Ben Holt: The opportunity to tell the story of Australia was a source of great pride

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Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Specialist, Advance.

Working as the Director of Regional Marketing for Hilton Hotels in Japan and Korea, Ben Holt’s full-time job is to tell Australia’s story to various audiences throughout Asia. His journey to Japan began with an exchange in Osaka following his high school graduation, a move that changed the trajectory of his life “fundamentally”. 

Ben shared with Advance his detailed insights on his life in Tokyo; first impressions, cultural differences, how to effectively communicate with Japanese people, and the secrets that make Tokyo one of the most remarkable cities in the world.

What precipitated your early interest in Asia? 

It’s hard to pinpoint, but in the years before going to Japan by myself my family had accepted several students from Japan for short stays, and this piqued my curiosity. 

After returning from my year in Osaka after high school, I convinced the Deans of both the Arts and Science departments of the University of Queensland to let me undertake two degrees concurrently. It was arguably the first double-degree at the university and the prevailing opinion was “eight subjects or more a semester over four years is almost impossible!”

I subsequently proved them wrong and immensely enjoyed the left-right brain mix that this approach provided. Although I never followed the geophysics and marine zoology side, this approach primed me perfectly for my marketing career, a discipline that is indeed a mix of science and art.

Japanese featured heavily as part of my Arts degree. Following my undergraduate degree, I was accepted into Sydney University to do my Masters in Japanese. I drove down from Brisbane to start a new academic adventure, called my father upon arriving and he informed me I had received a scholarship to study Korean at Seoul National University. I had a few days to decide. How could I refuse?! The year that followed in Seoul really expanded my view of Asia.

What was your first impression when you moved to Japan? Was there anything that surprised you?

I recall the warmth of everyone I met and their genuine interest in how things were done overseas and in Australia. I learnt quickly that you are expected to represent your country and know all the answers about its history, politics, sports and much more. At the beginning, and indeed every day from thereon, Japan was full of little surprises. From a business perspective, the surprises come from Japan being such a high-touch and hierarchical society. High-touch meaning that you are expected to read between the lines: “it will be difficult but we’ll do our best” actually means “we can’t do it”. Hierarchical in the sense that when the boss says “you know what to do — I’ll leave it to your judgement”, minor chaos will ensue. For Japanese people, that level of detail acts as a series of guidelines for a productive workplace. For the Australian coming from a flat-structured society, it can be difficult to read.

How integral is being fluent in Japanese while living there?  

As they say, language is the key to the cultural door. Without it, you only ever scratch the surface. With complete comprehension of language barriers drop and things that hitherto appeared weird become wonderful. Japanese social norms are built around a duality of what is said in public to keep things in harmony (‘Tatemae’) versus what is the real private point of view (‘Honne’). Language ability starts to unlock this seemingly inscrutable interchange, both in private and business life.

Have any elements of Australian culture had any influence on Japan’s? Or vice versa? 

To the average Japanese person, Australian culture has only but a minor influence and is peripheral. Most Japanese people struggle to define Australian contemporary culture, often seeking answers in food, which is even more difficult for them to grasp. We have to understand that Japan, despite being the economic powerhouse that it is, remains one of the staunchest mono-cultures on the planet. Therefore, a racially mixed, egalitarian and young country like Australia is a hard one to grasp.   

The reverse feels stronger for me, however: Australians have taken to Japan and Japanese culture with great curiosity, bringing back an expanded view not just on the obvious attractions around food and powder snow, but also a sense of Japan’s deep history and customs. This can only do good things for our bilateral relations, on many levels.

What did you learn during your tenure at Tourism Australia? What did you uncover as the most effective way to market Australia to a Japanese audience?  

The opportunity to tell the story of Australia to Japanese consumers was a source of great pride for me. The brand messaging and the campaigns that bring Brand Australia to life in Japan were always originating from an Australian cultural bias and English-language mindset, and rightly so. However, I quickly learnt that to successfully engage Japanese consumers with the Australian story required a very heavy re-work and re-think of the messaging in order to resonate. A classic example was “There’s Nothing Like Australia”, a seemingly harmless brand campaign headline on the surface.  Consumer testing revealed a direct translation into Japanese came across as precocious. In the end, we turned it around to be a question, “Have you ever experienced something like this before? Australia”.  My colleagues back in Sydney HQ took a while to get their heads around seeing a question mark in all the creative! But the key underlying cultural and linguistic adjustment we made was to approach the storytelling by being a little humble and not presumptive.

What do you love most about living in Tokyo, and what do you miss the most about living in Australia?  

Apart from being exceptionally clean, safe and orderly, Tokyo has enormous depth. Take dining out as an example. I love how I can spend more than a decade eating my way around restaurants within a 500m radius of just one JR station on the Yamate Line (let’s say Ebisu), and still keep finding gems. There are 29 stations on this line alone, with another 75 lines to go!

I miss the Big Blue Skies of Australia. When I exit the airport, I take a deep breath and stretch my arms out to embrace the expansive sky. It’s unlike anywhere in the world. Oh, and the coffee. 

What can Australia learn from Tokyo?  

Populous density, when managed efficiently, can concentrate creativity and deliver really exciting energy that drives the economy and the arts. The sprawling suburban model of so many Australian cities I now find exasperating, and to be honest, a little lonely at times.

The greater Tokyo metropolitan area has a population of over 36 million people – but remains one of the most livable cities in the world. What’s the secret here, in your opinion? 

The secret appears to arise from the fundamental cultural desire to seek harmony. Harmony with people around you and with nature. This means people can go through a morning commute in a cramped train without a single scuffle breaking out. It doesn’t mean they enjoy it, but they can bear with it for the greater good, delivering efficiency of movement as millions mass-transit in a short period of time. You could also argue that there is a respect for others, particularly elders, which arises from Confucian roots. This mixture of harmony and respect helps to keep order in a very populous city. The cold Japanese beers don’t hurt, either.