Chapter 7......Match to the Powder Keg

In the days that led up to the sale of the Holiday Inn, at Surfer’s Paradise, on Queensland’s tourist strip, small talk about the increasing Japanese presence had been commonplace. Ordinary people expressed concern among themselves, in the precinct of their own homes or at friendly gatherings, such as barbeques and picnics. In many cases it was no more than a talking piece.

“Bloody street signs now. Next thing our kids will be made to learn the lingo” Over the amber fluid it was more often than not that rugby league, the horses or business that took centre stage. Occasionally usually as a result of a combination of too much booze and exposure to the sun a voice could be heard above the gathering “ slit-eyed little bastards are everywhere. They think they own the bloody joint” His mate, not too steady on his feet, hiccoughs and with eyes focused on nothing in particular, “they soon will mate”. Others present sensing the unease at the way the conversation was going would chime in “come on fellas, give it away, where here to enjoy ourselves”. Secretly though, whilst the language was more colourful, most would share their sentiments. Not that ‘Jap bashing was new’, after all had not Tom Burns been trying to awaken Queenslanders for close on fifteen years, beating the solitary drum that no-one really heard and cared even less?

Meanwhile, as Japanese tourists began to flow into the tourist capital, the local businessmen set their sights on these potentially big spenders. Despite the fact that Surfer’s Paradise played host to people from all round the world, who would normally have been treated no different to any other tourists the Japanese became ‘special’. In a none too subtle fashion, crude attempts were made to lure the free spenders into the duty-free domains. This was followed with the introduction of restaurants catering specifically in Japanese cuisine, small coach operators pandering to the peculiar needs of these people and last the local council erecting signs with odd looking symbols.

It is interesting to reflect upon the difference of attitude at this particular stage of proceedings. To this point although the Japanese were specifically being targeted, there was no mention of racism or even discrimination. In the pursuit of commercial interests it was perfectly acceptable to hone in on these people with impunity, simply because they had the money. When the issue of Foreign Land Ownership became a public issue, all that changed. Those who stood to loose most from the outcry and most of them were spread around Surfer’s Paradise, adopted the convenient moral high ground. Not the least of these were coterie of real estate agents, developers and planners.

Shrewd and businesslike as the Japanese are reputed to be they came to this country conditioned to the concept of land , in both terms of size and value , being measured against their home market. Indeed, the popular concept of land shortage, coupled to the large population tends to underpin the idea that Japan is bursting at the seams and therefore needs to look a field for greener pastures. This is something of a fallacy because the land ‘shortage’ is not so much a physical dilemma as a political one.

Since General Douglas McArthur drew up the post war Japanese constitution, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has never been removed from power. Historically Japan has lived off its own land and except for short periods in its history has been totally dependent upon it. As a result the farmer has been a revered member of society; a man to listen to, a man to respect and most of all a man to fear. It is the way things are done. With the ever increasing demand for development being exerted by the major cities, the government has been want to bow to the wishes of builders and developers to rezone rural land. It is this sort of pressure that has generated the many bribe scandals that perforated the the record of the government. Not withstanding, the Liberal Democratic Party, LDP, has relied on the farmers for finance and support that has resulted in it retaining office for over forty years. The result of these machinations of cross interest has been a growing demand for land that is not available, thereby appreciating the value of land that is. During the last ten years the price of land has virtually ‘gone through the roof’, with some of it appreciating by up to 400%. Tokyo can and in fact claims to have the dearest real estate in the world, and figures like $A250,000 per square metre were not unusual. Not only has this placed the purchase of land beyond all but the very rich in Japan, it has also acted as a gilt edged security for the raising of bank loans. As the value of land escalated, so too did the capacity to borrow against it. Much of this borrowed money was invested in America, Britain , Europe and to a lesser degree Australia. What may surprise many people is that investors actually poured more yen into Indonesia than ‘the land down under’. To give some idea as to how this squeeze on land distorted the market, some domestic companies, sitting on prime real estate, were able to return dividends on to their shareholders even though their growth level had remained static. This was achieved purely on the increased value of the land. On the strength of this alone, foreign investment in America, Britain , Canada, and the smaller markets of Australasia, grew alarmingly. Companies engaged in manufacturing, who had established products far removed from the realms of property speculation, had cashed in on their domestic properties and joined the ‘gold rush’ into foreign markets. And the markets were there; all willing, all able to sell, sell, sell! Those with an eye to the main chance girded their loins, played their cards right and made a killing.

 One who cast his net early, was Max Christmas, who snared almost at the start one of the biggest fish of all Matsushita;. recognisable to the layman as the electronics giant National Panasonic, or Panasonic as it has been refashioned. Paying, at that time what was almost an unbelievable amount for property on the Gold Coast, Tsuneo Sekine, the president of Matsushita Investment and Development Company, believed that the hotel, the Holiday Inn, was very good value. In handing over a cheque for $A128 million the stage had been set to fleece the Japanese. The market place had a new benchmark and that as far as the purveyors of real estate was concerned was the sky. From now on the Japanese would be the victims of their own ignorance.

Let there be no doubt in anyone's mind, the letter I wrote to the GCB had more to do with the smug arrogance of Max Christmas, than the purchase of the hotel, by the Japanese. It was the selling and not the buying that angered me. In recognising the real estate agent for his achievement and undoubted business ability, I also acknowledge that he acted within the confines of the law. He had recognised the opportunities in dealing with these wealthy people and I believe exploited it. Others had views that were not so charitable. Selling to the Japanese was always going to be a sensitive issue, but when the success of the sale spilled over into unashamed achievement and the warning that ‘we’, had better get used to the idea, of the Japanese buying up Australia, Christmas displayed a thorough lack of tact. Those who had fought the Japanese in bloodied encounters remembered their mates who had perished. Comrades, dying at the hands of the Japanese, so that forty years down the track, the Christmas’s of this world, could cherish the luxury of making millions, by selling the land they fought for. At 48, the man who embraced the Japanese went on to say that if we must have Asians then why not the best. Within days of those remarks he went on to sign up a $A300 million contract, again with Matsushita. Christmas had all the reasons in the world to laugh at public opinion. After all the Japanese were beating a path to his door, and they, came flush with yen.

Chapter 8