Although Japan is no longer the world’s second-largest economy, many countries expect it to continue its global contributions, one of the nation’s most prominent international figures said, urging today’s youth to have ambition and rise to the challenge.

“I wish young people to continue having (a) hungry spirit. By being hungry, there are many things that you can do, learn and see,” Sadako Ogata, former U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said at a symposium at the University of Tokyo. “Keep having curiosity.”

Ogata, now president of the Japan International Cooperation Agency, is working to train and dispatch personnel to developing countries as part of official development assistance. The hourlong Oct. 18 seminar was held to commemorate a partnership agreement JICA signed with the university to strengthen cooperation in supporting developing countries.

The University of Tokyo is the 17th school to sign the agreement with JICA.

Speaking in front of some 160 students, Ogata and University of Tokyo President Junichi Hamada exchanged their views on the role Japanese youth must play in the age of globalization.

Looking back on the path Japan took after the war, Ogata urged students to learn about their history and the efforts that previous generations made to elevate the nation’s position. Only recently has fast-growing China overtaken Japan to become the No. 2 economy.

“The postwar period was the time when Japan made a total effort, continuing through the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. . . . I believe the 1980s were the golden age of Japan’s economy,” Ogata said. “From then on, we began having difficulties in maintaining that position, and the country’s international ranking has recently slipped in many respects.”

In the age of globalization, relationships among people can play a bigger role than those among governments, Ogata said.

Japan won’t be able to prosper if it detaches itself from the rest of the world, she said, noting the nation’s leading companies are going global in both production and research, because engaging the world community is vital.

“It’s understanding yourself as well as others. To know where you stand, what is expected of you and what you can do, and to see where others are and what they expect you to do,” Ogata said.

As head of JICA, working together with governments and companies in developing countries, Ogata said expectations for Japanese cooperation are high, especially in science and technology, and people need to respond accordingly.

Referring to her stint as U.N. leader on the refugee issue, Ogata stressed the importance of knowing one’s capabilities, being able to grasp the situation, and . . . learning English.

“Language is the foundation of understanding yourself and the others. . . . English is the international language. Without speaking English, it’s hard to communicate overseas,” she said.

Hamada, who calls on his students to be tough and borderless, also stressed the importance of experiencing different parts of the world.

“Internationalization is not only about interacting with people from different countries, but interacting with people who have a different sense of values and different ways of thinking,” Hamada said. “It’s OK to have overseas experience and to get a job that does not require you to use English. But it’s better for you to have many different ways of thinking and information.”

When asked by one student why it’s wrong to be inward-looking, given that this attitude can sometimes yield creativity, such as animation, Ogata said: “It may (produce something good). It’s good to have brilliant literature and other things. But if an inward-looking nature dominates Japan, Japan cannot survive. That’s the reality of the economy and that’s the reality of the information society behind the economy.”

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