How an Australian-born Expert in Japanese Politics came to Teach in Hong Kong

A trip to Asia as a child sparked a lifetime of learning for Dr Bradley WILLIAMS, who predicts a more assertive Japan in the new Reiwa era

It could be said that a family holiday through Asia was what sparked an interest in Williams to pursue a passion in the study of Asian international relations.

“I was always interested in the region, even from a very young age,” the Associate Professor, and programme leader of Master of Arts in International Studies in the Department of Asian and International Studies at the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences (CLASS), City University of Hong Kong (CityU) says. “Our first family holiday when I was a young kid was a trip to Hong Kong, Singapore and Bangkok and from then on, I was just interested in Asia and every school project would be about Asia.”

Indeed, the Australian-born, Aussie rules football fan was thinking mainly about his future employment prospects when he left to study Japanese politics at university, but soon found the study of Japanese politics far more enticing than anything else.

“My initial motives were financial, and I thought that if I studied about Japan, I might get a job in a Japanese company and it might put me on the path to riches and success,” he says. He was hoping to get a job at a Japanese firm and one day make a move to Asia.

“But then in the final year of my undergraduate studies, I took a course in Japanese politics and I found it really interesting, this paradox of Japan being an economic animal but politically having a reputation for being a political lightweight, particularly in the area of foreign policy.”

This interest set Williams on a path towards getting his Master’s degree in Japan, and eventually a doctorate back in Australia focusing on East Asian international relations and comparative politics of Japan.

Williams, who is also a captivating speaker, has published on a huge range of issues addressing Japanese politics and foreign policy and is now working on a manuscript and project that delves into Japan’s evolving foreign intelligence system. His excitement and passion are tangible as he explains why he loves his work.

“There have been few comprehensive studies in English about this area and this is one of the reasons why I find this topic so interesting,” he says.

Unlike many countries, Japan lacks a special foreign intelligence agency or a central intelligence agency and there are a number of reasons for this, according to Williams. Perhaps most obviously, it is a symptom of an underfunded and underdeveloped intelligence agency, but other reasons include anti-militarism and pacifism in international security affairs and in the intelligence realm that prevailed in post-war Japan.

Williams also says that another manifestation of this is that Japan did not have spy satellites during the Cold War and tended to rely on the US for a lot of imagery intelligence, though this is changing ever since North Korea launched a rocket over Japan in the late nineties.

“As a scholar of international relations in the region, this is certainly something that is worth exploring.”

Moving forward, the world watches with great interest to see if there will be any significant changes following Emperor Akihito’s abdication in April and the start of Japan’s new Reiwa era, but Williams does not expect big changes. Rather, he feels that there will be a continuation of the changes that have already taken place since the new millennium.

Just because you read something, whether it is in a newspaper or a journal article, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true
Dr Bradley Williams

Turning to his role as an educator, Williams speaks with even greater passion about his desire to inspire a new generation of thinkers among his students which include scholars from the undergraduate to postgraduate levels.

He says students today need to be inquisitive and critical: “Just because you read something, whether it is in a newspaper or a journal article, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true”, he says.

“Authors are ultimately presenting their opinions, and of course, there are some countries in the region where the media is really just part of the larger propaganda machine, so in those cases, you have to be especially critical.”

He urges students to ask questions and not to take anything for granted. He also emphasises that he is not encouraging students to be disagreeable, but to think critically in a way that fosters healthy debate, and to think about the reasons why they agree or disagree with something.

For this reason, he strongly urges his students to ground themselves in knowledge and to read more, whether that be information online or newspapers and even books.

“Students today don’t read enough,” he said. “To be critical, you need to have some level of knowledge.”

He says that if more students ground themselves in knowledge, this can help to foster even healthier debate amongst students, educators and the wider public.

Reading and watching the news in English would also help to sharpen English writing and listening skills, and this would also give students more confidence when doing presentations and presenting new ideas.