Upon retiring after a 38-year career with the Foreign Ministry followed by six years as head of the Japan International Cooperation Agency, Kimio Fujita was naturally expected to accept an honorary post, such as on a government panel.
Instead, he is going to Samoa as a volunteer worker.
“During my days with the ministry and JICA, I often met senior volunteers in developing countries,” Fujita said in an interview at JICA’s office near JR Shinjuku Station in Tokyo. “I was impressed with their activities and faces that looked so happy, and hoped to join them someday.”
Indeed, when he retired as JICA president in late August, he was invited to become a member of several governmental advisory panels. But instead he chose to take part in JICA’s Senior Volunteers Program, which sends people aged 40 through 69 to developing countries as part of Japan’s official development assistance, from late October.
“I am 68 now and quite healthy. I thought now is the time,” said Fujita, who has also served as ambassador to Indonesia and the Netherlands.
“When I was working in Tokyo planning policy for economic cooperation (with other nations), I was always worried whether we were meeting the real needs of the local people. I believe economic cooperation does not work without going and working at the place.”
Although the decision about his future course surprised some of those around Fujita, it was not necessarily a very unusual step in view of the recent sharp rise in the number of participants in the program.
JICA had previously been known for its Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers program, which dispatches about 1,300 volunteers aged between 20 and 39 to developing countries annually. In 1990, it created a new program for senior volunteers with just 30 participants.
Over the past 10 years, the number has grown ten-fold, and in fiscal 2000, JICA plans to send 400 senior volunteers to about 15 countries on two-year programs. As of March, the number of applicants for this year’s programs had reached 2,700, according to the agency.
The senior volunteers’ jobs vary. According to the requests from countries where volunteers are sent, the people engage in a wide range of technical jobs, such as farming and fishery training, engineering and teaching the Japanese language.
The Samoan government will make Fujita an “adviser to the foreign minister” who will make suggestions for planning development policy.
“I would like to work for better understanding between the country that receives the assistance and the country that gives it,” Fujita said.
Also, he hopes to give Tokyo ideas for improving the volunteer program by experiencing it himself, with the goal of raising the quality of Japan’s ODA.
“But the biggest reason for applying for the program is that I wanted to see Samoan people and work in the country,” he said.
Throughout his diplomatic career, Fujita built several connections with Samoa. He is also fond of the works of Robert Louis Stevenson, who spent his last days on the island.
And when he visited the Pacific island nation three years ago for the first time, it was love at first sight. “I was so charmed by the friendly and hospitable local people and their lifestyle, which makes much of their tradition and culture.”
One concern of Fujita’s is that he has to leave his family — an 89-year-old mother and 63-year-old wife — in Tokyo. But their encouragement have calmed his anxieties.
“My mother told me that since she is 89 and has good health, I will be all right for the next 20 years to pursue my wish. My wife said I shouldn’t give up what I have longed to do, saying you live only once.”
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