From Cultural Faux Pas to Cultural Connections

Bond University's inaugural JUEMUN delegation. Bond University’s inaugural JUEMUN delegation.

Japan is a high context culture that places deep emphasis on relationships and the closeness of human connection. While this may be taught by academics or read in books, it can only truly be understood though face-to-face interaction. Last week I was in Kyoto as a part of Bond University’s inaugural delegation to the Japan University Model United Nations (JUEMUN) where I was able to appreciate the importance of international educational exchange in building relationships. Bond University’s participation in JUEMUN is premised on engagement with Japanese students. I was partnered with Kindi University student Yuuki to participate in the Model UN forum. Yuuki and I quickly became friends despite the academic nature of JUEMUN and the cultural differences we faced. Our relationship is just one of the millions that can be formed through educational exchange opportunities.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Basic Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation between Japan and Australia. Our countries have since remained steadfast regional partners through trade, cooperation and aligned ideologies. However, our cultures could not be more distinct. Despite Australia’s regional positioning, surrounded by predominately Eastern and high context cultures, we have firmly adopted a Western, low context culture. Japan is often considered the highest on the high context culture index. Its culture is rooted in the past, people are influenced by hierarchies and communication is indirect, ambiguous, reserved and understated. All these features just so happen to be the inverse of my assertive, blunt and forward-thinking personality. Within merely four days, I managed to repeatedly demonstrate my cultural ignorance, stepping on the Tatami mat with shoes on, accepting items with one hand, and forgetting every Japanese word I was taught in Grade 9. However, instead of being offended, my JUEMUN partner and other Japanese participants found my faux pas endearing. Through poorly concealed giggles they leapt at the opportunity to introduce me to the wonders of Japanese culture. Without the human element to this cultural immersion, in the forgiving nature of the Japanese and the self-depreciating humour of the Australian, such cultural differences may have built a divide and not a connection between us.

Miso happy about JUEMUN partner Yuuki introducing me to Japanese food.
Miso happy about JUEMUN partner Yuuki introducing me to Japanese food.

This is where our countries have missed the incredible opportunity presented by strong educational exchange. The idea of educational exchange as a form of diplomacy has existed for decades as it is fundamentally premised on the notion of sharing information, values and creating relationships. My generation of university students is the first to study in a globalised world and it has never been an easier time to explore cultures. In 1961, Dr Charles Malik, Lebanese academic and diplomat, observed that:

…international cultural relations depends on how much one stands firm on the good of himself; how much one appreciates the good in others; and how much one has the humility, the grace and the self-confidence to enter into creative intercourses with others…

His words were as timely then as they are now; in fact, they may be even timelier. The globalised world has a generation of young people fascinated with exploring the globe, its cultures and its people. This is the perfect climate for Australia to leverage a public diplomacy and soft power approach to international educational exchange to engage and inform individuals in other countries to shape the perceptions of Australia, its policies and its goals.

While Australia certainly hasn’t been oblivious to the power of international exchange as a diplomatic instrument, it has been slow to embrace the opportunity. In 2007, international education was hardly considered by the Senate Inquiry into the nature and conducts of Australia’s public diplomacy and one of the only three Australian universities to make submissions noted that ‘the role and significance of universities in the conduct of Australia’s public diplomacy is poorly articulated and relatively unexplored.’ Despite some scathing criticism, the Government was still slow to respond to recommendations to fully develop international educational opportunities as a part of their public diplomacy strategy. It wasn’t until the re-birth of the New Colombo Plan in 2014 that Australia truly opened itself up to international exchange as a form of public diplomacy. Notably this revisited program now includes Japan as a host country. More recently, the Australian government has made efforts to expand in this area by streamlining international student visa applications on 1 July, and announcing that the 2017 study abroad scholarships will branch out to new Asian countries including seven Japan-specific opportunities. But it cannot stop here. In a world where young people are inspired to meet others from different cultures, particularly in light of Asia’s high context emphasis on relationships, Australia must invest into opportunities to create relationships between people across culture. A public diplomacy approach to Australia’s international educational exchange programs will multiply these opportunities that will solidify Australia’s relationship with Japan and throughout the Eastern cultures of the Asia-Pacific.

Holli Sargeant is the Vice-President of BUUNSA and is in her 8th semester of Bachelor of Laws/International Relations.