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International organizations eagerly seeking young Japanese

  • November 6, 2013
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Is this another indicator of Japanese youth’s tendency to be “inward-looking”? Fewer and fewer are applying for the Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers (JOCV), a volunteer program of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) targeting people in their 20s and 30s, similar to the Peace Corps in the U.S. Some 11,832 people applied for the program in fiscal 1994, but the number fell to an all-time low of 2,674 in fiscal 2012. According to Asahi (11/1), JICA attributes the drop to a decline in the number of Japanese young people and to a recent increase in the number of non-governmental organizations operating overseas. However, JICA also speculates that young Japanese are concerned that if they participate in the program it might be difficult for them to find jobs upon their return to Japan amid the severe employment situation. But the fact is that a growing number of Japanese firms view JOCV returnees as promising prospective employees with the ability to function in a global environment. According to Asahi, some 1,880 jobs were offered to JOCV returnees in fiscal 2012, a jump from 304 in fiscal 2009.

This is good news for Japanese universities, which are encouraging students to gain overseas experience through volunteer work in developing nations. Kwansei Gakuin University (KGU) in Kobe concluded a cooperation agreement with the UN Volunteers (UNV) in 2003 and has sent a total of 70 students on six-month volunteer programs to such nations as Sri Lanka and Mongolia. The school established the Youth Volunteer Japan Training Center for the UNV Program this June with the cooperation of five other Japanese universities – Sophia, Meiji, Meiji Gakuin, Rikkyo, and Toyo. Students participating in two-week training programs at the center this summer later went to 12 nations, including Cambodia and Rwanda. KGU professor Takeshi Sekiya, who supervises the training program, told the paper: “I’m not worried about the students because they’re very active.” Yuto Kitamura, an associate professor at the Graduate School of Education of the University of Tokyo, said: “There is concern that young Japanese are becoming ‘inward-looking.’ This and Japanese colleges’ strategy of offering unique educational programs to boost their enrollment are behind Japanese universities’ increasing interest in developing global human resources.”

However, there has also been a decline in the number of Japanese applicants for the post of Junior Professional Officer, a UN recruitment program for young professionals. A MOFA official has expressed concern that a decline in the number of Japanese applicants to UN posts could undermine Japan’s presence in the United Nations. Japan is the world’s second largest financial contributor to the UN after the United States, shouldering about $276 million, or 11%, of its budget. However, the 764 Japanese employees account for only 2.4% of all UN employees even though the number has increased by 40% from ten years ago. The U.K., for example, pays less than half of Japan’s contribution at $132 million. But 1,650 Brits, twice as many as

Japanese, work at UN agencies. The UN has been trying to recruit more Japanese young professionals, holding its first job seminar in Tokyo on October 22-24. Human resources officers from the UN Secretariat, the UN Development Program, UNICEF, and three other agencies encouraged some 140 participants at the seminar to apply for UN posts by saying: “We want more Japanese colleagues at the UN. Working there will give you so many opportunities!” One of the recruiters said: “We are here to recruit Japanese because they are well-educated, well-experienced, and have excellent skills.”

NHK (10/23) conjectured that Japanese youths are hesitant to apply for positions at the UN because the requirements include fluent English or French as well as a Master’s degree or Ph.D. However, Yomiuri (10/23) speculated that Japan’s rigid education and employment systems are making it difficult for young Japanese to pursue more flexible academic and career paths, such as studying abroad or applying for international jobs. However, the daily wrote that international organizations have high hopes for Japanese professionals, quoting Yasuko Sawada, a human resources official at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) as saying that Japanese people’s diligence and ability to coordinate differing opinions are highly appreciated by international agencies, where people from different backgrounds handle multilateral issues. Marta Helena Lopez, Director of Strategic Planning, Staffing Division of the United Nations Office of Human Resource Management, said at the Tokyo seminar: “We hope that you will bring Japanese culture and the Japanese way of thinking to the United Nations to make the world a better place.” Kaoru Nemoto (photo), who assumed the post of director of the United Nations Information Centre in Tokyo in August, said in an interview with Mainichi (10/24): “I don’t believe young Japanese are becoming ‘inward-looking.’ They just can’t find a springboard to step forward.”

Weekly magazine AERA (10/21) also took up the UN’s efforts to recruit more Japanese. The journal quoted Nemoto as saying: “Japanese employees at the UN receive high marks. They are diligent, punctual, and reliable. They have the flexibility to understand different values.” Among other Japanese professionals working at UN agencies, AERA highlighted Izumi Nakamitsu, Director of the Asia and Middle East Division at the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), and Eri Kaneko, Spokesperson for the UN Secretary General. Kaneko told the magazine that the Japanese people’s “power to listen” is useful in coordinating different opinions in the diverse environment of the United Nations. Nakamitsu said she received a lot of valuable advice from Sadako Ogata when she worked at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Ogata, who served as the UNHCR from 1991 to 2000 and JICA president from 2003 to 2012, is no doubt a powerful role model for Japanese women seeking professional careers in the international arena. Ogata told Nikkei Woman online magazine last year: “Despite difficulties lying ahead, I want women to blaze a new path to the future.”

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