Chapter 39 – The Australia-Japan Foundation Debacle



1. The Foundation Idea
2. The Foundation Established?
3. Foundation Reform?
4. Birthday Celebrations
5. Language Problems

Australians are a weird mob. They talk how proximity gives them a special relationship with Asia, and an understanding denied other more distant Westerners.

Yet it has been the Europeans, not the Australians, who have been most active in mediating some serious Asian disputes over the years. 

And it was the Europeans who pioneered government schemes to allow young graduates gain on-the-spot training in Japan. 

Australia had done almost nothing. 


When Australians are thrown into a close relationship with a large Asian nation they seem to panic. They begin to imagine hidden plots and dangers. 

We saw it first with Japan in the 1970’s. We were then to see it sadly with China in the late 2020’s. 

With Japan there was a particular irony – the panics often coincided with the initiatives that were supposed to work for closer relationships. 

The NARA Treaty debacle was one example.  The abortive Australia-Japan Foundation was another.

1. The Foundation Idea 

Arriving in Canberra in late 1974 I felt I should try to follow up on the idea of some kind of organisation to promote Australian involvement with Japan.

The idea had originally been mine, when I was still with The Australian in Tokyo. 

I had found it easy to sell to then ambassador, Shann. He too was concerned about getting Australians to take more interest in Japan.

Together we had then sold it to Menadue, then working in News Corp. and later the head of Prime Minister and Cabinet Department, on one of his Japan visits. 

At the time there was no mechanism by which  Australians interested in Japan could easily get involved with Japan. 

I remembered my own experience –  the difficulties I had had in the late sixties in getting to Japan and getting established there.

Australian universities at the time were still being criminally negligent in their bad teaching of Japanese.

They had even less interest in providing the follow-up whereby graduates from Japanese language courses could get to Japan to use the language they were supposed to have been taught.

2. Setting up the Foundation

A Foundation would help overcome these problems, I hoped. 

Working alongside the very pro-Japan, John Menadue, we managed to get the paperwork for Cabinet approval. 

I had a particular reason to want to see the Foundation established, namely the  hideous experience I had suffered in 1966 when I had set out to try to learn Japanese at formal ANU classes. 

In 1969 I made a strong appeal to Chancellor Crawford for the ANU to do something to improve its Japanese language teaching.

I had suggested something along the lines of combining Japanese with business studies about which I had written back in 1966, and which had been picked up and used so successfully by the University of Western Australia. 

Indeed for a long time WA was almost the only source of graduates able to get good positions with Japanese firms in Tokyo.

I never got a reply.

My hope was that the Foundation would be that reply.

2. The Foundation Established?

Menadue was able to push the Foundation idea through Cabinet. 

But he had also let Crawford get involved. 

The proposal, once approved, was quickly hijacked by Crawford, who saw it as yet another source of funds for those non-Japanese speaking ANU academics  researching the Japanese economy. 

I had proposed setting up centers where adults whose careers were taking them to Japan could study Japanese intensively before leaving Australia.

And when they arrived in Japan they would find someone who would help them continue their studies, or find jobs where they could use their Japanese.

It would resemble the Standford Center which had such success in bringing up a generaton of Japan experts in the US. 

But in the hands of the Foundation I had worked so hard to establish, that idea had ended up as a single center opened in Canberra where anyone with a vague interest in Japan – wanderers, housewives, small children – could get a superficial exposure to the language. 

That Canberra language center only managed to survive for a year or so.


As for the Foundation, that ended up as a fairly useless outfit running weak publicity campaigns for Australia in Japan, and sending Australian potters, poets etc for brief visits to Japan in exchange for taking a few second-rate Japanese academics and the occasional Japanese artist for visits to Australia. 

But it was good for parking ASIS types where they could work under cover. 

The Japanese foreign ministry politely declined the request that it should set up its own Japan Australia Foundation. 

3. Foundation Reform?

In all the years I have been in Japan, rarely have I been contacted by the Foundation. 

Even more rarely was I invited to any of its many functions. 

Connections with Japanese universities were supposed to be one of the main targets of the Foundation’s alleged involvement with Japan. 

Yet somehow they managed to ignore a certain Australian who had been working in or running Japanese universities for 30 years.

I had a lot of experience I could share with them.

I once mentioned my concerns about the Foundation to an old Vietnam War days acquaintance, Gareth Evans, when he was Australia’s foreign affairs minister. 

He commissioned me informally to set out my own ideas on how to reform the organisation. 

I wrote to him saying ideally the Foundation would sponsor a full time official – ideally an old Japan Hand with some academic background – in Tokyo to help young people who had studied Japan and Japanese in Australia and wanted to find work or study slots in Japan. 

I specifically mentioned the Stanford University Center in Tokyo which had done just that so effectively for so many young Americans over the years. 

I sent off my report to Gareth. But I never got a reply, let alone action. 

I fact, and despite also a family friend connection, I have failed to get any relationship with Evans over the years. 

I notice he was curiously silent during Vietnam War days.

4. Birthday Celebrations

When the Foundation had its 25th birthday celebrations in Japan, I was left off the lavish list of guests, some to be flown into Japan – a list that managed even to include an American academic who had nothing to do with Japan-Australia relations. 

I contrast it with Japan where if you have ever done anything to help an organisation the followup invitations will continue for years.

There is something very superficial about most Australian relationships with Japan.  

5. Language Problems 

The extraordinary inability – no, refusal – of the Australian bureaucracy to understand the need for Japanese speakers in its Tokyo embassy was part of this immature superficiality. 

If the British learned anything form their years of colonial conquest it was the need to train language speakers.  

Their Embassy in Tokyo has almost always been headed by someone with good Japanese language and experience.

For long it was rare for Australia to appoint good language speakers to head any of its embassies, even in Japan.  

As I have discovered often – first in China and later Japan – good foreign language speakers are viewed with suspicion.  

They are seen as belonging to the other side – not one of our mob.  

I once heard a proudly mono-lingual senior Australia trade official in Tokyo refer to his Japanese-speaking underlings as ‘my Jappies.’ 

True, and perhaps partly as a result of my journalistic efforts to raise the language issue, Canberra in 1973 commissioned a heavily publicized report by Fitzgerald recommending that Australian schools should all be obliged to teach Asian languages. 

But the report was almost as half-baked as the attitudes that went before it. 

It owed much to the conventional wisdom found in most mono-lingual societies, Australia especially, that only young children can learn foreign languages properly. 

As Fitzgerald should have known from his own experience, a motivated adult – especially one who knows his future career depends on acquiring the language – can, and will, learn the language as well, if not better, compared with a school child, especially a child in the Australian school environment.

As Fitzgerald should have known from his own Pt. Cook experience, just learning basic Chinese in an Australian environment requires a year of concentrated study, six-eight hours per day, under competent teachers with good materials. 

So why did he think it could be mastered in a few hours a week under untrained teachers? 

From my own experience I put the late twenties as the age to which concentrated study of a difficult foreign language can be most successful. 

The slight disadvantages in remembering and absorbing correct accents as one gets older is more than made up for by stronger motivation.

In short, resources concentrated on teaching motivated adults (which is what I had hoped the abortive Australia-Japan Foundation effort would do) will produce far greater results than scattershot teaching in schools, especially when the schools do not have proper Asian language courses or teachers in place. 

One shudders to think of the resources wasted on trying to teach Chinese for one or two hours a week to absent-minded Australian school children who see no use for the language in their future.

For a while we had the absurd situation where, in order to fulfil the Fitzgerald report, teachers of French were being retreaded into becoming teachers of Japanese. 

The theory was that since teaching a foreign language was a kind of science, anyone with a foreign language teaching qualification had the ’science’ needed to teach any language, even if they did not know the language themselves! 

True, things have improved since, and have helped contribute to the numbers of young Australians now able to live and work in Japan – the working holiday visa system especially which John Menadue, partly at my urging, managed to  push through the Japanese and Australian bureaucracies.. 

But for the people at the top good Japanese speakers continue to be regarded as ‘Jappies.’ 

And for a long time few were able to make it to top positions. 

This lack of an educated elite with a genuine interest in and understanding of Asia and Asian languages has been the major reason for the extraordinary ease with which Australia could switch to anti-China attitudes,   


But I imagine that is no tragedy for the small clique anxious to maintain their monopoly over Chinese language and relations.

Fortunately, with Japan this problem has been partly averted by the Working Holiday visa system. But there is still a severe lack of top-level Australians able to work easily with the language.