Halfway point

Some 27 eager twenty and thirty-somethings showed up at 9:30 on the first day of their weekend to learn more about leadership. This is one among other sets of skills and knowledge that the Japanese government considers important for a future career in the UN. The Japanese have a similar arrangement that the Dutch (and many other European governments) have with the UN to provide its civil servants. It is what brought my co-facilitator to Hong Kong and then New York, my ex to Lebanon and Yemen and me to Senegal. The Japanese are more intentional about this recruitment process than the Dutch were at the time.

We asked everyone, by way of introduction, to share their dreams (“where do you want to be in 10 years?”) and the answers were moving and inspiring. Although many did not know how to get there, they did know what would give their life meaning: environmental action, education, peace work, a maternity ward in Rwanda…some were very specific others following a vague hunch.

During the morning sessions we talked about how to create open dialogue, what competencies MSH expects from its project leaders and they assessed themselves against these standards. This provided them with some form of guidance for self-development and the host organization with some data on what other kinds of professional development they might want to propose to the government.

In the afternoon, to experience leadership in action, we entered everyone in a fictitious organization with tops, middles and bottoms (workers) to produce messages for the population of a fictitious country on emergency preparedness. The workers were asked to write slogans on how to prepare for weather calamities, earthquakes, radiation and chemical spills, terrorism and epidemics. None of those are farfetched for the Japanese of course. Although in real life most of the participants are at the lower end of the hierarchy, several of them got to experience the stresses and pressures of those above them. For many it was an eye opener that also created much energy and hilarity during the dead hours of after-lunch.

These workshops are not of the kind I am used to where donors pay for travel and lunch and people hold their hands out, obsessing about getting their money. Here people pay to attend and bring their lunch and sacrifice their entire weekend – it is all so very refreshing.

Tokyo is full of convenience stores (Seven-Elevens, Family Marts), I think I have seen one one about every 100 meters. Imagine getting your bento box at the corner shop. They even heat your meal and, if you spend more than 500 Yen you get to draw a chance ticket for a prize. None of us won – our tickets said ‘Challenge Next Time’.

During the afternoon my colleague, who is a teacher of some sort of stress reducing and limbering up exercise regime, got everyone to do just that – an important enrichment of the very long program of the day (9:30-5:30), creating both release and some good laughs.

After the work of the day was done we went to an eating establishment where, several years ago, when Axel had accompanied me, we had enjoyed a stupendous meal. It is a restaurant that is also a pottery shop, serving all its dishes and drinks in or on exquisitely turned and infinitely varied earthenware. At the time we had bought fern-shaped stirrers which have all broken since – unfortunately a discontinued line.

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The restaurant was empty except for us. It is located in a office district in town so its usual clientele had gone home. The owner and her mom treated us as if we were visiting dignitaries, pulling out all the stops. One dainty dish after another, each presented as artfully as food can be presented, was put in front of us after unintelligible consultation between my colleague and the owner.

We started with a tiny lump of a soft cow’s cheese sitting in some savory sauce and decorated with a green dot and a tiny yellow petal. Then came the sashimi from mackerel and bream, served on shredded dakon and carrot and a chrysanthemum leave. This was followed by roasted taro root and soycakes, small fried anchovies on roasted onions and tiny slices of marinated chicken sashimi. The meal was concluded with fragrant rice dotted with black sesame seeds and tiny slivers of salted somethings and miso soup. Just as in Afghanistan, hot tea signaled the end of the meal.

The meal was accompanied by a glass of cool draft to soothe our facilitator throats followed by Sake served, of course, in lovely pottery flask and tiny hand turned cups. We had to actively resist the efforts by the owner’s mom to have us try other great types of Sake though she did succeed in signing my colleague up for some sort of Sake-tasting event in the future.

In Japan it is not proper to fill your own glass or cup as this would indicate that one’s host or table mate is not paying attention. If you don’t watch out you can get drunk easily because your glass never empties no matter how much you drink. And so we filled each other’s cups, me grateful that the flask and cups were tiny.

We are at the halfway point of the workshop and I am only one day away from my departure. It is hard to believe that in a few hours I can already check in online for my return flight.

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November 2011
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