Japan and Australia make a rather odd couple in Asia. Yet their officials spend a lot of time talking to each other. Thursday will see yet another talkfest in Tokyo — this time to discuss their “creative partnership.” One reason for the talkativeness is that neither nation quite has the Asian credentials it claims. So they have little choice but to talk to each other.

Close economic ties are another obvious reason for getting together. As well, both, uninvitedly, have given themselves the joint role of guaranteeing Asian security; they pretend to be friendly to China while discussing covertly its alleged threat. And both say they want to lead the fight against something called global terror. All that requires a lot of talking.

Both also have more in common culturally than they realize. Australia’s attractive mateship ethic has a rough equivalent in Japan’s group ethic. The flip side, unfortunately, is a less than attractive anti-intellectualism, as seen in the mutual inability to formulate consistent foreign and economic policies.

Tokyo’s latest inconsistency is breaking its promise to let the five people abducted by North Korea in the 1970s return to North Korea after their visit to Japan. Its reasons for this are unclear; it says Pyongyang’s attitudes lack sincerity, but sees nothing insincere in its own long postwar refusal to admit to or apologize for its earlier and much crueler abductions of Koreans and others. Meanwhile, it complains bitterly about North Korea breaking a promise not to develop nuclear weapons. Pyongyang’s reasons, on the other hand, are very clear: the United States’s reneging on its 1994 promise to help North Korea develop a light-water nuclear reactor and continued hostility from a heavily nuclear-armed U.S.

If Japan (which enjoys a nuclear umbrella) is so worried about an alleged threat from North Korea (which lacks any nuclear umbrella), why doesn’t it simply ask its U.S. ally to consider seriously Pyongyang’s promise to drop its alleged nuclear program in exchange for a nonaggression treaty? But this kind of logic gets short shrift in the face of Tokyo’s current hawkishness and the mass media’s anti-Pyongyang emotionalism.

Australia is equally at sea. Its current panic, understandably, is anti-Australian Islamic extremism in Indonesia. Hints that this may have something to do with Canberra’s “all-the-way-with-the-USA” support for planned attacks on Iraq, however, do not get very far either.

Canberra’s record in identifying threats from Asia is spotty. In the 1960s, the civil war in Vietnam was supposed to be the first step in China’s thrust south, “working through the agency of its puppets in Hanoi.” Beijing was also seen as pulling the strings in Indonesia, and Canberra was far from unhappy over the 1965 massacre of half a million procommunist and leftwing elements there.

Some of us wrote then that if the demise of the Indonesian leftwing left the way open for the rise of antiforeigner Islamism, then one day Canberra could be turning for support to the very same leftwing regimes in Asia it wanted demolished at the time. But that kind of argument, too, did not get very far in the face of the anticommunist hysteria of the time.

The Australian strategy then was to wipe out the enemy in distant Asia before he could get close to Australia. In the wake of the Bali tragedy that approach is beginning to look very shaky.

Wacky economic policies are another point in common. Both nations have let themselves be hijacked by immature market fundamentalism. In Japan’s case, a once powerful economy has been reduced to deflationary impotence as a result. Its basic problem — chronically weak consumer demand and grossly excessive savings — remains outside fundamentalist dogma and is ignored.

Australia has been more fortunate. Fundamentalist policies of laissez faire and antiprotectionism quickly destroyed much of its manufacturing base. But the resultant currency collapse then gave the economy the massive across-the-board protection needed for recovery — a recovery that Canberra now naively sees as vindicating its original fundamentalist policies.

Despite income levels well below those of advanced Asia, Canberra still sees Australia as the clever, creative society fit to be the economic leader in Asia.

Basically neither Tokyo nor Canberra understand each other. Tokyo has given up trying to understand the “larrikin” element in Australian politics and society. Canberra does not even begin to understand Japan’s irresponsible “amae,” and “tatemae” and “honne” approach to problems.

Despite constant claims of close friendship with Japan, Canberra is an active partner in the U.S.-led Echelon operation for spying on all Japanese communications. Deep suspicions of Japan delayed signing of a mutual-relations agreement till 1976.

For years Canberra ignored the need to have a corps of experts able to understand Japan or its language. Working in the Canberra bureaucracy in the mid-1970s, I was actively involved in setting up a foundation that would help train officials for work in Japan and assist young Japanese-speaking Australians find jobs in Japan. Instead, it has ended up as an agent for low-level cultural exchanges.

In 1987 a junior Japanese bureaucrat came up with the idea of a Multi-Function Polis, or MFP, in Australia where both sides could develop the technologies of the future. Anyone who knew Japan knew that this was one of those “tatemae,” top-of-the-head ideas that float easily from Tokyo and disappear once problems emerge.

But in Australia the MFP idea was taken very seriously. Laws were passed. Consultants were hired. Assessments were demanded. Commentators warned about Japanese Trojan horses violating Australian innocence. All this, despite constant hints from Japan for almost a decade that the idea was dead. Yet Canberra even had relevant officials posted to its Tokyo Embassy to prove it was still alive.

Creative partnerships, MFPs, “terror” condemnations, Asian security — they are all part of the happy talk needed to make both sides feel politically more important to each other than they really are.

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