Name: Sally Townsend
Title: Chair, Australia New Zealand Chamber of Commerce in Japan
Hometown: Adelaide, Australia
DoB: July 3, 1975
Years in Japan: 20
Although her days are packed to the brim, Sally Townsend wouldn’t have it any other way. As commissioner for South Australia to Japan and Korea, Townsend leads her home state’s trade and investment office in Tokyo. Moreover, she currently serves as chair of the Australian and New Zealand Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ANZCCJ), working to support the business communities of these two countries in Japan.
Townsend’s relationship with Japan dates back to her high school days, when she studied Japanese as a foreign language option and spent six weeks abroad as an exchange student.
After studying economics at The University of Adelaide, like many young Australians, she heard overseas calling and subsequently worked first in London and then in Tokyo.
“I came over to teach English when I was 25 — ‘for a year,’” she said, laughing. “I then realized that my language skills weren’t as good as I had thought, so I decided to learn Japanese properly.”
After polishing her Japanese through a two-year morning course at a language school, Townsend was ready for her next challenge — full-time university studies. “It was one of the hardest things I’d ever done in my life, and I had to jump through all these hoops. The interviewers would say, ‘Why on earth would you want to study at a Japanese university?’” she said.
Townsend pursued a degree in sociology, working side by side with native-speaking Japanese students. Being around 10 years older than most of her classmates, she was determined to prove herself and says that she was “the most diligent student,” recording all of her lectures in her first year and replaying them back at home.
At her graduation she was awarded the dean’s prize for her academic excellence throughout her four years at university and presented with a watch she fondly wears every day, the interview being no exception.
Townsend went on to build her career in Japan, working first for an Australian wine importer and then a Singaporean company, but she was eventually hoping for an opportunity to represent South Australia in some capacity.
Having joined the ANZCCJ back when she was working in the wine industry, Townsend could see the potential for promoting her home state here. “We would have people come over from South Australia, asking how they could get into business in Japan,” she explained.
Her chance came after the incoming premier of South Australia followed up on a campaign pledge to open a trade and investment office in Tokyo last year. “Of course I put my hand up, and I got the position just over a year ago. I absolutely love it — it is my dream job,” Townsend said enthusiastically, adding that the best thing about South Australia is its food and wine culture.
While Townsend wears her hometown heart on her sleeve, she is also very pleased to be representing Australia and New Zealand as ANZCCJ chair, serving around 700 members and 200 companies. She moved into her current role in January of last year, following a two-year stint chairing the chamber’s Sports for Business Committee.
It is unusual to have two countries represented by the same chamber of commerce, but Townsend strives to ensure all parties are fairly represented. “I am careful not to be too ‘Australia this or Australia that,’” she said. “As someone who is from a small state, where we are not always among the big players, I am very aware of making everyone feel included.”
She admitted that New Zealand and Australia’s keen rivalry in rugby made for some interesting moments last year during Japan’s highly successful hosting of the 2019 Rugby World Cup. “At every single event I went to last year, I was asked whom I supported. There was a sense of relief, I think, when neither team got quite as far as they had expected,” she said, diplomatically.
Although the current COVID-19 situation has put a stop to in-person ANZCCJ meetings and activities for now, Townsend and her team are committed to providing ongoing support for members in this challenging environment, such as through online seminars.
Along with her day job and her ANZCCJ commitments, Townsend is also the mother of a five-year-old son. Asked what she likes to do in her spare time, she laughed wryly. “I don’t have any — I am running on empty all the time but I thrive on it,” Townsend said. “Well, sometimes I read ‘The Economist’ in the bath while my husband is putting our son to bed.”
In a society where it is still relatively unusual to have women in leading roles in organizations, particularly mothers of small children, Townsend is eager to play her part in helping to break down stereotypes.
“At the ANZCCJ, we are great at demonstrating diversity and how women are succeeding in business. We work with the Chambers of Commerce for Tokyo and Japan, and I hope we can influence and inspire in that respect. People can say, ‘Look at that woman chairing a committee, or running for office’ — it isn’t such an unusual thing in Australia or New Zealand.”
Townsend says her personal mantra is ‘Don’t take no for an answer’ and this motto has clearly served her well to date. “My whole life in Japan has been, ‘No, you can’t do that; you can’t get that.’ So I think, ‘Yes I can.’”
High-profile career continues to thrive
Hailing from Adelaide in South Australia, Sally Townsend studied economics at The University of Adelaide. She came to Japan in 2000 to teach English, then went on to polish her Japanese skills at a language school.
She subsequently decided to pursue a full-time degree in sociology at Nihon University, graduating in 2008. She continued living in Japan after graduation, working first at an Australian wine importer and then at a Singapore-based luxury lifestyle company.
In March 2019, Townsend took on her current position as representative of South Australia, leading the state’s trade and investment office that services Japan and Korea. An active participant in the Australian and New Zealand Chamber of Commerce in Japan since the beginning of her career, she became the chair of the chamber in January 2019. One of her favorite aspects of life in Japan is the wide range of excellent food and wine available.
The Big Questions is a Monday interview series showcasing prominent figures who have a strong connection to Japan.