Staff Interview: Ryo ONOYAMA (Afghanistan Project)

[Original by Haruka SHIMIZU, 2015 Public Relations Intern (March 24, 2015); Translated by K. Adachi/R. Florea]

Mr. Onoyama has a gentle smile with dark beard.

Hello, my name is Haruka Shimizu. I am a PR intern for JVC. Because of the security situation in Afghanistan, Japanese staff cannot reside or go on a business trip there. Mr. Onoyama, who is in charge of the Afghanistan project, keenly continues his support from Tokyo under such circumstances. Where do his strong will and passion come from? I am also going to ask about his nice beard in this interview.

What made you decide to engage in international cooperation?

A picture of his childhood when he visited Korea. His picture without beard is very rare!

My father was working in Korea for 7 years since I was around 2nd year of elementary school. My family was living in Fukuoka prefecture, which was not far from Korea. We sometimes visited Korea to meet our father. At that time, Korea was called a military dictatorship, where democrats were suppressed.

It was first time for me to take an airplane and go overseas. I was so shocked to see soldiers at the Korean airport. When I was walking on a street, I heard voices, “Il-bon-ssa-ram, Il-bon-ssa-ram,” which mean “Japanese” in Korean. I could not understand what was going on. From this uneasy experience, I have gradually understood that “there was a war in the old days” and “Japanese and Korean are different ethnic groups.” It was really a big impact for a boy of sensitive age. I became aware of the past history and wars. This is the root and fundamental experience, which lead me to the current job.

My father seemed to experience a lot of troubles, but he eventually became fluent in Korean after working 7-8 years. He had a relationship with Korean colleagues to drink and laugh together. I understood from this observation that “although there were wars and history, they are not very important in private relationship. Individuals can establish a relationship to drink and have silly conversations.” I started thinking that “the relationship between countries might not matter so much.”

I wondered if there would be something to do as a citizen living in a big world. There was no word like NGO at that time and I didn’t know well about United Nations. I never expected that I would be engaged in this sort of job. I therefore would say that I finally made my vague dream from my childhood true.

What did you devote yourself to at university?

He was working at another NGO in Sri Lanka, where he engaged in rehabilitation and relief of people after civil war and Tsunami.

I did nothing connected to my present job. I was an averaged student, enjoying volleyball and doing part-time job. I came from countryside of Fukuoka prefecture with great expectations to Tokyo but was disappointed with boring conventional classes of the university. I had the vague idea mentioned above, yet I could not give it shape. I spoiled myself in the university.

When I was going to graduate university, I thought that I should realize my idea. I entered graduate school to learn international relations. I visited a Japanese NGO to work as a volunteer. There I was engaged in various jobs such as helping symposium and sorting out newsletters. While I was sorting out newsletters, I had a chance to read newsletters issued by overseas NGO. I found there are overseas organizations, which treat conflict issues. There were few such organizations in Japan at that time. Since then, I did part-time job in a preparatory school and worked as an assistant in a broadcasting station for making programs about the conflict in former Yugoslavia. After that I went to USA for an internship, since I passed the selection process of the graduate school. After coming back to Japan, I worked for several NGOs and finally came to JVC.

HS: Why did you choose NGO for your job, not to be diplomat or work at ministries?

As I told you, the experience in Korea really shocked me. I lived in the countryside of Fukuoka at that time and played by catching eels in a tributary of Chikugo river (there were eels in river!), making a raft to get on, and catching stag beetles. It was a natural decision for me to choose NGO because the memory of that time in Korea remained in my mind.

What do you think about the present situation that we cannot go easily to Afghanistan due to security issues?

It is sad that I cannot directly know the situation of people whom I work with or I want to support. We get in contact with local staffs by holding conferences in third countries such as Pakistan, India, and Dubai (UAE), or communicating daily through Skype. Although I know about Afghanistan more than ordinary people through staff and media, I am in a dilemma that I cannot directly experience Afghanistan. Loving a country means that you love the atmosphere, food, culture, and people. It is very painful not to be able to experience them.

The visit to Afghanistan was realized after this interview for the first time in three years. The picture was taken at Kabul with local staffs. A lady in the middle is Ms. Kato, a colleague of Mr. Onoyama in charge of the Afghanistan project. Mr. Onoyama is on the right of her with ethnic costume. Everyone has a broad smile!

Together with elderly people in Afghanistan.

In the case of Afghanistan project, local staff works so hard because there is no Japanese. There were misunderstandings that I never imagined at the beginning. However, they eventually understood me after discussion and next time they brought what we were aiming at each other. When I can do this sort of communication, I feel very happy from the bottom of my heart.

Is there any unknown aspect of Afghanistan, since the image of conflict area precedes there?

I also had the image of “robust” about the landscape and people of Afghanistan. Frankly speaking, it is scary to be told only about conflicts, isn’t it? I went there on business trip before the regulation tightened up. When I was talking with elderly people, one of them started to comb his beard and even responded with cheerful smile when I pointed it out. Afghan people sometimes dye their hairs by Hena. Popular colors are orange, red, and purple. I was surprised at the beginning, but soon started feeling familiar with them to see this kind of side.

Landscapes of mountains are so beautiful and a lot of fruits such as grapes and watermelons are harvested. And everyone loves cricket!

By the way, are you growing your charming beard being inspired by Afghanistan?

Mr. Onoyama proudly talks about his beard.

I have beard already for 12-13 years. My beard is well matured (smile). But recently some beard turns gray. I wonder it is because of age. I am not growing my beard because I am going overseas or doing international cooperation. I regularly trim my beard, as it is thick. This is a natural style for me.

HS: I wonder if Afghan people feel familiar with you, if you have beard. What do you think about it?

Football World Cup qualifier: before the match of Afghanistan and Japan.

Yes, I think so, too. Although young Afghans appear to shave beards, people who have traditional habits or rigorous styles tend to think that beard is natural and not for playing. Because my beard is thinner compared with Afghans ones, I don’t shave it at all for a week before the conference with Afghan staffs in a third county as well as during the conference.

Finally please show us a wonderful picture!

He was making a draft in his notebook secretly. So kind!

This is the picture that I took with staffs during a conference in Dubai. We all supported the Afghan team. Since there are about 30 staffs in Afghanistan, it is difficult to call all members to the conference in a third country. So I call some of them in turn. The message “Don’t Forget Afghanistan!” shown in the photo is the message of a campaign simultaneously carried out by NGOs in many countries last year (2014). Although severe situations continue in Afghanistan, attention of international society is withering little by little, and Afghanistan is getting to be forgotten in the world. It is why we say “Don’t Forget Afghanistan!” Cheer up Afghanistan in football matches as well!

[My impression after the interview]

Mr. Onoyama has natural kindness and sense of humor, besides being intelligent. I was also attracted by Afghanistan when I interviewed his straight thought. And it was fun to ask about his personal circumstances on beard.

[Notice for the next interview]

He redrew the picture after taking the above photo. What has changed…? (HS)

The next staff member for our interview will be who reminds us of the lyrics “If it flows out, Asia…” after Mr. Onoyama (I wonder if he likes the song “Innocence of Asia”). Please stay tuned for our next interview.

* The order of uploading the English version of “Staff Interview” is random and hence different from the order of the original Japanese version. We are sorry, but the person coming next may be different from the “next person to be interviewed” mentioned in the text.

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