thai car industry story – which I still regard as a model for all developing economies – I could (and did) publish separately. 

I also happened to disapprove of academic credentialism. 

In non-credentialist Japan, which in those days had a healthy disrespect for PhDs (they called them ‘over-doctors’, or over-studied), it would be irrelevant whether I had spent more time to get that PhD. 

But all that aside, I had another and much deeper reason for wanting to get out of Australia and back to Japan. 

This was the shallowness and hopelessness of the continuing Vietnam debate in Australia. 

Even planting trees in the Japanese mountains would be better than trying to cope with the daily barrage of ignorance and insensitivity to a war for which Australia had so much responsibility. 

I had to get away from it all. 

Concern about PhDs and other academic credentials had become secondary. 

And so, on a bright early winter mid-1969 morning I set out by car from Canberra to begin a new career in the offices of The Australian in Sydney. 

Just how new and different that career was to be was something I was soon to discover.