Staff Interview: Takaki IMAI (Manager for Humanitarian Assistance and Peace-building Group*)

[Original by Kiyomi KAMIYA, 2016 Public Relations Intern (April 20, 2017); Translated by M. Kanai/R. Florea/A. Senkoff]

[*Mr. Imai is appointed to the President of JVC as from July 2018.]

Mr. Imai always talks in a respectful and an easy-to-understand manner.

Hello everyone! My name is Kiyomi Kamiya. I am a JVC Public Relations Intern. For the 2nd staff interview in 2016, we have Mr. Takaki Imai who is Manager for Humanitarian Assistance and Peacebuilding Group currently in charge of emergency assistance for South Sudan.

Mr. Imai was stationed in Sudan for approximately 10 years until December 2016 as a local representative for JVC Sudan Project. In January 2017, his base for activities was shifted to Tokyo to supervise the entire activities of Humanitarian Assistance and Peacebuilding Group as its manager. However, even now (as of March, 2017) Mr. Imai was engaged in emergency relief work in South Sudan and still remains in the frontline of the operation. He makes frequent appearances in the newspapers, on TV and radio programs. I am sure many of you want to know more about him. Today, I would like to talk with him on various topics.

How did you become interested in international cooperation?

The motivation behind it came from the Biafra civil war, which took place in Nigeria in 1967. I came to know about the incident when I was a student in junior high school. By then, the civil war had already ended leaving many people dead from starvation in the two-year-and-half long conflicts. This tragedy served as a trigger to establish a very famous NGO named “Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders).” As I remember, there was no such word as international cooperation in those days. It was around this time that I started getting interested in Africa and the conflicts and began reading books on these issues.

I understand that before joining JVC, you used to work for a company and then you worked for an elementary school in the United States as an intern.

At the end of 2004, I quit the company and went to the United States. I wanted to study English and I also wanted to see what America was like. When I was looking for a legitimate excuse to leave the company, I came to know about an internship program available there where I could stay with a host family while teaching Japanese culture and language at a public elementary school and I applied for the position (laugh). Then, I was quite sure that nobody could stop me from quitting the company.

In the States, I stayed at the home of a teacher who acted as my coach. My coach was in charge of a class and I was his deputy. My role was to introduce Japanese language and culture such as Origami (the art of paper folding). Incidentally, in the States, starting in the fifth grade, each subject is taught by a different teacher. The teacher in charge of the class taught arithmetic. Whenever he needed to attend a training program or conference, I had to teach arithmetic on his behalf. The level of my English before leaving Japan was that of broken English. I was still miles away from even carrying out daily conversation. But I was lucky that the subject I was to instruct occasionally was arithmetic. The level of arithmetic education in Japan is quite high and the numbers and letter symbols are the same all over the world. Therefore, I could teach the subject utilizing a certain number of terminologies I had memorized. When it comes to social studies, I would need to study the background of American History, and in the case of science I would need deep understanding of the content to teach which is beyond my capacity.

Did you face any difficulty in teaching children in a foreign country?

Well, children are the same everywhere. During the class, they were very noisy, always fighting for some unknown reasons. I had a lot of trouble to just quiet them down. I never resorted to physical punishment, of course, but I gave them a good scolding by making them stand outside when I had to.

Did you have any future career path in mind after staying in the States?

Even while I was working for a company, I was interested in CSR (Corporate Social Responsibilities). So, I stayed in London for about two months in the hope of finding an internship in a British research think-tank. But I was not able to find what I was looking for. Then, there was an offer from JVC on its Sudan Project in which I had been once involved as a volunteer. I decided to apply for the project since I was sympathetic to many aspects of JVC’s action policy.

I understand that you had many years’ experience working for a company before going to the States. How do you compare the way of doing a job in a company and NGO?

I have been with the NGO for more than 10 years now. So, I forgot the system practiced in a company. During my company days, I belonged to Business Administration Department checking the progress of budget execution. Each personnel are given his/her post with clearly defined rules and functions. On the other hand, in NGO or JVC, many things are imprecise or unclear (laugh). Let me give you one example. When a company procures some materials, there is a set procedure to follow and it is clearly shown as to who has the final say. But at JVC, respective individuals concerned have responsibility. There seems to be a big difference between the two.

I am planning to change career direction and go into the field of international cooperation. I would appreciate it if you could give me some advice.

First of all, what is most important is that “you have a strong desire to commit to your cause.” Among people who are engaged in international cooperation, there are many who possess specialized knowledge on Development Studies and relevant experiences. But there are many who do not. Some people may be offended by this comparison that those who studied business administration may not necessarily make a first-rate manager. On the other hand, among those who achieved a great success in business, there are many who have never studied economics in university. I majored in philosophy at university and I have never studied something like Development Studies in a systematic manner in the past. All-in-all, I think what is most important is your desire for what you want to do.

Do you think that experiences in the field are important?

With friends acquainted in Juba, where Mr. Imai used to live in 2006.

Not necessarily so. I carry out various activities in the field mostly utilizing the skills I acquired while working in Japan. For example, how to educate local staff who are not punctual or who often cause troubles. I am always thinking of how to make them keep their motivation. And it is also important to establish relationship with local government. I assume that you also have experienced ways to build relationship with other departments. We tend to think that the local government concerned will always welcome us since we are there to extend assistance to them as an NGO. But in reality, there are many cases where they impose various restrictions on our activities. When we make proposal to a local government that we would like to carry out certain activities, they would ask us “what are the conditions and budget size. Can’t you increase budget amount?” thus making the negotiation difficult. As often happens some officials try to force us to employ their relatives. If we refuse their demand outright we might lose the opportunity to operate in that area. We have many worries.

How do you decide about the kind of activities you would carry out in a particular area?

It is important to observe the conditions of life of the target people. For example, while walking around in a refugee camp, you will meet people preparing a meal. You would ask where they obtained the foodstuff, how much they paid, where they got the money from to buy food? Their responses will help you understand their situation. When it is likely that refugees in the camp are able to manage their life to a certain extent in spite of the difficult circumstances, we tell them honestly and frankly that “there are camps in a more difficult situation, therefore we cannot use our fund to assist you.” If you tell them that you will give the matter further consideration, you will simply let them harbor expectations that cannot be fulfilled. Therefore, it is very important to clearly tell them NO in order not to cause them trouble.

What is the source of power that motivates you to continue international cooperation activities?

Mr. Imai doing a test drive of a well with local people which became usable after repair work utilizing the tools and parts provided by JVC.

I can continue the activities because I find it very interesting to work together with local people. I feel happier when I see that the local people have changed by getting themselves involved in the activities than receiving words of appreciation for our assistance. For example, in Sudan Project, we were working on family registration system. With our limited capacity, unfortunately we were not able to make arrangement for all the people to be covered. Then, I was told about a ripple effect of our activities, that is to say, a local person who saw what we were doing voluntarily went to the office to register his own child’s birth, which delighted me a great deal. Furthermore, our activities include repair work of a well. But there are cases in which we choose not to give our assistance. We make it a rule that we will check whether there are persons who previously participated in well installation training in the target area before we decide on the necessity of our assistance. If there are some people who can do repair work, there is no need for us to provide assistance. We are often criticized for that and are told “JVC is mean because they will not repair a well for us.” However, once they know that we have no intention to help them, as is often the case, they start repair work on their own initiative. This sort of wheeling and dealing is fun (laugh).

At what kind of place did you live in Sudan Office?

My life in Sudan was quite ordinary. I used to sleep in a bed in Khartoum office. A traditional style of bed in that area consists of metal frame and a floorboard on which a mattress is usually placed elsewhere, but instead which is wrapped with a rope in several fold.

Let me change a topic. What your student life was like?

There was no photo of a bed but instead he sent me a photo that shows Mr. Imai drinking lime juice favored by local people.

I did not join any sport club. I was involved in students’ movement. I used to live in a dormitory and go on mountain climbing with boarding students.

Did you get any nickname during your student days?

In most cases I was called “Imai.” As for a nickname, I used to be called “Zero” by a barber where I frequented in Khartoum (… for what reason was he called Zero?).

Now you are stationed in Tokyo as a manager to supervise the entire activities of Humanitarian Assistance and Peacebuilding Group. Would you like to work in the front line if you are given an opportunity?

Yes, I want to go back there. As I mentioned earlier, it is fun to work with the local people. They are more candid and straightforward in their emotions and words than Japanese. Japanese culture has become intolerant of those making mistakes or being different from others. But local people live freely and easily. In human relationships, they are open-hearted. Therefore, no matter how much we quarrel or argue, our relationship is less likely to collapse. I really wish to work with such nice people again. But for a while, I will monitor and check the projects carried out by the entire Humanitarian Assistance and Peacebuilding Group from Tokyo and I may occasionally get involved in field activities by travelling. By doing so, I hope that I can contribute to the betterment of JVC’s activities.

[My impression after interview]

Photo taken together with Mr. Imai, my Hero! I am scheduled to go to Sri Lanka next year as a member of Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers. I am very happy to have the opportunity to listen to his vast experiences before my departure.

Any hard and difficult matter becomes “fun” once falling into his hands. Mr. Imai is open-hearted with passion hidden deep in his heart. Listening to his talk, I can see in my mind’s eye the smiling faces of the local people he worked with. I am convinced that his ability to work for many years in various environments different from Japan comes from his rich experiences in life. I am looking forward to his further success in the future.

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