The Australian ‘distance’

by Kazuo Ogoura

“Beauty of Distance” is the title of this year’s Sydney Biennale of modern arts. The title is obviously an echo and ironic association with the famous book written about Australia titled “Tyranny of Distance,” which depicted the dilemma of Australia associating mentally with Europe (England) yet being geographically remote from it.

One might say that the international perspective of Australia has changed a great deal due to Britain’s entry into the European community, American supremacy and the increasing importance to Australia of Asian economic development.

Indeed, toward the end of the last century, Australia adopted the foreign policy of putting priority on getting closer to Asia. This “look toward Asia” policy was accompanied by a constant inflow of “Asian” immigrants into Australia and by the educational and cultural policies that encouraged Australians to learn Asian languages and expose themselves to Asian culture.

One distinguishing result of these policies was witnessed in the dramatic increase in the number of students who studied the Japanese language. At one time, Australia ranked at the top internationally in the proportion of students learning the Japanese language to the total population.

Recently, however, Australian eagerness to learn Asian foreign languages appears to have weakened, and Australian authorities do not seem particularly concerned about the trend.

According to a worldwide survey recently conducted by the Japan Foundation on the number of students learning the Japanese language, Australia is the only country among major nations where the number of students learning the Japanese language declined rather drastically (17 percent) between 2006 and 2009, while in other countries (except New Zealand) the numbers have increased remarkably.

The reasons behind this trend seem rather complicated. The end or decline of encouragement policies for Asian languages at the federal and state level appears to be one factor.

A more serious factor, however, seems to be the attitude of students, who prefer European languages because Asian languages are reputed to be “difficult” for them to master.

This attitude seems to reveal that there is still a psychological or invisible distance between Asia and Australia and that the majority of Australians do not particularly want to see Australia as part of Asia despite the growing economic and political interdependence with Asian countries, notably Japan, South Korea and the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

What is more serious in the background of Australian linguistic education is that the overwhelming majority of students who learn Asian languages are of Asian origin. This seems to imply a basic psychic schism in Australia’s national character; namely, while many Australians feel the necessity of forming a partnership with Asia, they are not particularly willing to do so.

It is as if the closer Australia becomes to Asia for economic and strategy reasons, the more Australians try to detach themselves both psychologically and culturally from Asia. At present, many Australians seem intent on retaining Australian cultural identity by sticking to the “old” traditional Australia.

In other words, Australia’s policy of getting closer to Asia might have been motivated simply by the presumed economic or pragmatic benefits. Many Australians do not believe that the key to Australia’s future lies in Asia — nor in Europe or North America, for that matter.

Against this background, one can point out the other side of the coin. Many “Asians,” including some advocates of “Asian values,” seem to be uncomfortable in accepting Australians as fellow Asians due to the memory of past Australian policies and the cultural vestiges of these policies.

Others in Asia have certain reservations about Australia’s quality as an Asian partner due to the seemingly overt, self-righteous and even extreme attitude of some environmental activists.

All in all, an invisible psychological distance still exists between Australia and Asia.

Under these circumstances it is clearly very important for Australia to cultivate and deepen its partnership with Japan, which shares with Australia a democratic political philosophy as well as strategic and economic interests.

In addition, Australia and Japan must deal with the dilemma of belonging both to the West and the East. Both nations, in somewhat different dimensions, face the problem of national identity in the international community due to their common geographical distance from the West. How Australia can overcome the invisible distance from Asia, therefore, is a matter of double concern for Japan, which itself has tried to overcome this invisible distance from the West.

It now remains to be seen whether the distance from the West for Japan, and the distance from Asia for Australia, will continue to be categorized as the “tyranny and arrogance of distance” or whether, through genuine effort, it will flower into a “beauty of distance.”

Kazuo Ogoura, a political science professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, is president of the Japan Foundation.