Tokyo postcard. John Menadue

Apr 7, 2013

It is great to be back in Japan for cherry blossom. I first came to Japan almost 45 years ago and have been visiting regularly ever since. On our visits and residence in Japan, we stayed at scores of minshuku – Japanese B & B – across the country. It was a wonderful experience.

Cherry blossoms have been early in Japan this year. Many locals say that it is due to climate change! I suspect that many Japanese are more concerned about their environmental pollution of dust out of China, soaring eastwards, first over Korea and then over Japan. A family member who recently stayed in Seoul for a couple of days said that the dust obscured the sun until about 2pm each day.

We attended the Australian embassy cherry blossom celebration along with about 1,200 others last week. It is a great occasion for Australia to display its friendship and its produce. We established the first such celebration almost 35 years ago. It was then called a ‘wattle and cherry blossom day’. The cherry blossoms in the garden have always been beautiful, but in the early days we brought in wattle from the Commonwealth War Graves garden in Hodogaya.

In the 1980s, the Australian government sold a large section of the embassy premises for $750 million to a large Japanese company. The capital gain was tax-free. Some of the money was used to erect a new chancery and staff apartments. I am yet to hear of anyone who admires what we built. The Canadians did it much better than we did. However, a lovely part of the garden was retained and is well used for embassy functions.

I sense a much improved mood in Japan following the election of the Abe Government several months ago. After 25 years of stagnation, the Japanese are now much more optimistic. But time will tell whether the optimistic mood is justified. Major structural problems still face Japan – an ageing population and a refusal to seriously entertain immigration, a protected agricultural sector and serious governance problems whereby operators like TEPCO, the nuclear power operator at Fukishima, are much too close to government regulators. By flooding the economy with money and forcing down the Japanese yen, it is clearly causing difficulties for adjoining countries such as ROK. The depreciating yen will also increase prices of all imported energy and foodstuffs. But the mood has certainly improved, something I have not noticed for a long time.

Knowledgeable Japanese that I have spoken to express admiration for the strength of the Australian economy – growth rates over many years averaging about 3%, inflation ranging between 2% and 3%, unemployment just over 5% and miniscule government debt compared with Japan with its very serious international debt problems. But Japanese express real surprise that with such a strongly performing economy, the Australian Government should be at such political risk in the coming September elections. I don’t think they quite understand when I tell them that so much of the damage to the Australian Government has been self-inflicted.

John Menadue

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