HAVING A YEN FOR EAST JAVA © Duncan Graham 2006
The new Japanese consul general in Surabaya is clearly not the standard bland and benign model diplomat with a well-buffed line in obfuscation.
For starters Shoji Sato, 58, forgets to carry his name card, even at official functions. A Japanese without cardboard credentials is like an Australian without a styrofoam beer-can holder. Impossible to imagine.
This also means that the ritual of two-handed card exchange and much bowing has to be forgone. Unforgivable!
Then he laughs a lot, cracks jokes and seems cheerfully relaxed even when surrounded by his protocol-stiff countryfolk. His buoyant wife Atsuko, who is a social worker among Japanese geriatrics, is equally down-to-earth.
It must have been his posting in egalitarian Sydney together with a spell in the US that has made Sato perfect the laid-back mate-style of doing business. He doesn’t need minders. It’s clear this guy is quite at ease wherever he goes and whoever he’s with.
Which makes him the ideal spokesman for Japan in a country where personal relationships are so important. Although he’s been in the Republic only four months (replacing Hirashima Shusaku) he already has a good handle on Indonesian. Which should make his job of enhancing relations between the countries that much easier.
“People are so friendly in Indonesia, and particularly so in East Java,” he said. It’s the off-the-peg clichéd line every new foreign official has to say, but Sato does it with such ease there’s no hint of insincerity.
In Australia there’s some lingering hostility towards the Japanese among the older generation recalling atrocities committed during World War II. Sato denied any similar animosity in Indonesia because of Japan’s three-year occupation of the archipelago in the 1940s. (A peace treaty was signed between the two nations in 1958.)
And the East Javanese workers are apparently also cheaper – with wages around 80 per cent of those demanded in Jakarta. Which makes doing business in Surabaya especially attractive.
“There are 110 Japanese companies based in and around Surabaya; however most prefer to invest in Jakarta and Batam,” he said. “My job is to try and encourage others to come here.
“There are plenty of opportunities in infrastructure projects and small to medium enterprises.
“At the moment that’s a real problem with the mud eruption at Porong (alongside the toll road and railway south of Surabaya). Some Japanese companies, including Yamaha musical instruments, are based at the nearby Pasuruan Industrial Area (on the north coast) and having serious communication and transport problems.”
The Surabaya sales pitch includes a line about the high number of Indonesians speaking Japanese. There are around 10,000 learning the language in East Java alone, though the problem is finding native speakers to do the teaching and ensure pronunciation is perfect.
Unlike English, where a dozen countries can legitimately supply ‘native speakers’, there’s only one source for Japanese teachers - and they can demand high salaries. And there’s only one destination for the dedicated student who wants to understand the culture.
“Many Indonesian young people are motivated to study Japanese through watching animated TV programs and seeing comics like the Manga characters,” he said.
“Well … that’s OK. It’s a good starting point if you then develop your intellectual qualities. Getting to Japan can be a problem, though there are now a number of scholarships.”
The East Java Japan Club hands out some modest support to a few tertiary students and a specialist teacher from the Japanese Foundation has been seconded to the State University of Surabaya.
Next month (Nov) Free Trade Agreement (FTA) talks are scheduled between Indonesia and Japan. The discussions are expected to tackle all the usual mind-atrophying issues of tariffs, customs law and goods exchange, but Sato said there would also be a people component.
“The FTA might be a good starting point to initiate a system for young Japanese to visit Indonesia,” he said. “There’s a working holiday visa agreement in place between Australia and Japan.
“This allows young Japanese to stay for several months – and Australians to go to Japan. They can work or study while they tour the country, improve their language skills and learn about the culture.
“There’s no similar scheme between Japan and Indonesia. Maybe there should be. I really want to promote cultural exchange, and get more Japanese coming here as well as Bali because this is such an interesting country.
“Sadly most Japanese know about this country only through the news of natural disasters. They aren’t aware that you sell so many products to Japan and that we’re your major trading partner.
“Indonesians who can speak Japanese can get jobs working for companies here and in the hospitality industry.”
Do Indonesians studying in Japan face discrimination? Would it be safe for Muslim women to wear headscarves in public? (At a handover of scholarships to students studying Japanese most recipients were women in headscarves.)
“No problems,” he said. “Japan is very relaxed about religion. We have a joke that when you’re born you’ll go through Shinto ceremonies; when you get married it will be in a Catholic church, and when you die your funeral will be Buddhist.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post, Saturday 21 October 06)