The government needs to establish a training facility to nurture the skills of Japanese who want to work for the United Nations, according to Hitoki Den, a former senior political affairs officer with the global body.
“Japan is the second-largest contributor to the U.N. budget with, 10.83 percent, after the United States with 22.0 percent,” the 61-year-old said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.
But the number of Japanese working for the U.N. Secretariat falls well short, based on the principle of geographical distribution, which takes into account a member nation’s financial contributions, Den said.
As of June last year, “there were only 83 Japanese . . . out of 2,901 staff members who held core posts” and who were recruited under the principle, he said. “The desirable range of Japanese staff is 186 to 252 . . . so the current number is very small.”
The system for promoting equitable geographical distribution in the composition of the U.N. Secretariat staff was established by a General Assembly resolution in 1987 that was an “outgrowth of a concept of parity between the weight to be given to the membership and contribution factors,” according to the world body.
The U.S. has the largest number of staff, with 355 recruited under the principle, followed by the United Kingdom and France with 141 each, Germany and Italy with 129 each and Canada with 89, according to figures compiled by the Recruitment Center for International Organizations at the Foreign Ministry.
Den said these figures suggest Japan deserves greater representation at the U.N. Secretariat.
The Tokyo native worked for the world body from 1988 to 2014, during which he served as special assistant to the undersecretary-general, as well as senior political affairs officer in charge of Southeast and South Asia.
Increasing the number of Japanese staff would be good for the country’s diplomacy, even though U.N. staff pledge allegiance to the secretary-general and thus are neutral, Den said.
For example, having more Japanese staff would help facilitate information exchanges between the Secretariat and Japan’s permanent mission to the U.N., he added.
To that end, a systematic approach by the government is essential, in addition to efforts at the individual level, Den said.
“Individual efforts are necessary, for sure,” he said. “But strong public encouragement is crucial to increase staff size, like the government engages in to boost the number of Olympic medals, through the creation of a training facility to nurture personnel working for international organizations.”
The Foreign Ministry has provided information such as job vacancy notices through the Recruitment Center for International Organizations. It has also sponsored the Junior Professional Officer program to dispatch young would-be workers to various international bodies for a fixed term. But Den said that’s not enough.
If a training facility is established, useful lessons could be provided on such topics as exam trends, measures to pass the test and how to prepare for an employment interview, Den said.
“Japanese are not necessarily well-trained to advertise themselves in an interview” compared with Westerners who have honed their skills through debates at school, he said. “Japanese need to develop the skills of talking themselves up.”
In the meantime, Den said, one Japanese characteristic that could help at the world organization is consensus-building among various parties.
“Good teamwork is very important at workplaces like the U.N.,” whose staff come from various countries with different backgrounds, he noted. “Those who have the ability to persuade their colleagues and encourage them to move in the same direction would be cherished. Japanese are relatively good at that.”
Den graduated from university and graduate school in the U.S., where he majored in political science and international relations. He began his career in 1979 as a reporter at The Japan Times, before joining the U.N. in 1988.
It was while covering diplomacy at the Foreign Ministry for the English daily that he decided to pursue a career at the U.N.
A Foreign Ministry official introduced Den to a U.N. recruitment exam and encouraged him to take it, saying the number of Japanese working for the organization was small despite the nation’s huge financial contribution.
Working for the U.N. was one of his dreams, so he seized on the opportunity and succeeded in gaining entry into the organization.
Recalling his more than 25 years at the U.N., Den said what he found the most appealing was that he was able to serve for the sake of the international community without being bound by particular national interests.
As the U.N. observes the 70th anniversary of its founding this year, Den recently wrote about his experiences at the organization in a book titled “Kokuren wo Yomu: Watashi no Seimukan noto kara” (“A Story about the United Nations: from My Notes as a Political Affairs Officer”), published by The Japan Times.
He said he wrote the book with three things in mind: to help Japanese people understand what the U.N. is all about, ask them to think about how they can keep the organization relevant in the coming decades, and encourage more Japanese to work for the world body.
“As the world is getting smaller and observes the progress of internationalization more than ever, I’d like to see many more Japanese play active roles at organizations such as the U.N.,” Den said.
To those who wish to work for the U.N., Den stressed the importance of having an open mind.
“Don’t be afraid of differences and develop the courage to accept them,” he said.
On a more practical note, Den advised aspirants to acquire at least two of the six official languages at the U.N. — Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish.
“Such a skill would expand the work at the U.N. and would be beneficial for their career development in the long term,” Den said.
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