Accidental Diplomacy: Australian-Japanese Relations

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Disasters create strange bedfellows. What good could anyone imagine would come from the horrors of the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear leak that hit the Japanese coast last year? Let me suggest one, a profound one – Japan for the first time since WWII felt cared for by foreigners. Foreigners, the “barbarians” of Perry’s black ships, the crazy, arrogant, unfathomable gaijins who had turned up in their thousands to get a bit of the action when Japan was in bubble economy mode.

Australia has been a major trading partner of Japan since WWII, exporting raw materials and getting them back in the form of cars, trucks, computers, anything. On the softer side Australia has also been seduced by wide-eyed anime characters like Astroboy, introduced business cards into its business etiquette and sushi, sashimi and tempura have become aussie standards. But where was the love? This was pure business and the usual cultural flow-on that always accompanies high levels of trade between countries.

Immediately after WWII Japan was single minded in rebuilding domestically, protecting itself against a China that was not only its traditional enemy but now communist and still expansionist. It was deep in the throws of American occupation and needing to find a dignified and profitable relationship with its victors, which included Australia. An Australia that had come surprisingly close to invasion with bombing attacks on its northern city of Darwin which rivaled the attack on Pearl Harbour for sheer quantity of bombs; the sinking of a ferry in Sydney Harbor with considerable loss of life by a squadron of mini subs; vicious and deadly encounters in Singapore and Papua New Guinea..

This very raw period presented complex and deep feelings on both sides of the Australian-Japan relationship, which prior to WWII, had been excellent. Remember we were on the same side in WWI.

A fact not generally known is that Australia was very keen on punishing the Japanese through the war crimes trials and clamoured successfully to have their judges appointed to the tribunals. The Japanese saw Australia simply as the victor seeking revenge through the tribunals and Australia saw the Japanese as still very much a cruel and inhuman enemy.  Culturally however there is a lot of evidence of the Japanese adopting what they believed to be western  (American) ways and dropping some of theirs. The process of omiai (arranged marriage) for instance, went into decline after the war. They embraced US ideas of capitalism and some management theory although they were in the end very Japanese in application.

When the Japanese started to see the rewards of their hard won reconstruction they became less enamored with western (American) culture and management methods and economic models. At times Japan even expressed this much to everyone’s embarrassment. For instance, a Minister of the Tanaka government in the mid 70s, flush with Japan’s economic success, jeeringly told the Americans, whose economy was languishing, that they didn’t know how to run their country. They had moved from obsequious defeat to the hubris of economic and ipso facto cultural superiority. The Japanese felt they had the right combination of government involvement in private enterprise through organisations such as the all powerful MITI, appropriate control of workers’ unions and a united population happy to be part of the post war miracle.

At the same time the West was starting to quote, or misquote, Japan as “the way to go “ regarding manufacturing methods, union control, “jobs for life”, the value and rewards of having a compliant society depending on who you were and what point you were trying to make. The tide had turned for both the Japanese and us Westerners. The not so funny joke of “who really won the war?” was extant when describing the Japanese’s recovery and the languishing of our economies.

Underlying all this change and ambiguity in the relationship was a raging commodities/manufactured goods trade between Australia and Japan; they needed each other profoundly.

Then came 1990, the bubble burst and has never been re-blown. Suddenly, the hubris that had started to characterize Japanese relations with foreigners was disappearing, rather there was a return to an embarrassed stance of a nation that was meant to be poor. Indeed, one of the best selling books of the era in Japan extolled the traditional virtues of poverty.

In a way we have come full circle with Australia and its main western ally, America, wondering, along with Japan, what to do with China. There is pressure for Japan to drop its pacifist position and convert its “Self Defense Force” into something more assertive. An interesting bit of byplay on this theme was the role Australian troops played in Iraq as protectors of the “strictly defensive”, Japanese.

The relationship appeared to have moved from one of hatred and distrust to something more ambiguous based on mutual benefit.

The recent tsunami revealed the new closer human aspect of the relationship in two ways:

One: a group of Australian haiku and tanka poets put together a collection of their poems that offered sympathy and support. This was sent to various groups and individuals. A common theme in the response was that the Japanese felt, for the first time since WWII, that non Japanese actually cared for them. To quote one Japanese Law Professor:

We had a lot of sympathy and condolences from the world this time as well, which might be the first time, in the past 60 years, to know we Japanese are liked by so many people in the world.

Two: With typical love of language the Japanese  coined a word to describe gaijins (foreigners) who fled Japan after the tsunami – it was “gojins”. This is not just amusing but suggests that the Japanese feel more part of the world and other people. There is a suggestion here that we foreigners are really one of them and should join them in this tragedy, not flee.

A very similar sense of redemption and oneness occurred under much lighter circumstances for Germany when they hosted the FIFA world cup in 2006. For the first time since WWII they publicly expressed an acceptable patriotism, which was seen as simply national pride not threatening jingoism. This was important to post war generations who had been brought up on a diet of lectures at home, in school and society in general not to publicly express national pride or indulge in triumphalism in victory. Like the Japanese they felt that for the first time in 60 years their neighbours had put the past behind them and normal relations had resumed. In the case of Japan; that normal relations had begun.

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