Monday, June 29, 2020

Australia-Japan relations and pitching for a post-COVID future

Some thoughts on the 2020 Lowy polling

Looking ahead at what can be: Australia, Japan and the post-COVID world

If Prime Minister Abe reads the annual Lowy Institute poll, it might have provided about the only fillip to his recent political fortunes. He would have no doubt been pleased that a constituency, somewhere, thought rather highly of his leadership. In recent weeks, PM Abe’s polls in Japan, across most of the leading polling outlets, have seen a drop in satisfaction or popularity of him and his Cabinet (depending on the phrasing of the question). Scandals surrounding his government continue to hamper his leadership, his handling of the response to the COVID-19 crisis has drifted in the wake of more assertive responses by prefectural governors, and with the end of his third term approaching, there is less confidence he can once again persuade party colleagues of yet another extension to the previous two-year-two-term limit on the party presidency. His planned triumphs of 2020, the Tokyo Olympics and a referendum on changes to the Peace Constitution are all but corona-ed. Both incumbent Australian and Japanese governments are in lockstep with the Trump Administration, and PMs Morrison and Abe look set to accept the dubious invite to Trump’s G7 later in the year.

The Lowy poll invites an opportune moment to look to where the Australia-Japan relationship might go, in a post-COVID world, beyond the fog of the US-China entanglement. In key findings, seven in ten Australians express confidence in PM Abe, 79 percent recognise Japan as a democracy and in the ‘feelings’ thermometer Japan came in at 69 degrees, around the midpoint of 63 in 2007 and 74 in 2018. It is probably reasonable to speculate that Japan’s popularity as a tourist destination for Australians in recent years is reflected in these figures. In Japan, at the time of writing, a few news sites picked up the The Agence France-Presse (AFP) report with the focus on the China angle, nothing about Australians high level of confidence in Japan.

Prior to the signing of the security agreement in 2007, Japan viewed Australia as a key partner in the Asia-Pacific region, building a relationship as ‘advanced liberal democratic countries, supporting and strengthening peace and prosperity and a free trade system’, (Diplomatic Bluebooks, inter alia) amongst other aims. As successive Australian governments of both persuasions encouraged and enabled a stronger defence outlook by Japan, the two countries have boasted of a ‘special strategic partnership…sharing fundamental values and strategic interests’ (Diplomatic Bluebook 2016ff).

Despite a record of government-level engagement dating from the late-nineteenth century, most observers view the relationship through its mutually beneficial economic growth from the 1960s onwards, or more lately, the security agreement signed by PMs Howard and Abe in 2007. But in a post-COVID world, where we might hope for a return for good global citizenship, Australia and Japan could leverage this bilateral goodwill to forge a partnership with a broader ‘human security’ remit.

Abe has much to ponder (from a class simulation exercise) 
In an international environment which has accommodated advancing militarisation over other forms of security in recent years, it will take a courageous turn in leadership to recalibrate national interests to reflect a more nuanced, post-COVID world. To borrow an Olympic analogy, we may need try to pole vault our way into a new era. In doing so, I would suggest that the potential strengths in a future Japan-Australia alliance lie not in a narrow security alliance but a broader, human security approach. Many years ago, as a graduate student doing interviews about Japan’s relationship with Australia, one bureaucrat especially conversant with the Australian vernacular, told me ‘Japan sees Australia as a friendly corner shop; we might like to occasionally shop elsewhere but Australia will always there when we need them’. It is a comment that has stayed with me ever since and re-emerges when I think about what could be. In the 1970s and 1980s, the bilateral relationship was informed by regular ministerial meetings where ministers across several portfolios would gather to confer on matters of state. The increase in regional fora and a sense of redundancy saw the ministerial level meetings diminish over time, only to be revived in a foreign affairs/security 2+2 format as a part of ‘strengthening the strategic partnership’.

The bilateral relationship could return to its shared interests in the region (beyond narrow strategic parameters) and begin to build regional resilience on climate change and embrace the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In Japan, the SDGs are being taken up across corporate, educational and social institutions (disclaimer: including my own university) and operate within parameters that resonate with past practices of comprehensive security and human security. A renewed effort at people-to-people engagement (previously a strength of the bilateral relationship) would help facilitate and reconnect the breadth of the relationship and the possibilities. Those seven in ten people who believe PM Abe is doing a good job might not be aware that more than half the Japanese population still resist amendments to the peace constitution. We rarely see that reflected in the 2+2 dialogues.

There is a sense of the inevitable in expanding military responses. It is the dominant frame through which we view ‘security’, through which we view ‘strong leadership’. At the time of writing, there is speculation coming out of the weekend that PM Abe might call a snap election, a tactic he has used previously to try and bolster support for his agenda (though the opposition parties continue to be in disarray and unable, seemingly, to garner a majority vote). Tokyo is in the throes of a gubernatorial election in which former Abe foe and incumbent Governor Koike looks set to retain her post. That Koike is effectively backed by the Liberal Democratic Party this time (unlike the previous election where she faced a candidate supported by the LDP) will offer the national leadership a charade of support, should they choose to do so.

With many observers urging governments to reset the levers in a post-COVID world, Japan and Australia have a capability to do so, in the region, with the right leadership mix. We ought to start planning now, and rather than running behind opinion polls, here is an opportunity to get out in front.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Life in a semi-lockdown scenario ~~fin, for now ~~

A moment's release

This is the last instalment of the 2020 Covid lockdown diary, for now. The restrictions have been lifted, we can move between prefectural boundaries (still can't go home though), and yesterday, I had to leave the neighbourhood to go to campus, the first time since returning from campus on 7 April. It is the longest time I can recall, in my lifetime, being confined to a 39 sq.m apartment and being limited to a radius of about 800m. 

Although restrictions have been lifted, we still have to maintain distance, wear masks, wash hands. 'Eating out' is not quite what it once was, with limitations still in place. 

Yesterday's train trip to the campus (for an open day, but online) was not crowded, in the way it might have been on a Sunday. Everyone did their best to stay apart, and every passenger wore a mask. 

A phase
It felt strange. I felt a little uneasy. But I guess I will eventually get used to it. For the time being we continue to teach online, from home, we continue to hold out meetings online, from home. I still feel that going out for anything other than going to the campus if required, will be an unnecessary trip. It concerns me that I don't know when that feeling will recede.

In the meantime, the campaigning has begun for the Tokyo gubernatorial election on 5 July. In previous years, I've been out and about following the candidates around on the hustings. For now, I'm going to be following on their social media accounts...

It is time to return to blogging about politics...the rest, I hope, will follow. 

Learning a language is not a 'job-ready' skill... is much more than that 

In the news of this week, I was curious that the 'new' higher education charges distinguished 'languages' from 'the humanities', as if they could be considered separate. I started to tweet to the sound of the hashtag #MyArtsDegree and similar, as people loudly and proudly proclaimed their Arts/Humanities education. I then watched the minister's Q&A. He 'wished' he had studied a language because he would have helped him with getting him a job, apparently. And there you have it. 'Language as a job skill'... and policy devised by people thinking only of how it would benefit them, personally. OK, political scientist AND linguist here, to talk about just how wrong that approach is, and has been. Let's take a look at the last forty years or so of languages in the academy, which may or may not include traces of personal insight, as is the nature of personal blogging.

In the late-ish 1970s, at a state (public) high school on Queensland's Gold Coast, all year 8 students, then the first year of high school had to study Japanese for one semester, and could choose French or German to study in the other semester. In years 9 and 10, you had to continue with at least one of those languages and by years 11 and 12, senior years, languages were optional. The cohort of 350 year 8 students had whittled away to six students by years 11 and 12. Around that time, Chinese was offered as a senior elective for two years. I recall one student was studying all four languages plus English. The head teacher of languages was fluent in French and German and was inspirational. I stayed with Japanese all the way through. I liked it but also, I had some idea in the back of my mind that a foreign language was a prerequisite for university entry into the Arts and although I didn’t think I’d be going to uni, I wanted to keep my options open. (Turns out that was old information, but I didn’t know, I didn’t come from a family with university experiences, but we are jumping ahead…) I was keen to do Chinese too but it clashed with my Art classes which I was taking in preference to Physics, which I was told was going to cost me the chance to do Science at uni, if I wanted to. And I thought I might like that. You see, I was really more maths/science oriented at school—in the Maths 1, Chemistry, Biology stream— except for Japanese and Art. What a multi-disciplinary miscreant I was. I still remember the day I discovered an extract of a Japanese paper in our biology textbook.

So, it came to choosing post-secondary life. I liked Japanese, I liked Science, I planned to go to teacher’s college, like most of my friends; I also had my name down to join the management track at Woolworths, my then part-time employer, because, realistically that about all kids like me could aspire too.

I chanced upon a new-ish uni in Brisbane offering a degree in Science with Japanese and a Grad Dip in Education over five years. This! This is exactly what I wanted to do.

Alas, the Qld Dept of Education deemed that to teach Japanese, one had to have a secondary teaching area in history or English; nah, dropped history after grade 8, did not like it. To teach science and biology though, one had to take maths as a secondary area, it couldn’t be Japanese. I could graduate with a degree in Science and Japanese, I just couldn’t teach…OK. This was one of my first lessons in what I would come to understand to be ‘the bureaucracy’.

I looked more into this new university, their ‘Asian Studies’ degree and a teaching diploma, a ‘joint degree’ and with the expectation that actually I was going to work at Woolworths after finishing high school, I directed my tertiary preferences towards Griffith anyway.

Well, to my surprise, I got there. It felt wrong to be going into an Arts degree with a mostly science background; grade 8 history did not leave me with a great appreciation of the subject and yet here I was…

Here was a degree, we might disdainfully call it an ‘area studies’ or ‘regional studies’ degree today, that took language seriously, as part of understanding the modern world. The other university across the river (where I was to end up eventually) offered language study through translation and grammar, what we would now call ‘old school’. No, I was attracted by the teaching diploma combination so I went there.

EDUCATION IS TRANSFORMATIVE. And this, perhaps, is the fear of ideologically-driven governments.

The Griffith degree was interdisciplinary before that was trendy. The expectation that you would study the languages of the countries you were interested in was, well not even an option. It is just what you did. Every lecturer and tutor we had in first year spoke more than one language. Role models. I moved through, politics, history, economics (not so interesting), sociology… No International Relations at that time, it was considered a postgraduate degree, ‘once you had sufficient and in-depth understanding of other countries’. I still wanted to teach at high school but I also wanted to go to Japan, on one of the exchange programs on offer. I got it, I went with the expectation of staying one year, coming back and doing my Dip Ed. Well, things changed a little, I got a chance to spend an extra year under the agreement and came back to do honours (and then, I would do a Dip Ed, I told myself…).

It might be worth mentioning that along the way, the student assembly (the uni had rather ‘quaint’ ideas about student representation in those days) urged some rebadging of the degrees available at the time. We had four schools offering two degrees, a Bachelor of Science in Science or Environmental Studies and a Bachelor of Arts, either in Asian Studies or Humanities (where Italian was compulsory, as it happens). We sought to distinguish the two BAs by calling our degree Bachelor of Asian Studies. We were told no. The uni only offered BA or BSc…yes, there once was that time. We also had a precursor to the modern business school, a School of Social and Industrial Administration—promising antidote to the emerging neoliberalism until, it was sucked up by the emergent neoliberalism.

At the honours graduation, I was introduced to the keynote speaker, a chairman of a national airline, a former ambassador to Japan, a businessman of repute. He asked me what I was going to do with my degree and I mentioned I had enrolled in a PhD (at the uni across the river) to which he replied with a ‘phrrh, don’t waste your time doing that’. That was more or less the end of that conversation. One of the long-term issues with job applicants with language skills is that employers rarely see language acquisition as a skill worthy of employment, despite the expectation of good ‘communication skills’…you can see where this is heading can’t you.

Anyway, let’s skip along a little.

I struggled with the PhD. Imposter syndrome was a big part of it of course. But it was also my first taste of undertaking a PhD not for the intrinsic knowledge-building, but for the career utility. My two years in Japan had given me a greater interest in politics, particularly women in politics and an interest in the thinking of Hannah Arendt among others. In formulating a project, I was told, no, do something useful, practical, something that will get you a job. I shifted my ambitions from teaching Japanese at high school to teaching politics at university. That’s how I ended up doing Japan-Australia relations, but the details of that are really for another time, chats with people considering a PhD…

It was back to Japan for 18 months on a Japanese government scholarship, for fieldwork and postgraduate study at one of Japan’s leading universities. I put more and more effort into Japanese language, and took on another one, Korean, finding it easier to study in Japanese because of the similar grammatical structures. It is an unpopular opinion, but there was actually much to prefer in the Japanese tertiary education system over what the Australian one was becoming around this time. This was around the time HECS was introduced and PhD students were given a ‘scholarship’ of sorts, not a stipend as such but an exemption of fees ‘they could charge you if they wanted to’. Commonwealth Scholarships for postgraduate studies at the time were competitive but obtainable, as I recall.

I returned to Australia, still uncertain about the direction of the PhD. I had learnt a lot in Japan and had ideas about where it should go. The supervisor didn’t agree. Around this time, I applied for and got a job in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, specifically for my language skills and in-country experience. The Foundation I was a part of decided to discontinue a really very valuable language program for Australian university students and rebadge it as an opportunity for two junior lawyers to take up positions in Japanese law firms on full pay and supplements. The previous program assisted anywhere between 10-15 or so students each year, mostly Arts/Humanities students. This attack on humanities is not new. (Disclaimer: I received one of these scholarships—equivalent to a one-way airfare to Tokyo at the time—as part of my first sojourn in Japan.)

You would think that a Federal Department that employed a person for their language and country knowledge would like to keep them on. Not so. It was made clear early on that my knowledge of Japan actually was a bit of a disadvantage since I might not be able to provide frank and fearless advice, a bit too close to my subject. I was told to not expect a post to Japan…ok, back to the academy. (I gather things have improved since.)

I returned to the academy around the time Japanese was on the uptake in schools in a big way. A youngish Queensland bureaucrat who later went on to become Prime Minster, wrote a report into Asian languages which recommended compulsory language education in schools (again). This meant retraining a whole lot of French and German teachers at high schools to teach Japanese (how hard could it be??) and I ended up with a research associate job doing just this. Brilliant and experienced teachers who also knew the folly and the political expediency of this policy direction. There was much talk but not much in the way of resources. It was about making people ‘job-ready’ to boost our trade prospects with the region. Not to encourage curiosity, wonder and learning for the sake of it, but ‘job-ready’, job skills…

The 1990s and early 2000s were a mix of unemployment and jobs that didn’t require direct use of language. Still when I sat down to read a book, I had a choice of English or Japanese, I could watch a Japanese movie without subtitles, stay in touch with friends in Japan, just normal everyday elements of life.

I eventually finished the PhD, looking at Japan-Australia relations through a security frame. It mainly involved translating Japanese language materials, distant and obscure stories about Australia, the sort of things that perhaps were never intended to be translated. It was at a time when disciplinary boundaries were uncomfortable with language. I still recall a seminar on International Security, where I proffered an interpretation from a Japanese perspective, (post the PhD being awarded with no corrections or rewriting—bar a couple of typos—and a Dean’s Excellence Award), only to be told that ‘people like me’ were always trying to be gatekeepers to the security discourse. Well, yeah, because otherwise seeing the world exclusively from a European postmodern theoretical perspective is always a great POV.

Thus to bring us up to speed, languages other than English have been long been seen as peripheral, in reality. Occasionally tossed around as a bit of a political football and closely aligned to Australia’s ‘national interests’ where those interests were mostly about trade with Asia. Perhaps the very worst form of language training in Australia has been the so-called ‘Business Japanese’ or ‘Business Chinese’ and similar. It says right there that we have little interest in engaging with you otherwise.

And so, to the next to last instalment of ‘languages in Australia—a potted history’.

Early 2000s, I had to find a new job. My then employer decided to lock-out the final year PhD tutors from teaching, losing our income just when we needed it most. I went for an advertised position in Japanese Studies and International Relations, at a rank way above my then station but confident that I was the only person in Australia with Masters and PhD (almost) in International Relations and publications and course building experience in Japanese Studies. I was asked at interview stage why should language even be taught at universities anyway. Odd, given the advertised position. Anyway, I got the job and then pressed for a comprehensive set of courses about Japan and the East Asian region, to give students a political, historical, sociological context for their studies, ideally taught by specialists in those fields. I was allowed one class. It took about four years to be approved. It had to be a 'catch-all' broadbrush introduction to everything Japan in 14 short weeks; my other courses in International Relations were for a more general student cohort but I did use Japanese-sourced materials (which allowed inclusion of other views translated into Japanese, or their original Korean or Chinese articles) and I encouraged students with languages other than English to use original sources too. It was 'International' relations after all.

For the duration, thirteen years or thereabouts, we were constantly under pressure, literally under the axe, whereupon if numbers didn’t go up, the courses, the classes would be cut. ‘Languages are too expensive to teach’ is always the cry from those academics with one eye on the managerial ladder (*where pay and conditions are in inverse proportion to the amount of educating, teaching students and researching one does on the 'frontline'*) acquiesce to the financial drivers of a tertiary education. Our counterargument was that if you don’t give us the opportunity to build a comprehensive program there is little point in learning language on its own. It needs context. We tried to encourage language programs embedded in a Design degree (we had both Italian and Japanese and thought the match would be a good one). We tried to work with the Tourism degree, encouraging the radical idea that students studying tourism might find knowing another language useful in their chosen field. There were other examples. Often the ‘degree structure’ and its requirements wouldn’t allow language units. We were told by people who had never studied or taught languages that we had to conform to the university-wide requirement of a maximum of three assessment items. It goes on and on.

Another factor that plays against language learning in universities is the GPA (grade point average) culture that has come to determine outcomes. How many times have we had students say that as much as they enjoy learning the language, they can earn a High Distinction in a Business subject with a fraction of the effort it takes to earn a Credit or Distinction in languages. We were fortunate we were teaching students who really wanted to be there. The traffic wasn’t all one way to the Business school. We had students switch to language when they hadn’t planned to do so.

Over the last couple of days, many have written eloquently about the ideologically-driven damnation of the humanities by the present government, hypocrisy writ-large when you look at the qualifications of most of those in the Cabinet where these decisions are made. Language is a deeply embedded part of the Humanities, of our humanity, and goodness knows we need a lot of that now. It cannot be separated into a different band to satisfy the wistful longing of an Education Minister who ‘wished’ he had studied a language. The fact is Minister, you could have done so. You chose not to do so. If ever the John Rawls idea of the ‘veil of ignorance’ were to come into play, it would be most appropriate for the present government.

It is never too late to learn a language (I’ve recommenced Mandarin study and dabble in Finnish, just because). But we will never learn soon enough. Languages policy in Australia could be very simple. Just learn one, or two, just because. Or as many as you like because knowing others begins with seeing things through a different lens. There can be no price differential on what it means to be human. 

I have never regretted the time and energy I have had to put into learning a language and I would do it again and again. Learn even more languages in fact. Many people remark 'how lucky' I am to have a, I made the choice to do so, and made the effort. The opportunity should be there for everyone. 

There will be a book on this one day. This has been a raging first draft on the way to a manuscript. If you reached this far, well, thank you.
Or as we might say, ここまで読んでいただき、誠にありがとうございます。感謝しています。引き続き、宜しくお願い致します。

A tweet or two in the heat of the moment

A society that is willing to invest in education at the primary, secondary, tertiary and even lifelong stages of learning, builds a better society. A society, through those it elects, that would rather spend unaccountable trillions on weapons of war, gets war, hate and division.

#MyArtsDegree taught me that language, be it your first, second or third, is fundamental to who we are and what we can become. It is so much more than a 'skill' to make you 'job-ready'. Language *in* the Arts and Humanities gives language its meaning and context. 

The marginalisation of foreign languages has been happening for years. It feels like I've spent my entire academic career fighting against my own irrelevance. I lost, I'm irrelevant. Language rebadged as a job skill won't fix the problems though.