A group of young enthusiasts got a very rare chance to meet and discuss the workings of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA). We learned about the diverse careers of Ms. Keiko Miura and Ms. Asagi Miyoshi, both working at the Exchange Programs Division in the Minister’s Secretariat.
Ms. Miura is an alumni of Waseda University with her Bachelor’s degree in Law. In her junior year, she studied in Ripon College in USA as an exchange student. Ms. Miura joined MOFA to build her career in the Oceania Division and the UN Policy Division. Then she received Master’s degree in International Relations at Sydney University, Australia where she was posted as trainee diplomat. Her positions afterwards include several divisions in the headquarters in Tokyo as well as the Japanese Consulates in San Francisco and New York. Before posted in New York, she had enjoyed her two-year maternity leave in Moscow where her husband was working at Embassy of Japan. Currently she is in charge of policies and programs for student exchange at the Exchange Programs Division. She has proudly served in the Ministry for the last 20 years.
Ms. Miyoshi graduated Kyoto University with a Bachelor’s degree in Law. In 2008, she began her career at the Ministry in the Economic Treaty Division. Then she was posted in France as a trainee diplomat and got her Master’s in Politics and Development in Africa and developing countries from Science Po Institute of Bordeaux. After returning to Tokyo, she worked in the Afghanistan Assistance Division for about one year and took a maternity leave for another year. From April 2014, she works in the Exchange Programs Division and deals with general affairs of the division as well as sport diplomacy which MOFA is trying to put focus on in the view of Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2020.
Ms. Miura:While I was studying in USA as a college student together with US students and other foreign students from the world, I thought that Japan was facing many problems, both its own problems for which it got often criticized by foreigners and those especially shared by the developing countries that Japan and other developed countries had to tackle jointly. Therefore working for MOFA seemed to be ideal as I could work for Japan and also for the better world by working together with other countries. It is very different from other jobs. It is government; therefore you must understand the context of policies of your government. Why is a particular policy important for Japan / Japanese people / people living in Japan? It is both challenging and exciting.
Ms. Miyoshi: The interesting thing is that we have to constantly think about what Japan should do for its international interests or that Japanese people can live and work in global basis without any problem. This kind of global as well as national vision is required whereas private companies would not, a priori, take that vision into account. I find this responsibility very interesting. Some difficult part about our job is that we cannot see the results of our work in the short period. When I was choosing my career I was also interested about the international development cooperation projects. If I may simplify, JICA delivers the projects, but MOFA is where the decision on the Japanese international assistance policy is made. This fact attracted me to join MOFA.
Student: Could you describe your usual workday at the Ministry?
Both:MOFA’s regular work time is from 9:30 to 18:15 while most of the staff work longer than that. We (Ms. Miyoshi and Ms. Miura) are allowed to start and finish earlier because we have small children to take care. Normally we have a lot of meetings inside and outside the ministry.
Ms. Miyoshi: In the context of promoting sports exchange, we have currently a lot of meetings with the organizing committee of Tokyo 2020 preparing for the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Ms. Miura: For promotion of student exchange of which I am in charge, we have a lot of discussions with relevant ministries and agents regarding policies and programs for student exchange. For example we work on the preparation of the joint statements for summits with other countries to show government leaders’ commitment to promote further student exchange between their countries. Speaking of the Japanese government scholarships for foreign students, MEXT has a large budget and decides overarching policies and specific programs while MOFA gives directions to overseas embassies to promote scholarships and recruit candidate students in foreign countries because embassies and their budgets belong to MOFA. Therefore our division often serves as the interface between MEXT and the embassies. Currently the government is pursuing the goal of “the 300,000 foreign students plan” by 2020. This week we had a big meeting with all the ministries concerned about how we can achieve it, so we have now a lot of homework to tackle jointly with our embassies.
Ms. Miura: Our first barrier for attracting more students to Japan is the language. For that MEXT is trying to promote academic courses in English through subsidies and grants to Japanese universities. There is also a lot of work in fostering local communities to accept more international students. For this purpose, national universities in each area are encouraged to become a center of the local community. This is important because not only the university, but also all the community should be cooperative to welcome more foreign students in Japan. Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport and Trade (MLIT) is also involved for providing more residences for international students. There are lots of things to be done with various ministries.
Student: What is the difference between MEXT and MOFA work with international students?
Ms. Miura: MEXT is in charge of the students once they are in Japan, but MOFA does all the overseas part like recruiting, promoting and so on. It is also important for MOFA to promote supporting active alumni associations or at least to build networks between the former students in Japan and the Japanese embassies in their countries.
Student: What is the Japanese government seeking in the long term by recruiting so many international students?
Ms.Miura: General answer is to promote understanding between Japan and other countries. We are putting emphasis on so-called “people-to-people exchange” and in a bigger aspect, “public diplomacy”. In this context, it is very important to have students who understand about Japan, since they will be the bridges between their countries respectively. For encouraging Japanese students to study abroad, it is MEXT that has several policies and budget on that.
Student: Can you identify the toughest challenge that you have encountered so far?
Ms. Miura: Comparing to my past work at overseas missions, there is not really tough problems in my current position. There are some international students who face certain problems studying in Japan and it sometimes requires diplomatic coordination with the countries of their own. However, that is not what I consider to be tough: because we are eager to help them and give them necessary support.
Ms. Miyoshi: As I said before, we cannot see the results of our work in a short period of time; therefore the toughest part is when we are asked to show the output and to measure the effectiveness of people-to-people exchange. But it is obvious that those policies are important because without the grass-roots diplomacy the basis of diplomacy would not be consolidated.
Student: Did (your work at the UN Division at MOFA) ever create a political stoll between the system of the UN and Japan?
Ms.Miura: Actually, I cannot answer to the question properly because I was in my only second year of MOFA and my scope of work was very narrow back then. UN is an intergovernmental organization so each member state has its opinion. All the important decisions are made by the Security Council while Japan is not its permanent member. It is a Japan’s biggest objective and challenges to become a permanent member of Security Council.
Student: The UN is quite huge system and I was not sure exactly about what kind of work you had at the Division.
Ms. Miura: The UN consists of various councils, commissions and special organizations for which specific issues were tasked each We, at the Ministry always receive inquiries on Japan’s position on each issue from the Japanese mission to UN who attend meetings in NY. We have to give direction to them after consulting within the Ministry and external organizations such as panels of experts for specific issues.
Student: While working in the Afghanistan Assistance Division, was the cultural differences of the country ever become a barrier to help Afghanistan?
Ms. Miyoshi: In regards to Japanese assistance for Afghanistan, Japanese aid workers are very good at adapting to local culture and respecting what they need, so I haven’t observed such problems. When we assist women for example, it is not easy to deal with the local leaders who sometimes oppose education for women even after the Taliban regime. In such case, we deal with those matters very cautiously.
Student: Politics is still very male-dominated. What are the main obstacles that you find in your career withe regards to this, and what advice would you like to give to women who’d like to get into such career? How do you balance private life (and career)?
Ms.Miura: It’s not about only for women. Men and women, or single people and married people, junior and senior in their career. All have to be involved to talk about this issue.
Ms.Miyoshi: I have one son and he’s still small so either my husband or myself bring him to the nursery and pick him up. The difficult thing is there are a lot of works to be done even after 6 pm. At the moment I ask the Ministry to limit my supplementary hours but in the Ministry in general , there are a lot of interesting work which require a lot of supplementary work. In that sense, I have not yet clear idea of how to balance it in the near future (we should do what we can now..). Before, women in the ministry tend to have babies after working for a while, like 10 years or more.. But now, there are an increasing number of women who have children at younger stage of their career, including me who is not yet in a managerial level. It is a new tendency for the Ministry I guess. The personnel division definitely has to understand the case like mine.
Ms. Miura: PM Abe is trying to promote that kind of society where women can balance between careers and their private lives. I have twin boys, 9 years old. First of all, the most important thing I believe is to find a good partner. My husband works for the same ministry so he naturally understands what my job is like. When I gave birth, I had already worked for 10 years in the Ministry. Though I was not yet in a high position, I had confidence that I could leave for 2-3 years and then I could come back with no problem. However, junior female employees would worry about their career opportunities as Ms. Miyoshi said. Currently the government provides one-year maternity leave paid and two-year leave unpaid, which is good in Japanese standard. Some private companies cannot afford to do that. Before I gave birth, I would work late till midnight or after almost every day. It was our culture of working till late. Nowadays, however, the culture is changing: even men or women without small children start thinking that working very late is not cool nor productive This administration moves forward for sure.