Bruce Miller, Australia’s ambassador to Japan since August 2011, has been interested in Japan since he was a boy of 11.
At an early age, Miller said, his father, though an accountant who rarely traveled abroad, advised him to learn an Asian language instead of a European one.
“And so I chose Japanese, although it wasn’t until I entered university that I actually started learning it,” Miller said with a big smile.
Now 54, Miller has lived in Japan for almost 13 years in total and speaks the language fluently. He first came here in 1978 under a summer program organized by the Japan Foundation, in his last year of high school.
“I went to Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima. Every place I’d visit, I would look around restlessly with curiosity,” he said.
To satisfy that curiosity, the ambassador furthered his study of the country and its culture, majoring in Chinese and Japanese at the University of Sydney. He also took a year off from college to study at Kwansei Gakuin University in Hyogo Prefecture.
While at university in Sydney, he took a special interest in Japanese classical literature, he said.
“In the second year at university, we were assigned to read Japanese classics every single day,” he explained.
“By reading literature, one gets to know a lot about a country’s culture and (people’s) ways of thinking.”
He said that he later read modern works from the Meiji Era, adding that two of his favorite writers are Soseki Natsume (1867-1916) and Ogai Mori (1862-1922).
In Soseki’s work, Miller said he most enjoyed and valued “how he sought to deal with universal things, of human pain, suffering and loneliness, and to do so in a way which the audience could understand.
“Because great literature must have universality, and must speak to universal concerns for it to survive the centuries. And I think Soseki’s work does that very well,” he said.
He noted that Soseki’s own time abroad as a student in London, as well as his stomach trouble, were hard on him, but those hardships helped him to write great literature.
Miller said he also enjoys the historical novels of Ogai Mori.
“A novel like ‘Maihime’ reflects Japan’s encounter with modernity — a product of the intersection between late Edo and early Meiji, and the modern world, which I think is a very interesting period to encounter. And the encounter with Western thoughts and Western literature that took place at the time is interesting,” he said.
Miller said while there are many student exchange programs, with nearly 60,000 Japanese students studying, if only briefly, in Australia per year, and 5,000 Australian students coming to Japan for educational purposes, things could be improved.
Australians already make up the fourth-largest group of Japanese learners in the world, after the Chinese, Indonesians and South Koreans.
Miller believes Japan should take advantage of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s goal to internationalize the field of education, and invite in more foreign students, including from Australia, to study.
Born and raised in Sydney, Miller joined the Foreign Ministry in 1986.
Between 1997 and 1998, he worked at the Department of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet.
Otherwise he has spent much of his almost 30 years with the Foreign Ministry abroad.
Apart from his first posting to Tehran in the late 1980s, he has spent the rest of his time abroad in Tokyo, working at the embassy from 1992 to 1996 as first secretary, then counselor, and from 2004 to 2009 as minister. Miller was posted to Japan again in 2011 as ambassador.
He said in terms of geography and history, the two countries differ in many ways, but he feels one of the most notable traits the two peoples share — compared with other English-speaking countries — is that both tend to be “a little understated.”
“We are not as good at promoting ourselves. Most of us feel embarrassed to talk ourselves up,” he said.
Asked what Japanese phrase he likes best, he replied without hesitation, “Ichigo ichie” (“treasure every encounter, for it will never recur”), a motto he has made his own.