SALTA ARGENTINA – Akitada Oishi, a former mayor of Hita, Oita Prefecture, is now an aid volunteer, lending his acumen as a successful municipal chief to the northern Argentine province of Salta.
Oishi, 71, is assisting the administration of the province near Argentina’s borders with Bolivia and Chile by utilizing his experience serving as mayor, a job he held for three terms spanning 12 years starting in 1995.
Oishi started working for Salta province, which he describes as the “poorest region in Argentina,” last January under a volunteer program of the Japan International Cooperation Agency.
In the provincial government office, Oishi is attached to a division in charge of economic development and production.
Oishi faces a wall of cultural differences as well as the language barrier. Despite his experience as a mayor and a trading house worker at one point, Spanish was new to him. And in the land of siesta where the slow life is the norm, it is difficult to apply the hustle and bustle approach favored by energetic people like Oishi.
All the same, he is apparently winning respect as an experienced administrator. While admitting to having had some initial difficulty in communicating with Oishi, his 35-year-old Argentine boss says “there is no problem now” and praises the former mayor’s experience as “really useful.”
One day, a senior official of the government of Salta, the provincial capital, talked to Oishi about the high frequency of earthquakes in the region.
Oishi urged the city to immediately prepare a disaster management plan, following the example of Japanese municipalities, which are responsible for mapping out contingency plans to deal with earthquakes and other natural disasters.
Taking note of Oishi’s advice, the official expressed a desire to ask JICA to dispatch an expert in that field.
When Oishi was mayor of Hita, he brought an abundance of business experience to City Hall. He had spent a stint in the former West Germany as a trading company employee and also had worked in the restaurant industry before going into politics at age 52.
On his watch, Hita successfully promoted locally produced pears, watermelons and ceramic ware nationwide under an initiative known as “isson, ippin,” which literally means “one village, one product.” The initiative was launched by Oita Prefecture to provide an economic fillip to its municipalities by making them focus on and excel in their specialty products.
For now, Oishi’s main effort is directed at transplanting the “isson, ippin” initiative into an isolated village in Salta. He is hoping to revitalize the village, which is located around 150 km from the provincial capital, by promoting goat cheese as a local specialty.
The area is dry and windswept. But if an irrigation system is introduced, cheese productivity could improve markedly, he believes.
Acting as a liaison between the provincial government and the Japanese Embassy in Buenos Aires, Oishi is trying to help win grant aid from the Japanese government.
JICA’s Senior Volunteers program is geared toward supporting developing countries by dispatching people in their 40s to 60s as aid workers with many years of practical experience in business, local administration and other fields.
The volunteers it has sent include eminent people such as a former president of Yamagata University and a former ambassador as well as former municipal chiefs like Oishi, according to JICA. Even a former president of JICA has joined the ranks of volunteers.
Oishi was tapped by a JICA associate to join the program after he lost his bid for a fourth term in 2007. His wife, Taeko, 64, accompanied him for his two-year term in Argentina.
For Oishi, his activity in Salta is a quest to start a new life after undergoing ups and downs in his business and political careers back in Japan.
“I will forget the past and make a fresh start,” he said. “This is a test of my true worth as an ordinary worker.”