Tuesday, 21 November 2006

Japan is contentious for Australians. Culturally, politically, historically, it offers many challenges and little consolation. This was brought home to me by two newspaper articles that appeared in two competing broadsheets this month. They also showed me that front pages can often contain, if not outright falehoods, articles that are adequately rant-like to attract opprobrium.

On 8 November, on the front page of The Australian an article by Stuart Rintoul (described here as "a senior writer") declared that "A sun is rising over Flemington. The Melbourne Cup is being stolen away by raiders from Japan". "It will be remembered as the year the Japanese took the Cup..." he adds. There is some hyperbolic language to soften the fundamentally xenophobic message, but you get it without reading too closely. The article closes with some very strange twists that first of all turn our attention back fifty years to "the signing of the landmark Australia-Japan Agreement on Commerce,"

which cast aside war-time bitterness and recognised that Australia's future prosperity lay with Asia.

The basic idea is obvious: memories of the Second World War are evoked and old hatreds fanned by this reporter in an effort to stir up a nationalism that is really very foreign to Australians. Most Japanese people would, furthermore, resent allusions to the Rising Sun, and anyway are too busy paying off the mortgage to entertain militarism in any form whatsoever.

"Australia needn't choose between its history and its geography," said the news announcer on the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS, the multicultural broadcaster) tonight. I didn't catch whether he was quoting a politician (most likely the prime minister, who has just left Vietnam, and the APEC summit). But they did show John Howard, the PM, saying this to the cameras, before he boarded his jet back home:

We are naturally, and comfortably, and permanently part of this region, and see our future in it.

It'll be interesting to see how The Australian handles this in tomorrow's edition. Front page news? Probably not.

Which brings me to the second article that caught my attention. Written by Deborah Cameron, The Sydney Morning Herald's Tokyo correspondent, the piece, which was published today on page 12, looks at a new, Japanese-language theatre production being staged at the Parade Studio in Kensington, a suburb of Sydney.

When the play, Tomoko's Story, is performed this week in Sydney and Adelaide by its Tokyo cast, the original language will remain. To add a further cross-cultural dimension, the play was written by an Australian with a 39-year attachment to Japan.

There will be "subtitles". I knew that there are subtitles available at the Sydney Opera House during productions, but in this case it had me stumped (until I googled the theatre and discovered it belongs to NIDA — more below). Regardless, the tone of the article, its intent, and its sincerity, are unquestionable.

The writer, Roger Pulvers, admits that the production is a bit of an "experiment". The director of the National Institute of Dramatic Arts (NIDA, which I knew was based in Kensington), Aubrey Mellor, is supportive.

"Typically plays from Japan that come to Australia are either Kabuki or Noh, very exotic and alienating, or really way out with loud music and all sorts of images flying at us," Mellor says.
  In reality the bulk of Japanese theatre is "just like ours" — actors telling a story — which is the underlying beauty of Pulvers' newest work, Mellor believes.

Pulvers also writes newspaper columns (it's not said where they're published, in English or Japanese) and teaches at the Centre for the Study of World Civilisations (no Web site, but it is based at the Tokyo Institute of Technology).

Pulvers pulverises Rintoul. He speaks Russian as well as Japanese. He became an Australian by choice, having been born in the United States of America, "and has translated into Japanese literature from English and Russian". It's not clear exactly what this involves, this translating "into Japanese literature", but the message is clear: here is someone committed to crossing cultural divides, and offering consolation to harried salary earners in both countries. I'm very tempted to go and see this production, to find out what it means to watch a play in Japanese.

If only the Japanese would own up to what happened during World War II. Then we could all (Rintoul included) rest easy. Perhaps.

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