Takashi Tamai has always had something of an itch for Africa. The 31-year-old anthropologist has always been attracted by the continent’s multilingual, multiethnic communities.
“The more mysterious I find something, the more I want to dig deeper into it,” Tamai says. “Once I’m among people with unpredictable perceptions or behaviors, my curiosity makes me want to look into the reasons behind them. Nigeria was a treasure chest for me in that sense.”
Such an approach to life made it difficulty for him to stay in Japan, the country where he was born and raised. His troubled family history — a childhood filled with arguments and the eventual divorce of his parents — discouraged him from looking deeply into Japanese families. He also liked how Nigerians were happy to assert their opinions, not something he encountered frequently in his home country.
So after years of being a penniless researcher, then an aid worker for an international NGO, he saw that the government was looking for someone to fill a two-year advisory post at the Japanese Embassy in Nigeria in 2015. He decided to apply for the position. He had just married and had a son, Yura. More importantly, he was ready for the chaotic streets of Nigeria’s capital city, Abuja.
The government salary for the embassy position was certainly attractive. Although the remuneration for embassy employees was significantly cut during the brief administration of the Democratic Party of Japan (2009-12), people used to say that staffers were so well paid that it was possible for them to build a house in Tokyo after completing the two-year term.
His wife, Mieko, jumped into the local community. A field health care worker, she worked with an NGO against female genital mutilation as she completed her master’s thesis on Japan’s health care system.
When his interest in Africa began, Tamai had lived among ordinary folk in the slums of cities in Kenya, Cameroon and Nigeria. When conducting academic research in the western Nigerian city of Lagos, he slept in a bunk bed and shared an 8-square-meter room with several other people, living on about 500 naira (¥100) a day.
“I was always drawn to Africa,” Tamai says. “People migrate from farming villages to the cosmopolitan cities, bringing with them diverse religions, ethnicities, languages … you name it. I wanted to know how they muddle through that.”
When he returned to Nigeria as a diplomat in 2015, life was very different. He was required to pay roughly ¥500,000 for a flat in Abuja. He bought a car, hired a driver and started commuting through the city in a bulletproof van with a security guard and an AK47 in tow.
It’s not hard to understand the reason for the change in living conditions. Africa has seen multiple terrorist attacks and can be a dangerous place for diplomats. The Japanese government has tightened security for its nationals since a 2013 attack by Islamic militants on a Saharan gas plant in Algeria left nine Japanese employees dead.
“I was shocked to experience what it was like to be rich,” Tamai recalls. “I kept asking myself, ‘What am I doing here? Is this really how I want to work in Nigeria?’ and for a long time I couldn’t think straight.”
Life as a diplomat was very different from life as a field anthropologist who was heavily in debt with college loans accumulated throughout his days at Keio and Tokyo universities. His friends describe him as being a “success story,” moving up from living in extreme poverty in the slums of Makoko, Lagos, to live in a wealthy community in Abuja.
In Nigeria, his principal job was to tap funds to build small hospitals, elementary schools and infrastructure projects. The official development assistance scheme that he worked with assessed projects by identifying grass-roots demands and applying appropriate responses to them.
He helped one small Japanese company to develop paper-thin solar panels. In a country where half the population lives without electricity, the panels can be wrapped around poles, and spread out on flimsy prefabricated rooftops. Lights from the panels led to better safety at night, which lowered the crime rate and allowed shops to stay open after dark.
Each project needed to be carefully assessed for sustainability. It is relatively easy to build concrete boxes such as schools or hospitals; the biggest problem was how to get a constant flow of teachers, doctors and funds for repairs once the buildings were complete. The anthropologist in him would have loved to devote long hours to discuss local policies on each project, but the massive clerical burdens of his job made that difficult.
The long hours meant that every six months he’d consider throwing in the towel, he says. Yet, everything else was going smoothly. He loved his job. His young son was growing up in the open arms of the Nigerian community and was fluent in English at age 3. He knew he had been accepted by a group of welcoming friends who normally kept their distance from foreign diplomats when he received a farewell card from them.
He found the way Nigerians treated children to be fascinating. Kids are universally cherished and neighbors and friends raise them together. This is very different from Japan, where parents are bound by manners, disciplines and traditions.
“You wonder where your son is and see your neighbors bathing him ,” Tamai says. “That’s Africa, and that’s the way I like to raise my son.”
People complaining about children’s voices being too loud or babies crying in packed trains in Japan put pressure on parents. “There is still a sense of tolerance toward children in Japan, but I feel that we are made to think of others before yourself and your family,” he says.
There is no doubt that living overseas can be hard, but Tamai seems to thrive in his never-ending search for diversity.
Now that his two-year contract is over, it’s Mieko’s turn to feed the family. For the next few years, they are heading to Central Asia, where she will be monitoring the health of Japanese aid workers. Tamai plans to become a stay-at-home dad.
Job-hopping once carried a negative connotation, but the Tamais go wherever there are new opportunities. They are hoping to make it a lifestyle of choice.
Whatever they do, as long as he doesn’t have to get into another bulletproof van again, Tamai says he will be happy.
Name: Takashi Tamai
Profession: Academic researcher
Key moments in career:
2015 — Graduates Tokyo University with a doctoral degree
2015 — Takes the post at the Japanese Embassy in Nigeria
2017 — Returns from Nigeria after two years at the embassy and is now preparing to head to Central Asia
Things I miss about Japan: “Nothing.”
2015年 東京大学大学院総合文化研究科・ 博士課程修了
2015年 在ナイジェリア日本大使館・専門 調査員としてアブジャ在住