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International Cooperation to Share Happiness

Round-table talks with representatives from Oceania

Countries in Oceania consist of small islands scattered in the vast ocean area. With small national lands and market sizes, they share common challenges of being island countries, such as difficulty in accessing social services including education and medical care. They are also prone to being affected by natural disasters and climate changes, and are facing growing environmental problems like waste management.

JICA resident representatives from six countries in the region held round-table talks on the current status and future for the Oceanian countries to exchange opinions based on views from each country, in September at JICA headquarters in Tokyo.

PhotoThe map shows the participant offices and the three regions in Oceania

Hideyuki Suzuki, resident representative of the Samoa office
Hiroshi Kikawa, resident representative of the Tonga office
Tsutomu Moriya, resident representative of the Vanuatu office
Nobuaki Matsui, resident representative of the Palau office
Hideki Tomobe, resident representative of the Marshall Islands office
Kaoru Iwasaki, resident representative of the Micronesia office

Yasuko Nishino, director general, Office of Media and Public Relations

Oceania has a deep connection with Japan

Kaoru Iwasaki, resident representative of the Micronesia officeKaoru Iwasaki, resident representative of the Micronesia office

—— Japanese people tend to lump island countries in Oceania together, but each country has its own culture and language. Please start with brief overview of each country.

Iwasaki (Micronesia):
In the 3,000 kilometer wide ocean area that stretches from east to west, there are four states in Micronesia that include as many as 607 islands. One of atolls named Turk, used to be a hub of the old Japanese Navy. In the prewar period there were also many Japanese residents. Descendants of Koben Mori, a businessman who lived in Micronesia over 120 years ago, now number some 2,000 people, and the incumbent president, Emanuel Mori also comes from the same family. In fact, it is believed that 20 percent of the citizens are of Japanese descent. No infectious diseases such as malaria and rabies, or poisonous snakes are seen here, and it is a very comfortable country to live in.

PhotoHideki Tomobe, resident representative of the Marshall Islands office

Tomobe (Marshall):
Marshall consists of 29 atolls and five islands in the ocean area of 2 million square kilometers. As a remnant of the time of the old Japanese Army ruling, words like "bento (lunch box)," "chanpo (going for a walk)" and "amimono (knitting)" are still locally used, and Japanese first names like "Momotaro" or "Chutaro" are used as family names. Since the lands are only 2 to 3 meters above the sea level on average, the rise in sea levels as a result of the global climate change is a serious problem here. In addition, financial assistance from the United States based on the current Compact of Free Association (COFA, [1]), which accounts for 60 percent of the national budget, will be terminated in 2023. Gaining self-sufficiency afterward is a big issue. However, the people seem to lack a sense of crisis with regard to both problems, probably because of their national character.

PhotoTsutomu Moriya, resident representative of Vanuatu office

Moriya (Vanuatu):
Not many people would recognize where Vanuatu is when they hear the name of the country, and I was actually one of them. To give you an easy explanation, it's north of New Caledonia. It consists of 83 islands of different sizes, and 64 islands out of them have residents. A variety of tribes and languages can be seen, and my impression after actually living there is that the Melanesian culture remains strong there. It calls itself "The happiest country in the world," but on the other hand, there are still such problems as a male-dominated attitude, and the participation of women in society is not proceeding smoothly.

PhotoHideyuki Suzuki, resident representative of the Samoa office

Suzuki (Samoa):
Samoan people are Polynesian, the same ethnic group as Hawaiians. They came down to the south in approximately 1,000 B.C. and are descendant of Mongoloids, so their faces are pretty similar to those of the Japanese. There is a Samoan song whose lyrics say, "Nothing is here, but it's fun to be here," and it is a perfect description of the country. The people are very friendly and they greet even to strangers, and love music so they sing together whenever there is an opportunity. They eat taro, yam, breadfruit, and bananas, and at times of celebration, roasted pig is served.

PhotoNobuaki Matsui, resident representative of the Palau office

Matsui (Palau):
Palau was also ruled by Japan in the past, and the Japanese language has penetrated into everyday life here, as well as Japanese food. The sea, of which they are proud because of its rich biodiversity, is popular as a diving spot. The government focuses on securing the environment, exemplified by the declaration of the world's first shark sanctuary.

One of their distinctive national characters is that they seldom say "no" if asked something. If you believe their words "I understand," sometimes you may get into trouble. Like Marshall and Micronesia, Palau also relies for half its national budget on COFA, so how they can become self-sufficient is also a big issue here.

PhotoHiroshi Kikawa, resident representative of the Tonga office

Kikawa (Tonga):
Tonga is a kingdom that consists of four big islands and a small island, with a population of 100,000. The Royal family has exchanges with the Japanese Royal family and people are quite pro-Japanese. As a request from the king, the school educational curriculum includes the Japanese abacus and the Japanese language. Only in Tonga would Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers (JOCV) work on abacus training.

Although it is blessed with rich nature, the tourism business is not advanced. Whales come to the sea around here from July to September, so they promote diving with whales and snorkeling as a feature of tourism.

Ahead of other Pacific countries, it has proceeded with the introduction of a microgrid [2] system in the field of renewable energy as part of JICA's cooperation.

Challenging waste management issue with Japanese skills

—— What are region-wide issues that are common in Pacific countries?

Iwasaki (Micronesia):
There are six common agenda items: waste management, climate change, disaster risk management, education, health and transport infrastructure. For waste management, we work together as a region, with Samoa as a base.

Suzuki (Samoa):
What we started first as region-wide cooperation is an introduction of the "Fukuoka Method," a waste reclamation technique. It improved the existing dumping ground that simply accumulated plastic and metal wastes to be able to process in volume by reclamation, and increased its lifespan. In addition, the country currently is working to introduce a waste classification model operated in Shibushi City, Kagoshima. Shibushi doesn't have an incinerator, but by classifying the waste and promoting the 3Rs (reduce, reuse and recycle) the city succeeded in waste reduction and recycling. The same system is now in the process of being established in Samoa.

—— By saying 3Rs, does it also include recycling?

Suzuki (Samoa):
That is a difficult question. Samoa does not have recycling facilities for plastics and metals that are available in Japan. At the moment the wastes are transferred to New Zealand for recycling. However, it is costly and also is difficult to do through the private sector. The project this time also plans to take that into consideration to establish an appropriate system.

Iwasaki (Micronesia):
Improvement of lifelines is a specific agenda item in island countries. Most people would think of water or electricity when they hear the word “lifeline.” However, in the Pacific, the most important lifeline is maritime transportation. Boats play a fundamental role to provide services to isolated islands including the transport of commodities and transferring medical staff and agricultural instructors. JICA provided a freight and passenger boat to Micronesia with grant aid in 1996. It has been 16 years since the boat was built, but it’s well maintained and is still in active service. The people spend time and money to keep and manage what they really need.

Kikawa (Tonga):
A freight and passenger boat was also provided to Tonga in 2010. As Iwasaki-san said, it is fully maintained and smoothly managed.

Moriya (Vanuatu):
Regarding marine transportation, in Vanuatu an international freight wharf is being built as the first Japanese ODA yen loan project. The country receive many tourists and in some days, as many as 2,000 people come by a luxury boat and the wharf gets so crowded that freight boats have to wait offshore. The only existing wharf was also built by JICA, and the Vanuatuan people are very grateful for this kind of assistance.

Iwasaki (Micronesia):
Climate change is an agenda item also connected to Japan. Due to recent climate change, typhoons originating in the area of the Micronesian sea are transformed into super typhoons and cause damage to Japan. In his talks with President Manny Mori in October 2013, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said, “Micronesia is a neighboring country of Japan across the Pacific Ocean.” The preamble to the Micronesian constitution also reads, “The seas bring us together, they do not separate us.” Japan and the Pacific countries are neighboring countries, and I realize that we need to protect the environment of the Pacific in order to protect the environment of Japan.

PhotoPutting up a pipe in the heap of waste to induce gas exhaustion (the Japanese Technical Cooperation Project for Promotion of Regional Initiative on Solid Waste Management, Marshall)

PhotoA member of Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers, second from left, explains a recycling system. Palau achieved recycling of approximately 95 percent of plastic bottles and cans.

PhotoA ferryboat arrives in the Tongatapu Island, where the capital of Nuku’alofa is located.

PhotoA Japanese expert, right, gives a lecture to elementary school student on cyclones to raise awareness of disaster mitigation (Samoa).

Spreading vegetables in one way or another

—— There is a typical image that the people in Oceania are well-rounded, and I hear lifestyle-related diseases are also a big problem. Do you take any action on those issues?

Suzuki (Samoa):
The Samoan diet is centered on taros and bananas, and they hardly eat vegetables. In addition, they regard plump women as beautiful so they are not conscious about controlling their weight, and quite a lot of people die from diabetes and high blood pressure. So JICA JOCVs focus on the dissemination of vegetables.

Kikawa (Tonga):
Tongan people don't have a custom of eating vegetables either. As a prevention measure for lifestyle-related diseases, colleges work with JICA volunteers to instruct in the improvement in dietary habits.

Tomobe (Marshall):
In Oceania, vegetables are hardly available from the beginning. Especially in Marshall, there are neither mountains nor rivers and the entire food supply is imported, including vegetables. Consumers' lifestyles in town areas are exactly the same as those of the U.S. and it is a cause of lifestyle-related diseases.

Three experts, namely a JICA volunteer nurse, a nutritionist and a physiotherapist, team up and implement an awareness campaign at hospitals, in schools and in communities. It includes such activities as explaining the fact that nine teaspoons of sugar are included in a bottle of Coke, or placing vegetable recipes in supermarkets. However, changing their habit of not eating vegetables at all and drinking Coke heavily is not easy and it's a long way to change for better.

Moriya (Vanuatu):
In Vanuatu, too, the death rate caused by lifestyle-related diseases represents up to 65 percent of the total. Despite that fact, people know very little about diabetes. JICA's assistance in the past was centered on the prevention of infectious diseases, but this could be about a time to steer toward countermeasures for lifestyle-related diseases.

Iwasaki (Micronesia):
The value that men should be able to feed their wives well could also remain in the background of this problem. Recently, women who are not willing to put on weight are increasing, but at the same time it is also necessary to change men's perception. Recently in Micronesia, a senior volunteer qualified as nutritionist teaches recipes using local vegetables to groups of local women, and another senior volunteer qualified as nurses gives health advice. However, the situation is that human resources of JICA's cooperation are scarce and they cannot reach all states.

Kikawa (Tonga):
Okra is said to be good for preventing lifestyle-related non-communicable diseases. Actually, a JOCV in Tonga succeeded in cultivating okra. We are thinking about focusing on spreading Okra, though it will be difficult as they don't have the custom of eating okra in Tonga.

PhotoThree experts, namely a nurse, a nutritionist and a physiotherapist team up to give advice on dietary habits and improved nutrition at high schools. (Marshall)

PhotoA senior overseas volunteer teaches a cooking class (Micronesia).

The position of women varies greatly by country

PhotoWomen cook traditional dishes tuluk and laplap. Women usually take care of the housework in Vanuatu

Moriya (Vanuatu):
By the way, as I said ,Vanuatu is pretty much a male-dominated society, but how about other countries? I wonder if there are cultural differences in Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia.

Tomobe (Marshall):
Male-dominancy is not an issue here. The Micronesian cultural area is maternal society and women inherit family lands.

Iwasaki (Micronesia):
However, that doesn't mean participation of women in society is advanced. National Congress members are all men, and there are only four female cabinet members.

Moriya (Vanuatu):
There are 52 Diet members in Vanuatu, and no women members have been included for a while.

Suzuki (Samoa):
In Samoa, there is a custom called Fa'afafine. If a family doesn't have any girls, the youngest boy is raised as a girl and is taught to carry out all housework. Some of them grow up to have the mind of a woman and continue to live as a woman like gay people, but there is no discrimination and they also have civil rights.

Matsui (Palau):
It is the Polynesian culture. In the South Pacific there is a gay/lesbian competition called "Miss Galaxy." Even if people come out as gay, they will not be bashed, and quite a number of gay people hold senior positions in companies or governmental offices. On the contrary, this is not so in Palau. They say the status of women is respected in Palau as it has a maternal culture (like Micronesia and Marshall), but women's participation in the field of politics is still halfway, and issues like domestic violence and other problems need attention. As for the working environment, Palauan women can ask their family or housemaid to look after the children and go to work, so they have fewer restrictions compared with Japanese women in that sense.

Development assistance using tradition and culture

PhotoYasuko Nishino, director general of Office of Media and Public Relations

—— While Micronesia and Marshall have been receiving economic assistance from the U.S., how is the public sector growing?

Iwasaki (Micronesia):
Not at all, and that also means there are great opportunities for business. Actually a JICA expert wrote a very interesting report on how the cultural background of Micronesia impacts its social economy. In Micronesia, without producing food they can still pick breadfruits and bananas so they won't starve, and there is no need to stock up for winter, which results in no advancement in the food preserving technologies and no surplus for investment, without the custom of saving. That is, they can survive without following the cycle of economic growth.

It is environmentally friendly to a large extent, but the reality is that you cannot survive without money today. So as much as one third of the population work away from home in Guam, Hawaii, Saipan and continental U.S. to earn cash. The only people who could locally earn a living would be civil servants.

Moriya (Vanuatu):
The same goes for Vanuatu. If you want to earn money and keep a self-sufficient lifestyle, you have no choice but to work abroad in Australia or New Zealand. But domestic industry will not grow as long as they continue doing it. I would hope they seek for a way of self-support somehow.

Tomobe (Marshal):
Contrary to that opinion, I think working abroad is necessary. In Marshall one-fourth of the population is at the age of high school students or younger, but the industry is not developed enough to provide job opportunities to all of them, and they cannot expect much in the future. Going back to an old-style self-sufficiency is not an option either. In order to survive as a country, they have no way but to encourage working abroad. Or rather, they should use the privilege of COFA even more, that they can be employed without a visa in the U.S. In that case, skill training is required so that they can get better jobs as much as possible, and we would like to create a success model for that.

Iwasaki (Micronesia):
Micronesia is a society principally based on big families, with a tradition of a safety net of helping and sharing with each other. We should learn from them in many cultural aspects, and our development assistance must make use of such advantages.

Moriaya (Vanuatu):
I agree. In Vanuatu they have this culture of "forgiveness," and even murderers can be released from jail to return to society if they behave themselves. By learning such examples, I realize its culture is completely different from those of developed countries. Respecting these culture and customs is one thing, and at the same time, how they can catch the wave of globalism is another. Striking a balance between them is important.

Kikawa (Tonga):
I would like to say something before the talks are over. JICA President Akihiko Tanaka promotes the catch line "international cooperation that revitalizes not only developing countries but Japan itself." How about "makes happy" instead of "revitalizes" for the next catch line? What I feel in Tonga is that everyone is happy. They have a mind that accepts not only positive matters but also negative or sad sides and still remains happy. This is common in the Oceanian countries. And their happiness level is equal to Bhutan's or maybe higher. By working in the Oceanian countries, I strongly feel that sharing happy feelings with local people is the basis of international cooperation and the real purpose.

—— In May 2015, the 7th Pacific Islands Leaders Meeting [3] is planned to be held in Fukushima, Japan. It will be good to propose "Make them happy" international cooperation originating in Oceania. Thank you all for your time today.

PhotoA Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteer teaches math at an elementary school. They also provide cooperation to hold study class for local teachers (Palau).

PhotoA JOCV teaches children how to use an abacus.


  • [1] Agreed with the U.S. in 1980s when Micronesia, Marshall and Palau gained independence from the United Nations Trustee Council. The U.S. provides financial assistance, and the countries delegate national defense and security guarantee to the U.S. In 2003 they signed a renewed COFA, which came into effect in May 2004. For 20 years until 2023 the U.S will continue to provide financial assistance.
  • [2] A system that combines natural energy such as solar power to provide stable electric power according to demand.
  • [3] To aim for an enhanced relationship between Japan and the Pacific island countries, the meeting is held every three years in Japan. It seeks solutions to various challenges of island countries through summit level discussions, participated in by 17 countries including Japan and the U.S.


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