Sophisticated and exquisite, the city of Adelaide in the state of South Australia was my home for the month of February. I have been coming to this city since 1976, and I now see it as a clear symbol of the profound transformation that has overtaken a country that was once a backwater of various repugnant values and is, at present, one of the world’s most genuinely cosmopolitan nations.
Australia’s transition and progress from racism into a sincerely liberal-minded openness, from a binding provincialism into a lifestyle of unabashed tolerance, presents a lesson to many countries: National character is flexible. A single generation passes and the most reactionary instincts can be nullified. If South Australia, once remote from reform and dry-as-dust intolerant, can turn trend into a festival of multicultural mores, then perhaps there is even hope for an intensely close-knit and single-purpose-ethnic Japan.
Australia today is a fledgling multicultural state, with all of the advantages and drama that a rich ethnic mix brings in its wake. Japan, ever fearful of the consequences of allowing migrants across its borders, seems to focus on the tensions of multicultural mingling, as if disharmony and violence around the world were caused in large part by the coming together of ethnic groups. The media in Japan generally ignore the good stories of migration, emphasizing hardship and social disarray. It still serves the interests of those who control and rule Japan that the national formula be kept pure, thin and altered solely by the “right” hands.
Australia, though the historical context is, of course, different, once harbored just these intentions. If it had retained the old mix, damming the course of multiethnic immigration, it would today find itself not only isolated in its region, but miserably devoid of the skills that it is finding necessary to prosper in Asia-Pacific’s new century.
What exactly was “white” Australia? Was Australia merely codifying the kinds of nefarious prejudices that existed in most other parts of the world of the time? Racism around the world, after all, was not only the norm: It was often trendy, suave.
For 60 years after federation in 1901, migration to Australia was based not on merit, charity or need, but on race.
A prospective migrant was obliged to write 50 words in a European language. The sole purpose of this dictation test was to fail the nonwhite applicant. When the applicant did manage to pass, he was subjected to the test in another language . . . and yet another . . . until even the most talented linguist was eliminated.
This insidious test was also, on the odd occasion, brought to bear on the category of “undesirable whites.” In 1934, the Czech author Egon Erwin Kisch, a fellow traveler, was given the dictation test in Gaelic. A certain Mrs. Freer was later excluded on the grounds that she sought entry into Australia in order to seduce another woman’s husband.
In the end Kisch was allowed in after a legal challenge, the court ruling, with dubious linguistic logic, that Gaelic was a dialect not a language. As for the hapless Mrs. Freer, she was also permitted entry, but there is no record of how far this entry actually went.
The postwar period marked the slow beginning of the end of a white Australia.
Between 1947 and 1972, 2.5 million immigrants settled in Australia, a little over half of them non-British. The predominant region from which the latter came was southern Europe. The enemies of mixture were ever vigilant. But their fears that crime would burgeon as a result of these intakes proved, after a number of exhaustive studies, unfounded. Subsequent waves of immigrants from Lebanon, Yugoslavia, Vietnam and other theaters of civil strife greatly increased the percentage of non-British new Australians.
The key to any successful immigration policy — and herein lies the lesson for Japan or any country — is to give immigrants a stake in the system. It is exclusion, subtle or otherwise, that propels an alienated underclass, of whatever background, toward crime. Racists create the preconditions for prejudice by depriving immigrants of their rightful opportunities, then gloat over the results of their grim predictions. In effect, it is they who foment the crime in a society by forcing people into an underclass then lording over them with harsh and self-righteous laws.
Where is this new racial and ethnic mix leading?
The 19th-century variety of nationalism that is preached by the Ishiharas and the Haiders of this world may have, to a certain degree, once served the formation of an ethos that was necessary to the development of a strong nation-state. But the destruction wrought by just such an ethos, backed by military power, in World War II demonstrated that that model was outdated.
Forced homogeneity, a return to an ideal of purity that actually never existed in the first place, is now unacceptable. Australian multiculturalism, with the traditional Aussie “live and let live” mentality at its core, can be seen as part of this historical trend toward denying the legitimacy of a trumped-up racial myth.
The uses of multiculturalism are clear now. The ability to access a large array of cultures, languages and values within your own society certainly boosts your innovative potential. Perhaps one reason why Japan lacks flexibility is due to its reliance on a narrowly drawn ethnic base.
The migrant elements in Australia give the country instant insight into a broad range of views and approaches. And what is a country? Is it not more than the sum of a few paltry parts; a piece of cloth that stands in for a flag; a series of high-toned notes that someone designated as an anthem; an oath of allegiance to an authority created long before you were born that you now choose to honor with an inherited fervor? It has got to be more than that.
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