Marketing Communications Manager, Japan
2009 Asialink Leaders Program participant
- How did you come to be living and working in Tokyo?
My wife and I moved here 10 years ago to start our family! Having said that I have a long association with Japan, first arriving some 20-odd years ago all fresh and eager, so I guess this was in a way a natural progression. I was in the dairy industry at the time and through a serendipitous connection managed to start my Japan working experience with a manufacturer and marketer of specialist cream. Amazing what you can do with milk.
- What are some of your daily work activities?
I am responsible for the marketing and communications of Brand Australia in the Japan market - more specifically the ongoing marketing and PR activity surrounding our global message "there's nothing like Australia". This means I get my hands into negotiating with production houses and talent agencies for the development of TV programs on Australia, figuring out innovative ways to reach our target consumer through digital channels and building our presence in social media via Twitter and Facebook, to name a few activities. One day I might be working on a sharp tactical campaign with Qantas to capture a predicted surge in summer travel as consumers plan an overseas trip to avoid power cuts due to the ongoing issues at Fukushima, or I might be working with Austrade on developing a new initiative to capture the growing "global literacy" demands among younger Japanese and corporates. On the less glamorous side, being a Government body there is no shortage of reporting and internal process and policy, but one needs to stay above this and keep the real show in mind: sharing with our Japanese friends the great country that Australia is.
- In your role, what are the highlights of working with different cultures?
Firstly, everything I do on a day-to-day level is in another language: Japanese. It's too easy to forget this! There is a strong argument which suggests that speaking a second language actually changes the way you think. Many of my Asialink colleagues will be nodding on this point. So the excitement and continual challenge is to switch between the two languages and therefore the two different ways of approaching the same issues. As the only Aussie in the Tourism Australia office in Tokyo this makes for a lot of fun.
- How do you manage the cultural differences?
What initially were felt as gaping cultural gaps - different food, different personal space, different language etc have now become very much integrated into 'me'. Managing cultural differences is in fact less about differences and now more about sharing commonalities. Living in a normal neighbourhood where the kids go to the local school, doing the shopping like everyone else, for example, is all about integration and not expatriation. While it's all now pretty much normal for me, this doesn't imply I have lost my curiosity. I still devour books about Japan and the Japanese, in both languages, and continue to find something new each day.
- What do you enjoy most about living in Tokyo?
There is a unique energy in very large cities. Tokyo, while perhaps a little on the dreary side from an architectural point of view, keeps you on your toes and is a fantastic blend of a myriad of consumer sub-cultures. While the commute is arduous and yes the trains crowded, there are as many faces to the city as there are subway stops.
- How can Australia make a stronger contribution towards building positive relations with the Asian region?
I believe this starts with a key fundamental – Australians living for a period of time in any one of the countries in Asia. Only when you study or work in the region do you fully appreciate the diversity and it’s when you stop calling it generically “Asia” and get a feel for the real dynamic. This ongoing personal engagement is the most basic component to building positive relations with our partners in the region.
I do also believe that we need to come to terms and better understand our own cultures back home too. This includes our diverse Aboriginal cultures. Spending time overseas demands an understanding at a conscious level we take for granted when living in Australia. That’s why I have in recent years gone back to the original texts, for example by Watkin Tench, to really understand our European heritage, while at the same time strive for a better understanding of Aboriginal histories as well. Respect for Australia and Australians overseas rests with this dual cultural knowledge and appreciation.
Ben's perspective on Japan’s situation following the earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear crisis
Many commentators are taking the rather precarious angle that, to paraphrase, there’s nothing like a natural disaster to galvanise the national spirit. I’m not so convinced. This is not to ignore the enormous outpouring of support and goodwill from Japanese around the country (and of course internationally as well). I have many friends who have personally made the trek up to the Tohoku area to support charity organisations and give what they can. Rather, what I’m not so convinced about is whether the Great Eastern Earthquake and Tsunami is re-igniting and coalescing the national energy levels or being the agent for fundamental change – a historical moment of bifurcation, albeit arising from a horrific natural event. The stymied and bumbling way in which the Japanese Government, or rather to be more specific, the DPJ has handled the ensuing nuclear melt-down gives no hint that someone is in control, taking the reins and chartering a new course for the country. I think secretly many Japanese were wishing this event and ongoing reactor crisis would herald a new-found Japan, new confidence and a new way. However, the ‘small’ politics and finger pointing around the Fukushima plants put paid to that idea.
The Japanese are resilient and innovative in the face of a crisis – and incredibly self-controlled. There are no reported cases of looting and we hear of family safes found being handed in to authorities. Where the social fabric itself may have been torn in other societies, the Japanese in the affected areas have respected each other and continue to live in temporary shelters with very little privacy. There is no doubt the psychological and emotional damage is and will continue to be great for many years to come, but the way in which the Japanese handle the situation is awe-inspiring.
Australia has played an exemplary role in showing genuine support and goodwill to the victims of the earthquake and tsunami. Julia Gillard was the first foreign head of state to make an official visit to the affected area and a charity dinner she hosted together with the Ambassador here in Tokyo was received warmly by the 500 or so guests who attended.
In stark contrast were certain European countries – the celebrities who sat at my table at the abovementioned dinner were openly disappointed by the European response to the crisis. While France was evacuating nationals on chartered aircraft in the 48 hours immediately after the disaster struck, Australia was delivering a specialist rescue team into Ground Zero. While French luxury brands were shuttering their Ginza stores, Aussie Beef was delivering in retort curries to the surviving earthquake victims. To then have the French President personally endorse French nuclear technology to assist the Fukushima crisis was seen as poor taste and a slap in the face by many Japanese. “In times of crisis we really get to see who our friends are..” was a comment I heard only too often. This is an opportunity for Australia to remind itself just how important Japan is both on an economic and a personal level.
Ben Holt - 2/6/2011