Multiculturally Bemused in Tokyo
The Quadrant – July-August, 1996
So Bill HAYDEN sees a shameful contrast between Australia’s multicultural openness and Japan’s racial exclusivism. I could ask him when Australia will ever have a governor-general, prime minister, or foreign minister who can speak any Asian language, or any other difficult language for that matter, with even a fraction of the fluency most of Japan’s establishment speaks English. I could also ask him when an Australian university will have a Japanese as chancellor or vice-chancellor.
But the irony in Hayden’s conventional wisdom about Japan’s alleged racism lies elsewhere, in the little realised fact that there are, or at least were, remarkable similarities between Australia and Japan when it comes to attitudes to foreigners. Both used to have White Australia style exclusivism. Both have since opened up to the outside world. The only real difference between the two is that Japan, unlike Australia, has been able to do this while preserving identity and values. That Australia should use this to criticise Japan as exclusivist is like the alcoholic accusing the moderate drinker of being a Wowser. Societies can organise their identity and values in one of two ways. One is through strong awareness of an inherited ideology or civilisation, such as in China or France. The other is through a strong instinctive sense of togetherness, such as we see in Japan and used to see in Australia and in the other Anglo-Saxon nations. Isolated from the main centres of world civilisation during their formative stages, these societies came to rely on a strongly collectivist ethic to hold themselves together. Ideology – Confucianism, Christianity, whatever – was secondary.
True, Japan went much further than most in the collectivist direction due to its greater isolation and its reliance on the Confucian rather than our Christian-cum-rationalist ethic. But Australia too has, or rather had, a very strong collectivist ethic, thanks also to isolation and to the still not fully recognised influence of its convict-bush ethic. Australian mateship has close parallels with Japanese groupism. Other similarities included disdain for non-conformists, dislike of rigid ideologies, a natural, instinctive honesty in relationships (the so- called civil society that many now recognise only by its passing), a lack of legalism, weak class consciousness, weak intellectualism, gilt practicality, gut conservatism, and an indulgent intimacy in relations. Japan has simply gone much further than Australia in formalising many of these qualities.
One could also mention the extraordinary productivity of Australian manufacturing through to the 1960s (our economists have yet to learn that the key to any productivity success is groupist co-operation, with technology break- throughs, interest rates, management systems and so on being secondary). That other island nation, Britain, also shared many of these features. National identity also shows similarities. In his essay “England, Your England”, George Orwell rhapsodised over the ability of the English to know naturally and instinctively what it was to be English. Bill Peach once said much the same about Australians. Japan simply takes it for granted that its 120 million inhabitants form a natural collective unit.
Nor is there anything inherently wrong in this more “tribal” or emotionally-based, primary group approach to nationhood. The social contract is imposed naturally. The nation does not need priests, mullahs or ideologues to hold itself together.
Problems only arise when foreigners are involved. Nations like China and France can assume that the out- sider will automatically integrate into the national ideology or culture, or else. But with the instinctively collectivist nation? As with other primary groups – the family, village or club, for example – it is difficult to integrate outsiders into a value system in which by definition only those already in the system can understand how it works and what it means. This was why the British had to keep those continental Europeans at hay for so long, the Australians once felt they had to have White Australia, and Japan continues to assume that Japan is primarily for the Japanese.
Frankly, I find the Japanese approach quite acceptable, which is one reason I have stayed over twenty-five years and raised a family without any great problems in this allegedly racist society. Foreigners may not be welcomed as members, but they are treated quite politely as guests of the tribal collective. Their opinions are given respect, too much respect at times. Postwar Japan has avoided the snootiness of past British exclusivism and most of the crudities of our former White Australia exclusivism.
BUT EVEN JAPAN is starting to fall victim to the fatal flaw in all instinctively or emotionally based value systems, namely that they cannot defend themselves from what I call “ismic” attack. They have no answer to accusations of fuddy duddy conservatism, illogicality, racism or what have you. They flip-flop easily under pressure. We see this particularly in attitudes to foreigners. The British have now embarked on the hopeless exercise of proving to the world that they are really continental Europeans, while trying vainly to absorb far too many refugees from the remnants of empire. White Australia has about-faced to the point where the white Anglo-Saxons now almost have to apologise for being in the country.
Meanwhile Japan has fallen in love with something called kokusaika, or internationalisation – a wave of Westernisation that threatens the traditional culture and even the language – and has turned a foolishly blind eye to hundreds of thousands of illegal workers. Flights out of Tehran were booked solid for years in advance by would-be illegals taking advantage of a reciprocal no-visa tourist agreement with Japan – a loophole which the allegedly exclusivist Japanese took years to close and only faced after serious crime and drug problems plus the assassination of Salman Rushdie’s Japanese translator (are you listening Bill Hayden?).
The Anglo-Saxon ethic societies have fallen victim to a host of other “isms”: me-first Thatcherism, environmentalism, economic rationalism, exaggerated feminism, pornography rights-isms, equal opportunity-ism, and so on. The traditional mores, rituals and conventions can be easily swept aside by any Tom, Dick or Shirley insisting that some particular law, principle or half-baked theory should be in command (though we now see a reaction to all this, with the interesting attempts in most Anglo- Saxon culture societies to climb back into the womb of traditional family and collectivist values). Meanwhile the more ideological societies simply stick to their original “ism”.
Australia has been especially prone to such flip-flops. Each brilliant idea or “ism” is supposed to bring us further away from the stick-in the-mud attitudes of a conservative past and closer to a brave new future. Meanwhile, and not entirely by coincidence, a once quite stable, cohesive, law-abiding, prosperous society has come to suffer serious levels of unemployment, crime and corruption, with income levels close to being overtaken by the Singaporeans and Hongkongese we once felt so patronisingly superior to. The fad for multi- culturalism is yet another addition to the stable.
Naturally, as the father of two half-Japanese children who may want to live in Australia I am not opposed to foreigners migrating to the country. But any large influx of foreigners, especially difficult-to assimilate Asians, needs to be handled with extreme care. To embrace large numbers of foreigners uninterested in traditional Australian values and who offer no alternative, all in the name of multiculturalism, is a form of national suicide. A rather irrelevant shift from monarchy to republic has to be debated and referendumed at length. But a major shift in the entire culture and even racial composition of a nation can be carried out by stealth, without even the pretence of gaining a national consensus.
The Australia-as-part-of-Asia mystique is part of the same flip-flop syndrome. From semi-colonial hang-ups about British bootheels, and then all the way with LBJ, we now have cargo-cult fantasies about Asian ascendancies. If we tell the Asians we love them they will embrace us to their cash filled bosoms, and if they don’t they are recalcitrant. Obviously Australia needs to put more emphasis on ties with Asia. But it is not going to happen simply because some people once notorious for their lack of interest in Asia say it will happen.
Working in Canberra from the fifties to the early seventies one saw at close range the mechanisms behind this Asian immaturity. The first shift was the superficial “friends and neighbours” paternalism of the Casey years. While we did not really want to know too much about those little brown people in our neighbourhood, we were quite willing to admit that some of them were nice chaps – friends even. It was our job to protect these friends, which is why we had to try to prevent Lee Kuan Yew’s 1959 election victory (he was seen as a dangerous pro-communist very antagonistic to our “friends”), and to intervene in Vietnam to save more of our “friends” – this time from a Chinese “thrust between the Indian and Pacific Oceans”.
Then came the Whitlam-Fraser volte face towards China. Overnight a nation still plagued with Cultural Revolution excesses was seen as a shining Asian beacon, mainly because it gave us nice dinner parties in Beijing. From deep opposition to Sukarno’s Indonesia and the West Irian takeover we switch to puppy-dog courtship of Suharto’s Indonesia and the East Timor takeover. A grandiose Whitlam plan to sign a treaty of closer relations with Japan in the early seventies was sabotaged by Canberra’s lingering anti-Japan suspicions, ignorant Whitlam advisers and ambitious ASIO and ASIS spooks. But it is now being replaced by the even more grandiose belief that APEC and free-trade economic rationalism will allow us somehow to become a key player in Asia.
IT IS TIME TO PUT the APEC free trade fantasies back where they belong. APEC can trace its origins directly to a bizarre 1960s tie-up between a small group of nationalistic Japanese economists and an even smaller group of ANU economists to push the idea of a five-nation Pacific free trade bloc (PAFTA) in which Japan would be the exclusive Asian member with privileged access to the markets and resource supplies of the rich, white Pacific nations – Canada, the US, New Zealand and Australia. PAFTA also had the political objective of undercutting Japanese left-wing claims that normalising relations with the Asian communist nations was crucial for Japan’s postwar economic progress.
PAFTA was of course totally unrealistic, as another ANU economist, Heinz Arndt, pointed out at the time. But that did not stop the Japanese economists from their assiduous courtship of Australia and the ANU grouping, to provide the international contacts they needed so badly to break out of postwar isolation. (As an ANU research scholar in Japan at the time I too was wooed briefly, only to be dropped abruptly when I suggested that my main aim in Japan was to learn Japanese and about Japan rather than help Japanese economists with their English and their overseas contacts.) Sons and daughters of PAFTA continued to be floated in endless papers, conferences and meetings, leading to the eventual birth of the APEC concept, with Australia pulled in to play the main promotional role.
It is said that the camel is the unfortunate creation of the committee that had been commissioned to design a horse. APEC is just such a camel. Its PAFTA origins explain its meaningless inclusion of a mixed bag of Latin Americans while South Asia and parts of South- East Asia are excluded, why NAFTA-oriented US is included but the Europeans are excluded, why Indo- China and Russia are still kept out, and why Taiwan is included (guaranteeing major future friction with Beijing). The PAFTA origins also explain APEC’s meaning- less attempt to persuade its developing nation members to embrace total free trade doctrines even when it is obvious that protection for selected industries was the key to progress in Japan, Taiwan and Korea, and for Malaysia’s very successful car industry.
Inevitably this “camel” will have to give way to a more focused and less free-trade obsessed, Asian-centred bloc – some amalgam of ASEAN and the Malaysian- proposed East Asian Economic Caucus which used to annoy Canberra and Washington so much. Already these Asians have opened a useful dialogue with the EU, again to Australian and US annoyance. But Bangkok and Beijing are much closer physically to Paris and Bonn that they are to Washington and Mexico. The idea that Asia can somehow be forced to look east to the Americans rather than west to Europe just because APEC exists on paper is pure fantasy.
The same applies to the dogma that free trade with Asia will somehow make Australia a vibrant member of the Asian economy. No-one who claims to be an economist can oppose the liberalisation of economic transactions. Between nations with similar competitiveness, for example Australia and New Zealand, free trade broadens markets, allowing major economies of scale. But free trade between economies with different levels of competitiveness is almost a contradiction in terms. Inevitably someone is going to have trade deficit problems, which means that their currency will have to be devalued to encourage exports and cut imports. So all that happens is that tariff and subsidy protectionism is replaced by exchange rate protectionism. Both protectionisms have their pluses and minuses. But for a country like Australia it is very likely that sensible tariff and subsidy protectionism is somewhat better since it is selective, more easily controlled and most of the gains from the protectionism accrue to the Australians who need them rather than to foreigners or minerals exporters.
As well, exchange rate protectionism often only begins to operate after import-competing or export industries have suffered severe damage, the industrial base has been badly weakened, youth unemployment is ingrained and the debt burden is out of control. Australia, with its high minerals exports and high-interest-rate policies, is especially vulnerable to such delays. At the very least there should be a debate about the relative merits of the two kinds of protectionism, instead of the current sloganising about McEwenite protectionism the moment anyone suggests an alternative to current policies.
Our economic rationalists used to like to boast how Australia had avoided the Latin American evil of tariff protectionism. Meanwhile Australia is fast replacing Latin America as a classic example of the damage done by exchange rate protectionism.
That the advanced Western economies will eventually have to adjust to the low labour cost economies of Asia and elsewhere is inevitable. But the advanced economies also have the right arid the obligation to try to control the rate of this adjustment, to protect their own societies and economies from undue strain. Under free tradeism this is close to impossible, especially since the smarter Asian developing nations have deliberately kept their own currencies undervalued. One of my uglier memories of Canberra in the early 1970s was an ANU APEC-ist vigorously defending Japan’s attempts to keep its currency undervalued at a time when the Australian dollar was grossly overvalued, and otherwise highly competitive, technologically- advanced Australian manufacturing was being taken to the wall as a result. But no doubt it earned him brownie points in the Japanese establishment.
“Personalism” was how Bill Morrison, former ambassador to Indonesia and one of Australia’s better diplomats, once described it – a naive belief that Australians do not really have to study and know Asia, that they can make it in Asia Crocodile Dundee-style simply by sheer force of their brilliant personalities and by hobnobbing with top Asian personalities.
Almost none of the top bureaucrats and academics telling us what Australia should be doing in Asia speaks any Asian language. Few even have real experience of living and working in Asia. Inevitably most have a vested interest in keeping the few Australians who do have genuine Asian experience at a distance. Canberra’s obsessive determination to pump large numbers of largely uneducated ASIO and ASIS operatives into Asia as its contribution to the US-UK-Canada-Australia intelligence cartel does not help either.
Here in Tokyo we see these flaws in full dimension. A bloated embassy, which until very recently had almost no Japanese speakers among its senior staff, seems to have a neverending capacity to create minimum impact with the maximum of self-aggrandising fuss and expense. I have in front of me an impressive document saying how the Prime Minister of Australia, The Hon PJ Keating (sic) has announced the establishment of something called the Australian Fellowship-Japan, to be awarded to a Japanese scholar with “outstanding academic achievement” for a doctoral project in Australia “considered likely to lead to ongoing joint research or ongoing academic exchanges between Australia and Japan”.
The lucky recipient? A thirty-year-old secretary with no academic connections whatsoever, plucked out of a small Australian office here, causing great harm to that office’s operations, one of which happens to be promoting academic exchanges. Asked why it had done such a dumb thing, the embassy said lamely it had been unable to find anyone else.
There is any number of promising young Japanese academics keen to study in Australia, just as there is now a large number of young Australians who want to be involved with Japan. But few will get the chances they deserve while Canberra clings to its current Asian bombast.