Ben Hills

From the vast pyramid of Foster’s beer cans that greeted Crown Prince Naruhito at the official launch, to the last honk of Alan Dargin’s didgeridoo, it was obviously Australian – but just what was it meant to achieve? Celebrate Australia, a month-long promotion of Australia’s arts, entertainment, produce and scientific achievement, finished this week after a cycle of 100 events in Tokyo and 32 regional towns and cities around Japan.

Two years in the making, it was the largest such promotion Australia has ever staged, and (according to its executive director, Gregson Edwards, who is the public affairs counsellor at the Australian Embassy) cost $44.5 million, of which $7 million was provided by Australian taxpayers, and another $2.5 million by shareholders in the sponsor companies, such as Qantas.

Its objective, declared the Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans, was “to convert a large segment of the Japanese population into ‘true believers’ about the dynamic future, and the many dimensions, of Australia’s partnership with Japan”.

Run that past me again.

”When most Japanese … think of Australia, they probably think of us either as a farm, a quarry, a beach, a golf course, or a rest home for koalas… (but) we are much more, and this is what Celebrate Australia will tell the people of Japan,” Evans said.

Leave aside the question of whether such a change in national image (if that’s what he’s on about) is possible in one month, and just what economic gains and/or losses would result if it did happen – mining, agriculture and tourism are, after all, our most important export industries.

And ignore those who question the use of public money to support dance club groups like Girlfriend – who have been cruising around Tokyo in Mitsubishi Magnas as the promotion’s “show business ambassadors” – and Ken Done, an Australian designer who has done very well commercially in Japan for many years.

Let’s look at Celebrate Australia by its own performance criteria – whether or not it was noticed by a large number of Japanese, and whether or not they became “true believers” in Australia’s hidden virtues, as Gareth Evans would have it.

Gregson Edwards, naturally, rates it as an almost unqualified success. “The only thing I would do differently is have some of the participants check their egos in at the cloakroom first,” he says, rather enigmatically.

But that is not the picture that emerges from several days of discussion with the arts editors of Japan’s major newspapers and magazines, with critics, and with members of the Japan/Australia community. “This is a big city – you have to do something really spectacular to be noticed,” seems to sum it up.

Just how big, how diverse can be grasped only if you look at the listings section of the Tokyo Journal, the leading entertainment guide. In November, the eight Celebrate Australia events (identified with a tiny koala logo in keeping with our attempt to forge a new image) were competing with no fewer than 387 local and imported plays, exhibitions and musical performances.

Lech Mackiewitz’s interesting Playbox Theatre production of Shakespeare’s King Lear (it begins in a classroom) was competing with a highly acclaimed Japanese Lear which was five years in the making, a French/Canadian Macbeth, and 10 other classical and contemporary plays.

The Australia Ensemble had even tougher competition for its Mozart one-night stand in Tokyo – 50 different classical performances were scheduled for the month, many for the same night, ranging from the Frankfurt Symphony and the Moscow Chamber Orchestra to a Beethoven sonata by Yoko Ono.

In the art galleries (all 120 of them) Judith Wright, an installation artist from Brisbane, was competing for attention not only with Tokyo’s famous”brat pack” but with several stunning European collections of Renaissance and Impressionist art, Salvador Dali, Mondrian and Munch.

Yothu Yindi (who, to be fair, did attract some publicity) in Tokyo were just one of 64 mainstream bands playing on the night, all the range from Tokyo’s own retro disco scene to Eric Clapton and Paul McCartney.

The Australian Ballet was unluckier still. Its production was the third Giselle to be performed in Tokyo this year, and it coincided with a visit by the Kirov Ballet. The Kirov got the “recommended” star in Tokyo Journal, and the Australians had to be content with the koala.

Still, they managed – with the help of some busloads of junior high-school girls on their annual outing at the matinee – to attract full houses, and an invitation to return, though perhaps with a different repertoire.

”I knew about it, you knew about it, but how many other people?” says Hiroshi Aoki, a leading commentator on the respected Asahi Shimbun broadsheet. “I’m sure they spent a lot of money on PR and advertising by Australian standards, but it is not enough in Japan. They should have hired one of the big agencies like Dentsu.”

Indeed, that’s a criticism that has turned up in an assessment by Ross Westcott, the newly appointed director of the government-sponsored Australia Abroad Council which supports such promotions. The publicity budget was, he says, “inadequate for Japan, given the extremely high cost of advertising and the saturated information and entertainment market”. There was criticism, as well, about the organisation. Some events – such as a stilt theatre and two groups which performed free street theatre – were listed as “time undecided”. Said a critic, “We had to deal with various different agents and employees … obtaining information was quite difficult.”

Nor did Tokyo prove to be an uncritical town to play. Although only one of the 100 events – the Australian Ballet’s performance – received a review (as opposed to sponsored advertorials in Tokyo’s English-language press), some critics did attend the events.

Of the exhibition by “contemporary” Australian artists, an arts editor at Tokyo Journal said: “It dealt specifically with the Aboriginal identity, and with an Iranian immigrant. It was politically correct to the point of being self-conscious … I am sure there are more talented artists in Australia.”

A leading ballet critic said she thought Sleeping Beauty (one of the three Australian Ballet programs) “was the wrong thing to do. The Australian dancers were young, energetic and spirited – they should perform something more suitable for that image, not imitate the heavy, dignified performance of the Bolshoi Ballet”.

Professor Masami Sekine, of the Australian Studies Department of Keio University, said he was disappointed at the academic symposium which he attended – Australia had sent Japan experts, when he was interested in Australian issues such as Mabo and industrial relations.

Professor Sekine also said that a four-hour TV special in which he took part mainly featured ABC and SBS nature footage “which just reinforced Australia’s current image”.

How many people finally turned out for the events, Gregson Edwards is unable to say. There were 100,000 copies of the program distributed, and the 1,500 coupons with comments that were returned will be analysed.

Later this month, a polling company will conduct the 11th annual survey of Japanese attitudes to Australia. Previous surveys have shown that many Japanese believe it to be a “semi-developed country”. It will be interesting to see if there is any change.

Hiroshi Aoki – who, it should be noted, is a friend of Australia and a former Sydney correspondent – says he thinks the attempt to change Australia’s image in Japan has failed.

Australia is not seen here as being in the first rank like the Americans and the Europeans when it comes to the arts,” he says.

There was no strong, unique brand image that came through. “I commend the effort, but it needs to be done for five or 10 years to have any effect.”

There should be, say the critics, a serious rethink of next year’s extravaganza – Australia Today ‘94, which will be held in Indonesia – which, although Jakarta is not as cosmopolitan a city as Tokyo, will inevitably pose some of the same problems.

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 4 December 1993
Edition: Late
Section: Spectrum
Sub section:
Page: 13
Word count: 1463
Keywords: Exhibitions
Caption: The Australian Ballet’s Rachel Dougherty and Damien Welch rehearse Sleeping Beauty in front of a Tokyo shrine.