When people talk about “intercultural exchange” in terms of the Japanese community, it tends to conjure up images of smiling people putting on yukata (lightweight kimono) or making origami. However, as a long-term Japanese resident of the Gold Coast, Australia, Nao Hirano knows this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Both in a professional capacity as a police liaison officer (PLO), as well as through his volunteer activities, Hirano works to help the local Japanese community feel supported and integrated on a variety of levels.

Hirano decided relatively early in life that his future didn’t lie in Japan. He joined a major firm in the restaurant industry in Tokyo after college in 1983, and then a few years later took a leave of absence to study English abroad for six months. Hirano was already married by this time, and while his wife also moved to Australia, the young couple spent most of the time living in different cities.

“I was studying in Melbourne, while my wife was working at the World Expo 88 in Brisbane. We decided to live separately so we would really improve our English,” recalls Hirano. “I’d taken a special leave to study and I knew I had to come back with good skills. So, for the first few months I pretended to be this Indonesian guy called ‘Jackie’ so I could avoid speaking in Japanese with fellow students!”

Within two years, the Hiranos pulled up stakes in Japan and moved to Australia permanently. Although their respective families were sorry to see them go, Hirano says they understood that the couple had made their plans carefully and were serious about their intentions to build a life abroad.

The major reason behind their decision was a wish to raise their future children in a more family-friendly environment.

“My dad was a public servant and always came home very late, and so I hardly ever had a conversation with him. It was the same with the people at the company where I worked (in Tokyo) — they left the house early and came home late at night, so there was no time to spend with their families,” he says. “I also disliked the uniformity of Japanese education and I wanted a system that would allow our children to develop their own personalities.”

The timing for the move proved fortuitous, as the couple found they were expecting their first child around the time their Australian visas were approved. Their daughter was born in Brisbane in January 1991. Hirano stayed home for several months with his wife and their newborn — a move that would be unthinkable for most fathers in Tokyo even today.

Although Hirano started out working in the retail sector in Australia, by 2005 he had found his niche as an officer for Multicultural Communities Council Gold Coast Ltd., a nonprofit organization. He was employed under a program known as CAMS (Community Action for a Multicultural Society), supporting various groups in the community.

While working for CAMS, Hirano began thinking more deeply about the needs of the local Japanese community, including the potential for a PLO specifically for this group. PLOs in Queensland wear the same blue uniforms as police officers, but they have special insignia to designate their unique role. They are not police; their function is to liaise with culturally specific groups to foster understanding and advise on the needs of the community in which they work. In a state where more than one in five people were born overseas, this system helps the international community to both integrate and to have a voice.

Hirano submitted a report to local police administration, suggesting the idea of a Japanese PLO in his area. It took “about three years” for his report to wend its way through the various channels but Hirano was eventually informed that his idea had been approved. He applied for the position of Japanese PLO for South East Queensland, and began his new job in 2015. He was subsequently promoted to senior police liaison officer last year.

While Hirano works with various groups within the community, around 70 percent of his workload involves Japanese, ranging from students or people on short-term work assignments, through to those married to Australians or who have chosen to live permanently in Australia.

Over the years, Hirano had been involved with groups promoting friendship and social gatherings within the Japanese community, as well as helping to organize outreach events, including the popular annual Gold Coast Japan & Friends Day. However, he gradually realized that a deeper level of support was also required for the Japanese around him.

“I was seeing people with problems such as bullying, domestic violence or cybercrime, but there wasn’t an organization to offer practical and specific help for Japanese,” he says. “Many Japanese tend not to talk about bad things, so they may become isolated.”

Drawing on his network, Hirano joined forces with some like-minded people to create the Japan Community of Queensland Inc. He currently serves as president for the volunteer group, which sees a mixture of people devoting their time and talent to provide hands-on support in Japanese.

“Anybody with a problem can reach out to us, but in particular, we aim to help vulnerable members of the community who have nowhere else to turn,” Hirano says. “We have people who have legal or financial skills and are bilingual, including local Australians who have an interest in Japan.”

According to Hirano, the most challenging demographic to work with are Japanese students coming to Queensland on working holidays. “They move around a lot and often have no fixed base. While it is fine when things go well, it is hard to connect with them if there are problems. And, of course, young people often don’t want to talk to older people or those they see as authorities,” he explains.

Speaking of young people, Hirano’s three children are now all young adults in their mid- to late-20s. All are pursuing careers where communication with others is an important aspect of their roles.

“We are a close family. That was really the main reason for coming to Australia in the first place,” says this devoted family man. “So I’m very happy that my wife and I have achieved this.”

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