Melanie Brock: The world's focus point is back on Japan

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

Melanie Brock first visited Japan in 1982 as a Rotary Exchange student and has never looked back. With over two decades of experience in Japan, Melanie has developed an excellent network of contacts in the corporate, political and diplomatic sectors and has played a pivotal role in strengthening Australia-Japan relations.

Melanie is a member of the Board of the Australia Japan Business Co-operation Committee and is Chair Emeritus of the Australian & New Zealand Chamber of Commerce in Japan after serving as Chair for six plus years until 2016.

Advance spoke to Melanie about how Japan has transformed over the time that she has been there, which industries are excelling, how young Australians can become more involved in the Australia/Japan relationship and why it is important for Australia to focus more on Japan.

Did you fall in love with Japan the first time you visited?

Not at all! I was 17 years old and was dropped into a completely different culture as an exchange student. I couldn’t speak the language and had no means of communication. There was no Skype, no Facebook, no Twitter; I was very isolated but also bamboozled by what was such a different culture – it was a long way from Albany, Western Australia, where I had been brought up. Eventually, I began to make progress with learning Japanese, little by little, and thanks to the help of my host families and the school I attended, I started to feel more comfortable there.

Did you pick up the language easily?

Australians are quite chatty and communicative (I certainly am!) and I felt a great frustration at not being able to understand conversations that were happening around me. That really pushed me to try harder to learn what is quite a tricky language to master. I think the acquisition of another language is such a fantastic thing, it gives you an incredible level of exposure to a completely different culture and I wish we could allocate more resources to teaching particularly Asian languages in Australian schools.

How do you think Japan has transformed over the time that you've been there?

In the period that I've been in Japan, things have shifted dramatically. In 1982, Japan was at the peak of economic growth, and then it went through what a lot of people have called a “bubble” period. Japan is not an ostentatious country, but it was rather flashy for a time. Then, following a range of crises, Japan saw a 20-year period of economic stagnation and deflation – up until a couple of years ago.

With an aging society and a shrinking population, including the number of young people, Japan's focus points need to differ greatly. In the last couple of years, things have really been picking up again and you can feel, in Tokyo at least, the benefits of renewed economic and commercial activity.

There are a lot of international events coming to Japan; the Rugby World Cup next year, the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics and then in 2021, the Masters Games in Osaka. All of these major events are shifting tourism numbers substantially. The world's focus point is back on Japan, I think.

What was the reaction in Tokyo when the bid for the 2020 Summer Olympics and Paralympics was secured?

A lot of people went down to various different viewing points in Tokyo very early in the morning to hear the announcement of whether Tokyo had been successful or not. It was a big, warm, fuzzy moment for the country and will certainly add to the current tourism boom Japan is experiencing. And for anyone considering coming over, I encourage you to travel to visit areas outside the cities. Regional Japan has loads to offer and is very beautiful! 

How would it benefit young Australians to become more invested in the Australia Japan relationship? What are the best ways that they can become more involved?

I think the government needs to continue to take a lead and allocate more resources to the study of Asian languages and also to supporting Australia Japan relations. The New Colombo Plan is a terrific initiative and we are seeing a steady increase in the number of young people coming to Japan to work and study. But we also need business to be brave and to take a long position on Japan.  The rewards with Japan might be a long time coming – and will require a lot of commitment –but they are so certainly worth it.

Strengthening the Japan/Australia relationship will afford us better engagement with one another, and I think our capacity to drive some of those reforms and changes would be even more effective, if we partnered with Japanese companies, particularly in third country partnerships and projects.

What industries are really excelling in Tokyo right now?

I think there are some terrific areas of central engagement with sport and business, and women in those sectors, in particular. Financial services is an industry that young people, Australians in particular, should look at. There are also opportunities in medical services, and given that Japan is looking to find a structural way to support its aging population, innovation will continue to be rewarded. Some of our biotech and biomedical areas are great foci for joint research and joint business development. I think all these areas will continue to offer great opportunities for Australians because we are going that same way, just not at the same pace. Australia has good solid representation in the food and beverage sector in Japan too and the number of Australian restaurants, coffee shops and bars popping up is astounding and very much welcome.

Do you envision yourself being Japan-based indefinitely?

I do. I have two boys who are half Japanese and half Australian, and my oldest son has two children here. I fly back home to Australia for about a week every month, a lot of my business is with Australian companies, however, I can't imagine a day where I’ll say to someone, “I’m not living in Japan anymore.”

AsiaAdvanceBorn Global, Tokyo