Together with five other Australian residents – four academics and one journalist – I visited Japan as a guest of the Gaimusho from 1-9 February 2015. One member of our group was on his first visit, another had visited only once before, some years ago, while the rest of us had a greater exposure to Japan. In my case I was lucky enough to have been sent to Tokyo on my first overseas posting with the Australian Embassy back in 1976-1980, including two years’ study of the Japanese language at the US FSI language school in Yokohama. Since that time I have visited Japan on various occasions in an official capacity, but almost always for particular talks or exchanges, with little opportunity to see other than meeting and hotel rooms; although to be honest I should add to that list a number of splendid restaurants, and my greatest weakness, on rare occasions the opportunity to slip away for an hour or so to the second-hand bookshops of Jimbocho!

Since that time, though, much of my career as diplomat and intelligence analyst, and more recently as an academic, has been occupied by China, including three diplomatic postings there. Given the crucial nature of Japan-China relations to overall regional security, and the importance of exchanging views on China in the context of the alliance relationship Japan and Australia both maintain with the United States, not to mention the close bilateral ties between Japan and Australia, I seized the opportunity to make this visit as soon as I received the Gaimusho’s generous invitation. I certainly do not regret having done so.

The visit was obviously of value for the scope and quality of our delegation’s official exchanges, with the Gaimusho (Oceania Division, Northeast Asia Division, and the First China and Mongolia Division, the Foreign Policy Bureau), the Ministry of Defense, the National Institute for Defense Studies, and the National Security Council. We also had a fascinating side visit to Tsukuba City, for briefings and a tour of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. The latter gave me a heightened appreciation not only of the advanced nature of Japan’s space technology and research, but also of the crucial role played by Japanese satellites over a range of important regional and indeed global issues.

Of particular interest to me in our Tokyo exchanges was the discussion of regional issues and in particular Japan’s relationships with China and the two states of the Korean Peninsula. This included of course the question of conflicting territorial claims with both the Republic of Korea and the People’s Republic of China. While Australia takes no position on the question of sovereignty in either case, I was left in no doubt as to the seriousness with which Japan regards both these issues, and the amount of effort devoted to putting Japan’s case with the best possible arguments and evidence. I also now have a better understanding as to why Japan does not use the term ‘territorial dispute’ in describing the disagreement with China – a point that tends to puzzle outside observers. From my knowledge of the issues and the positions of all countries involved it is clear to me that these questions are not going to be resolved any time soon, so the real question for now is how the disputants pursue or uphold their claims; and here I was somewhat reassured by the modest but meaningful progress made in bilateral relations between Japan and China in recent months. This is certainly a welcome development from Australia’s point of view, and one can only hope these more positive trends continue.

It would not be appropriate in a forum of this nature to go into too much detail regarding some of the more sensitive questions covered in our discussions of regional and global issues, particularly in the security area, but – as I had expected – I was impressed by the knowledge, expertise and frankness of our Japanese interlocutors, and came away from the Tokyo segment of the visit with a better understanding of Japanese views, and a heightened sense of Japan’s value as an interlocutor.

The visit was not only valuable at the official level, though. Following the Tokyo segment we were treated to three wonderful days in Kyoto, a city that I can never have enough time in (and for a historian of China such as myself there are of course particular resonances, and things long lost in China itself yet perfectly preserved in Kyoto). Along with a variety of cultural activities, including visits to a number of the most famous sites and the opportunity to spend an all too brief period in Zen meditation – which I found of particular value as a reminder of the spiritual strengths of both traditional and modern Japan – we also had a useful exchange with Professor Hiroshi Nakanishi of Kyoto University, and a very stimulating and enlightening call on the Editor and senior staff of the Osaka edition of the Sankei Shimbun.

These activities, combined with generous hospitality in both Tokyo and Kyoto, were not only appreciated in their own right by all our delegation, but brought home to me, in a way that perhaps surpassed my already high expectations, just what a delightful country Japan is to visit. Cleanliness, politeness and efficiency, may seem bland descriptors of Japan as a whole, but when put into universal practise, with the great charm and sincerity of all we met, the impression is deep and lasting. One may hope that such positive impressions are also made on the large numbers of tourists from Japan’s Asian neighbours, and that a better understanding of the fine texture of Japanese life can help others appreciate the many good things Japan has to offer to the region, and to the world, as a whole.

Again, I offer my sincere thanks to our Gaimusho hosts, to those directly responsible for our program, and for all the Japanese people we encountered who made our visit such a valuable and enjoyable one.

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