Farewell Interview with Consul General Asako Okai
“What can I do to make a difference on the ground?”
by Laura Saimoto
Consul General Okai has served for just over two years as the Consul General in Vancouver. In August, she will be moving to New York City to start a new job at the UN as the Assistant Secretary General in the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Crisis Response Unit. In light of VJLS-JH celebrating the twin 90th birthdays of the Japanese Hall and of Japan/Canada Diplomatic Relations, I asked her about her reflections on the past, her experience in Vancouver, and her hopes for the future. She recently spearheaded the launch of an education video on Japan called, Japan Into the Future With Canada youtu.be/Ju7sO4QfcuE (youtube video).
Interview conducted on August 16, 2018 at the Consul General’s Residence
What did you learn from your experience in Vancouver?
I’ve been in the Japanese foreign service for 30 years. For part of it, I was working together for the UN and this is my sixth posting abroad. My experience centres around international cooperation, development, peacekeeping, African issues etc. So it was a surprise that I was given the job of Consul General in Vancouver. It requires a totally different set of skills from what i had been doing. Nevertheless, it’s been a great opportunity to serve as a representative of the Japanese Government as head of the Mission.
One of the greatest assets I gained here in Vancouver is to get to know how to work with people on the ground. I was serving in headquarters and capitals. In this environment, you know the people you engage with. You expect a certain knowledge level from your counterparts, whether they’re in government or are diplomats. So it was the first time to work with ‘Real People’, citizens who live and DO NOT think like diplomats. So I needed to work out how to engage with the general public. That has been a GREAT experience for me because Vancouver is made up of a diverse community – even within the Japanese community, it’s so diverse. You have immigrants from different parts of the world. The context of Canada has created a totally unique environment you cannot find anywhere else in the world. So to work in this diverse environment made me think about messaging. If I make things too complicated, I don’t get the message across. Working with the community has enabled me to think about effective messaging.
Being the first female Consul General of Japan in the world, did you have challenges as a woman and if so, how did you deal with them?
I’ve been asked this many times, but frankly speaking, I never thought of myself as a woman having any difficulties serving as a diplomat. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is a very equal institution; they don’t have much discrimination against women. However, having said that, no discrimination means whether you are a man or a woman, you are expected to work hard – long hours. So yes, I have worked as a leading diplomat, but that has meant much sacrifice in my private life. As well, you need to be very fit to cope with that challenge.
One of the things Japan is behind in terms of gender equality is that society has not given much thought to women as the child-bearing sex. If you want to keep the family alive and create a thriving society, somebody needs to raise the family. Traditionally, that has been the job of women. That has put much pressure on women to have children. It has been difficult in Japan to have both the work experience as well as a family life. I married late until I got to a certain level in my career. I was so relieved that my husband was here in Vancouver supporting me. We need to make a society where women can have both family and work experience and can balance it well.
The Japanese Government realized this five or six years ago, and tried to change so that women can shine, and at the same time, (aimed) to reform the labour market. If we force everyone to continuously work hard all the time, it will not make society sustainable. The Japanese government is working hard to change the labour market so it will accept flexible work hours and incorporate those who have certain restrictions, for example those who care for the elderly and raise a family. That is essential in these modern days.
Japan is the fastest ageing society, and our population is shrinking. That means we need to sustain the labour market and the economy with different sets of labour forces. So, in my current life, I did not feel discrimination or handicapped because I am a woman. I feel I proved that a woman can do the job well. But I still feel that society needs to make it easier to accept different types of work and those who need to take time off for certain periods of time to raise kids or care for the elderly. This can be done with parental leave, by limiting overtime hours. I myself often worked 100 hours of OT in a month. Now there is legislation to limit monthly OT not to go beyond 100 hours.
This year, we are celebrating the twin 90th birthdays of the 1928 Japanese Hall and of Japan/Canada Diplomatic Relations. Could you comment on the past 90 years and what is your vision for the next 90 years?
90 years means so much for Japan/Canada Diplomatic Relations and for VJLS-JH. However, my thinking was the span of 150 years. I was struck by the fact that Canada celebrated their 150th birthday last year, and in the Japanese context, the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration was celebrated this year. Also the Japanese community here (in Canada) has been thriving for 140 years. This is nearly the life span of Canadian confederation. I noticed how Canada went through 150 years. As you know, 75 years ago, Canada was such a racist country when Japanese Canadians were dispersed into Internment (camps).
So I thought, let’s give Canadians some historical time perspective of the past 150 years. What (Japan) went through, how they have changed. Modernization started with the Meiji Restoration 150 years ago. 80 years ago, we were at war, 72 years ago, we were reborn as a peace-loving nation after the war. We have achieved so much in the post-war period. I noticed that the Canadian audience, even the Nikkei community, doesn’t have this long perspective. Their time memory seems to stop at the war and does not cover modern times. So what I wanted to showcase is the perspective of 150 years and to catch up to what happened after the war in Japan. Canadians can then reflect on how society was in Canada and at the same time, reflect on how Japan has evolved over (the past) 70 years. This was the perspective I messaged out to the community, and by creating the video, Japan Into the Future With Canada.
For the future, it’s my hope that Japan and Canada will partner to cope with many challenges that we’ll face in the future. Japan is the fastest ageing society in the world. Canada will eventually follow. Japan’s experience can set the example for Canadian society to learn how to cope with an ageing society, environmental problems, energy shortages, food security, climate change, all the new issues emerging. I wanted to present Japan to Canada as a viable partner in coping with global issues. That is why the title of the video we produced is called Japan Into the Future With Canada.
So given the time span of 150 years, what is your vision for the next span of 150 years?
I’d like to talk about this in terms of my next job and the UN’s long-term agenda. The way we’ve been living is not sustainable anymore. We need to change and transform the way we live. That’s why two years ago, the world agreed on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/sustainable-development-goals.html). There is a set agenda for 2030 which states that the world will endeavour to transform to make it sustainable to live in. The 2030 target is only 12 years from now. Canadians are not yet widely aware about SDGs. But when I went back to Japan briefly this summer, I was struck by the fact that the recognition of SDGs was widespread. Now Japan and especially the business community see it as a new market because it requires innovation to transform society to be able to adapt to (new) modes of living using AI or new technology to save the earth.
The UN is trying to get this out to all corners of the world. António Guterres, the new Secretary Gen-eral of the UN, has put much effort into this robust reform agenda. (The UN) is conscious that SDG requires a robust undertaking by ALL partners, not just the UN, but civil society, the private sector, whole institutions, academia etc. We need to put all of the wisdom and knowledge of all corners of the world into this effort. So I hope that I will be able to message that this is going on in other parts of the world. Japan is trying to lead the way in this endeavour. Let’s spread this endeavour together as wide as possible. SDG is about what you can do as a citizen in your everyday life to change and still contribute. In the video, I inserted certain aspects of this to raise awareness.
What is your message to the next generation, and connected to this, what does it mean to be a good leader?
A good leader can translate vision into reality. If a leader just talks about the abstract, you will not change the world. So if you have a vision, to have the capacity to realize it and then use the result. That’s an important feature of a leader. For young ones who aspire to be an effective global citizen, I ask them to think, ‘what can I do to change to make a difference on the ground?’. This is my favourite phrase. It doesn’t matter the scope. In whatever you do, think, ‘what makes a difference’. My message is to young people is to think, ’how can I change the world for the better’.
A big arigatou to Consul General Okai for her inspiring leadership and for reminding and awakening in each one of us how we can make a difference on the road to 2030.