JAPAN is a group of narrow islands off the coast of Asia. Australia is a very big island off the same enormous continent. For different reasons, neither country feels comfortable with the cards geography has dealt it.
Japan's discomfort arises from the fact that despite historic, ethnic, and cultural links to the mainland, the country's modern history has focused on catching up with the West, on forging political and economic links with Europe and America. The inevitable result, exacerbated by Tokyo's militaristic and imperialistic behavior before and during World War II, has been a Japan distant from its immediate neighbors. The Japanese sometimes call themselves the "orphans of Asia." Many of them would feel more se cure if their islands could be towed a bit further out into the Pacific and closer to the United States.
Australia was settled by Britons, and although other Europeans trickled into the commonwealth nation, its Asia policy was for decades defined by the slogan, "White Australia" - meaning that Asians and other lesser breeds need not apply for admission.
Both in Japan and in Australia, these attitudes have been changing. As Japan reached an affluence surpassing that of many of its Western role models, Tokyo realized that its Asian neighbors were not only sources of agricultural and mineral resources, but expanding markets for everything from cars to computer chips, as well as subcontractors for manufacturers choked for space and no longer able to exploit cheap labor at home.
Australia has not been as successful as Japan in taking economic advantage of Asia's propinquity. Australia's economy has been in the dumps, and in any case, its people are much better at relaxing and enjoying their huge open spaces than at nose-to-the-grindstone endeavor a la Japonaise. But on a recent trip to Sydney and Melbourne, I discovered an important and sensitive area where the Australians have done better than their northern neighbors: bringing in and accepting Asians as part of the social and economic landscape.
For most of their 200-year history, Australians have been much less diverse than Americans, much closer to the country from which most of them came - Britain. They turned to Europe when they needed more immigrants to populate and develop their vast country, not to next-door Asia.
My first visit to Australia was in 1974, eight years after the White Australia policy was officially abandoned. I was impressed by Sydney's vibrant cosmopolitanism, by the lilting French of tourists from New Caledonia or Tahiti, by people with Scandinavian, Dutch, German or Ukrainian names who drawled flawless Australian. But Asians were few and far between.
Twenty years later, that is no longer the case. The taxi driver who brought me from the airport to the city was a Chinese from Hong Kong. Japanese are snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef and buying condos on the sunny Gold Coast. Koreans, Vietnamese, Indians, and Pakistanis are weaving new strands in the ethnic tapestry of the new Australia. More than half a million of the country's 17 million people are Asians. "I feel so much freer than I did in Japan," says Ken Uchida, a graphic designer in Melbourne
who went to Australia as a student 20 years ago and stayed on. "My life doesn't have to stick to narrow grooves as it did in the old country."
Japan and Australia have had economic ties since before World War II - ties enhanced during the past three decades by the discovery and exploitation of vast seams of coal, iron, and other minerals in Australia. Bitter memories of World War II, when Australian soldiers died in Japanese POW camps and the whole continent feared a Japanese invasion, are not forgotten, but subsumed by an ever more intricate network of economic and cultural ties. Uptight Japanese learn to unbend in this horizonless land, while
enthusiastic young Australian English teachers have taken their distinctive speech into remote Japanese high schools.
The relationship between Australia and Japan is very good. But not many Japanese are aware that Australia may have something to teach them in terms of accepting, and getting along with, their Asian neighbors. Japan, with its high standard of living and its surplus of jobs in construction, distribution, and services, is a magnet for young men from teeming Bangladesh, Pakistan, or Iran. But, like Australians in the days of White Australia, the Japanese fear ethnic change. They worry that if they follow the
European example and accept large numbers of "guest workers," their ethnically and culturally homogeneous society will be shattered.
Japan's immigration policy rigidly forbids unskilled workers, who enter the country as tourists and promptly disappear into the countryside, turning up as welders, painters, foundrymen, and assembly-line workers in jobs most Japanese youths scorn despite the deepening recession. Ineligible for citizenship, these illegal Asians are becoming a permanent underclass in a country that prides itself on having no extremes of poverty or wealth.
Australians gave up White Australia more than a quarter century ago. Can the Japanese follow in their footsteps and give up an exclusive Japan?