Tag Archives: Australia

Japan Journal #4 – Space & pace

In my home city of Melbourne the population density is estimated at 430 people per square kilometre. In Tokyo the figure is 6000 people per square kilometre.

Japan has an overall population density of approximately 350 people per square kilometre. In Australia you’re looking at roughly three people per square kilometre*. That’s right, three.

That’s ample room to swing a cat, even of the sabre-tooth variety. If you’re antisocial by nature you could stroll around your square kilometre and feel fairly confident you wouldn’t bump into a single soul.

OK, much of Australia’s red, ‘dead’ heart is desert and unsuitable for high density habitation. This is why we sunburnt Aussies stick to the coastlines where it is wetter and greener. It’s also why the density numbers for Melbourne and Sydney are so much higher than the national average — and why traffic and public transport issues are top of mind for so many people.

For all our huffing and puffing, Melbourne’s 430 people / km2 hardly compares with Tokyo’s 6000. We could learn a lot from the Japanese mega-city.

Space

My sense of Tokyo is that for all the crowding it doesn’t feel cluttered. The populace live side-by-side politely, patiently and efficiently. Space, the commodity many Australians have in abundance, is rarely wasted.

Living in Tokyo made me conscious of how we can make do with less. Why build big houses full of single-purpose rooms that are empty most of the day when you can stow your bedding each morning and turn sleeping space into living areas?

If you absolutely must own a motor vehicle, why not opt for a petite machine purpose-built for the tight parking spaces available.

A gap between buildings could fit one car-parking space — or six if you build an elevator that enables cars to be stored on top of each other.¬†A steep, narrow sliver of land that’s probably no good for anything else could be perfectly fine for a cemetery.

Japanese garden design also reflects this capacity to optimise surroundings. Entire gardens are designed around what does NOT fit in a property. You simply ‘borrow’ scenery in the background, such as a hillside or a neighbour’s tree, by framing it with plants in your own garden.

Pace

Paths in Japanese gardens meander. The wisdom of a winding path, apart from being an excellent metaphor, is that each change of angle provides a different view. The gardener can craft several scenes from one. With this in mind they deliberately slow our progress, encouraging meditation and appreciation, rather than impatience and bustle.

The other place where this cultural prescription to slow down was obvious was in the public baths. We stayed a week in the mountains where the plumbing was often frozen solid. This didn’t matter as bathing took place at one of several local ‘onsen’.

Part of the reason I’m posting this so long after our trip is that I have been musing over the things I liked best about Japanese customs. Ten months down the track, I have to say I miss the public baths.

The onsen routine involved stripping down, scrubbing forensically in an open showering area, then moving to hot/very hot/cold indoor or outdoor pools to soak. I suspect public (segregated) bathing probably lessens hang-ups about body image but the ritual certainly had other benefits.

The onsen deliberately takes the pace off your life. It cleanses not just the outer layer but the inner, soaking up accumulated¬†stress. As a full stop to a 24-hour period, it’s a very smart piece of punctuation.

I reckon I could use an onsen in my ‘hood.

Slow down. One step at a time.
Slow down. One step at a time.

(*I note that population data does not include those held in refugee incarceration facilities. My point is not that this would alter population density; the statistical impact is likely to be insignificant in an Australian context. It’s more a realisation that once you’re a stateless person, you’re apparently also a non-person. You don’t count in the country where you are seeking refuge.)

Open your arms

It’s great to see Mark Seymour and fellow Hunters and Collectors’ band members continuing to stand up for the rights of asylum seekers everywhere.

The legendary Oz-rock band are touring with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band and delivered an impassioned and powerful set last Saturday night. Their classic song, Throw Your Arms Around Me, has been given a new verse, highlighting the need for empathy and justice for all people in need.

Here’s how Mr Seymour introduced it: “This song is about faith, hope and compassion. It’s about the stranger at the door. We are all asylum seekers.”

I haven’t found footage from last weekend but here’s a version from a Sydney concert. If the lyrics are a tad difficult to discern, try here.

View from a bridge

The woman sees the man climb on to the bridge railing as she arcs down the sweeping bend towards the river. She pulls to the side of the road, calls 000.

She gets out of her car and approaches, carefully. Tells the man she wants to talk. More importantly, to listen to what he has to say.

The second car passing is driven by a ‘tradie’ on his way to work. He also halts mid-way across the bridge. Now two people entreat the man on the edge, trying desperately to connect with him.

Perhaps he is past listening. Bereft. Beyond hope of help or understanding. As the woman continues her heartfelt appeals he topples.

A third motorist, another tradesman, recognises his colleague’s ute and stops. He follows their gaze down from the bridge. Sees a person bob up from the dark green water below. No. No. No.

He’s not a confident swimmer but determines to sprint down to the water. Shed his work gear and plunge into the current. Do something, anything. The woman beseeches him not to, saying he will be dragged down and may also perish.

The man below bobs up again. Then, after an agonisingly long moment, a third time. The second tradesman runs to his car and returns with ropes to lower as a lifeline but they’re not long enough. The bridge is too high.

The man in the water doesn’t resurface.

Another car approaches. It jags to a halt and is abandoned in the middle of the tarmac. Minutes earlier, this distraught fourth driver found an envelope. He tore it open to find a statement of intent. A farewell from a friend.

The letter writer had an appointment with the Immigration Department on this day. A fortnight earlier his cousin’s application to remain in Australia was refused. The cousin was taken to the airport and put on a plane. Immediately, unwillingly, fearfully, forcefully returned to his country of origin.

The letter writer couldn’t, wouldn’t face that same possible fate.

The man’s death echoes through the lives of at least five families. Those who stopped on the bridge are left asking what might have been. Could they have said something different? What if the ropes were longer? What if they hadn’t lingered over a cuppa at breakfast? Seconds and centimetres might have made a difference.

And, leaking through the morass of unanswerable questions, comes a bilious realisation that sours with each hour. An awareness that the system failed this man and his loved ones.

The system that criminalises people for seeking sanctuary or refuge in a safe place.

The system that takes the desperate, despairing and traumatised and compounds their suffering, yet seemingly washes its hands of their welfare.

The system that incarcerates children.

The system that doesn’t specify time limits on detention (while in the justice system convicted killers and rapists get minimum sentences).

The system that is devastating the staff working within it.

The system administered by Australia. That means us.

Angry authors

Australia’s book industry is up in arms*. Cranky in the extreme. We’ve been done over and we’re not happy.

Why? Because the so-called Productivity Commission has made a ruling on the future of the industry that appears to be ideologically, rather than logically, driven.

What is the decision? I’m no expert but, as I understand things, it recommends the abolition of “Parallel Importation Restrictions” for books published in Australia. In other words a book printed here could be simultaneously printed el-cheapo style overseas and shipped Down Under to compete with the local editions.

Local publishers denied exclusive territorial copyright to titles, even for a limited time, will have a fight on their hands from Day One if they are to get any return from their investments.

So small Australian publishers will do it particularly tough. And that means small Australian authors will too.

Fewer publishers with the spare dosh to take risks on emerging authors means fewer local stories finding their way into print.

It might even mean local branches of large overseas publishers get slashed as most of the action will be overseas at head office. If so, authors’ opportunities to published will evaporate further.

It’s not just bad news for authors and illustrators. The domino effect means less work for designers, editors, printers, marketing folk, agents and many others.

Then there are the booksellers. Independent bookstores are a lifeline for local authors/illustrators – and they’re already endangered. If all bookstores become bulk discount outlets it will be a dark day indeed for local writers and READERS. Even if the books are cheaper, and I’m not persuaded this will be the case, you’ll need to mine the dross to find quality, small print-run titles.

Check out who is cheering the decision – mainly a specific chain store. Then go to one of their stores and try to find a book by an Australian author on their shelves if the title isn’t: a) a brand new release or b) a best seller. Good luck.

Here are some other random observations on the debate:

– While famous authors can be very eloquent, they appear incapable of 20-second grabs on TV.

– There almost seems to be an assumption that authors are well off. Believe me, very few Australian authors make a living writing full time. Many authors aim to sell Australia – New Zealand rights to their work separately from overseas rights as this is one of the few ways an author can slightly enhance their pay packet. Game as Ned, for instance, sold in Aust-NZ first, and then in Poland. These subsequent overseas sales provide vital funds that enable authors to keep writing. It would seem these secondary sales might be less likely now.

– Allan Fels obviously isn’t a struggling author. His victory smirk almost provoked me into kicking in my TV screen last night. Grrrrr.

Anyway, here’s a more learned explanation of what’s at stake, courtesy of Australians for Australian Books:

Territorial copyright for books, and the associated 30/90 day rules for book importation, have enabled the Australian book industry, long the poor cousin to the UK and US book industries, to grow strong and vibrant.

The 30-day rule means that an Australian publisher who buys the rights to publish an overseas book in Australia gains Australian copyright for the book if it is published here within 30 days of overseas publication.

The 90-day rule means that the same publisher effectively loses that protection if unable to supply the book to an Australian buyer within 90 days.

Together, these rules, introduced in 1991, provide Australian publishers with the security to invest in new books, underpinning their development of Australian talent, while ensuring new books come on the Australian market quickly and booksellers can buy the titles they need.

And there I was thinking the Productivity Commission is supposed to enhance productivity, not stifle it.

If you’re a reader, writer, illustrator or anyone who believes in protecting Australian talent, tune in to www.ausbooks.com.au for the next steps in this crucial stoush. To read the Commission’s report, click here.

* Back when I was a cadet reporter, this was one of my favourite tabloid terms for being irate. It feels like I should grab a gardening tool and storm a barricade somewhere.