The Sunday Mail, November 6, 1988

Where We go Wrong in Japan

We don't sell ourselves hard enough...

Gregory Clark

MY LOCAL Tokyo supermarket has started to put Australian canned peaches on display. And not before time.

The superior Australian product sells for the incredibly low Japanese price of only $2 a big can. The local product costs more than $3 for a watery concoction only half the size.

You'd assume Japanese consumers would line up for the Australian product, right? Wrong!The Australian can is on a bottom shelf, its brand name unknown.

In the land of Number One, Australia seems fated to remain Number Two or worse.

Australia, the US and Canada all sell the same kind of coal to Japan. Yet it seems taken for granted Australia gets a price 10 to 20 percent lower than the US or Canada prices.

From wine and fruit juice to beef and canned fruit, the much cheaper, and in many cases superior, Australian product is ignored by what is arguably the world's most important consumer market.

Australia's relationship with Japan is in a malaise.

Despite all the rhetoric, Australia simply has not reached its potential. It is easy, as some do, to blame Japan for not taking Australia seriously; but more of the blame lies with Australia.

In the years since the war, Canberra, at times, seemed reluctant to staff its Tokyo offices with Japanese speakers.

Private enterprise is just as negligent. Many large companies still do not have representative offices here. And those that do usually make little attempt to recruit Japanese experts.

In a market as large and as sophisticated as Japan, it is foolish to send semi-amateurs to represent Australia.

Austrade has improved things somewhat - it has even found a Japanese-speaker to head its efforts here - but mistakes still occur, like an abortive effort to push Australian furniture and other knickknacks here when what is really needed is a major push to get Australian wine and food brand-names established.

The Australian Embassy manages to do a bit better when it comes to Japanese expertise; but, unlike the UK, the US and even New Zealand, we have never had an ambassador who speaks Japanese.

Further, Canberra insists that selling half the historic land the embassy occupies in Tokyo is justified by the $A500 mllion Australia gains. In fact, Australia loses far more than it gains.

Australia loses status and dollars. It would have been easy to swap the historically valuable but inconveniently located embassy land for prime land the Japanese Government wants to dispose of in the centre of Tokyo.

There a high-profile Australia House could have been built. Income from renting out surplus space would have covered Canberra's Budget problems not just for one year but for ever.

Sadly, Canberra's decisions about Japan are not always made by people who know Japan. Sometimes it is almost as if ignorance of Japan is a precondition for being a decision-maker.

One prominent trade bureaucrat in Tokyo liked to refer to his Japanese-speaking subordinates as his "resident Jappies".

Australia's problems with Japan go back to the war years. It suffered more than most others from the war.

But, unlike most others, it had little prewar experience of Japan - the sort of experience that tells people that the Japanese for all their idiosyncrasies have still managed to create for themselves a highly viable and at times quite attractive society.

So when it opened relations after the war, Canberra had a hostile and generally contemptuous view of Japan.

Australia has never really recovered from that bad early start.

Until a few years back, the Tokyo Embassy used to refuse visas to Japanese school exchange students going to Australia to learn English on the ground that they could not speak good English.

Meanwhile, Australian children with no knowledge of Japanese whatsoever were being allowed freely into Japan to study.

And even today many Japanese see White Austraia hangups in the constant visa delays and hitches.

An Australian secretarial college which believed Canberra's talk about having Asians coming in droves to do secretarial training in Australia lost a small fortune when Japanese applicants to study in its college were routinely refused visas.

Australia sports low profile in bustling Tokyo

There is a strange brittleness, even when Canberra feels it should be nice to Japan.

Whenever Canberra wants something out of Japan - more trade, investment etc - it organises a Top Level Mission. Banquets are held. Brochures handed out. Bureaucrats score brownie points and when it is all over nothing has been achieved.

Needless to say, no Japanese-speakers are ever included on the Australian side, except perhaps as interpreters. Indeed, if you speak Japanese, you will be lucky even to get an invitation to a reception.

Meanwhile, the Japanese are becoming increasingly unimpressed. Little more than 10 years ago Japan tried to have Australia included in the summit of industrialised nations. It would not make that effort today. Fewer top-level Japanese are willing to involve themselves in the Australian relationship.

Deep down Canberra is still anti-Japan. We see this in the peremptory way some of its politicians visit Tokyo badly briefed; constant whining about beef and coal problems.

But enough of the past. Can we expect something better in future?

What Canberra needs more than anything else is people, and the right people, to restore flesh to the Japan-Australia relationship.

Canberra has to learn to stop clutching at gimmicks. For years it has liked to think that the academic pipedream of a Pacific economic community would be the vehicle to handle its relations with Japan and the rest of Asia.

The pipedream looks like ending up as a Japan, NIC, ASEAN grouping - hardly a great gain for Australia. If a Pacific Community ever came about, Australia would be crushed economically. Meanwhile, the all-important bilateral relationship with Japan languishes.

Canberra likes to boast about the Japanese language boom that is supposed to be sweeping Australia. But thousands of children learning Japanese in schools is meaningless unless it is followed up by intensive study, either at a university or in Japan.

Most Australian universities still don't take, Japan very seriously: Japan studies at the ANU in Canberra have been controlled largely by people who don't even speak Japanese.

One exception was the University of Western Australia which, back in the early 1970s, made a tentative effort to train people who could work in Japan. Almost all of the half-dozen or so Australians able to operate effectively in Tokyo today are graduates of that scheme.

Australia needs a scheme to get young Australians into Japan for concentrated work and language experience before they drift off into other pursuits.

With its usual ballyhoo Canberra set up an Australia-Japan Foundation more than 10 years ago to promote some kind of push into Japan.