Braving Conflict Abroad to Support Emerging Markets for a Better Future

By W. Tanner Kirk | With Tomohiro Kuwabara
Posted: December 31st, 2021
Kokorozashi & Career Development

It’s Friday afternoon. You’re just finishing up your work for the day and already looking forward to the weekend. The radio suddenly crackles beside you—an incoming message from a colleague in the field.

A frantic voice calls out to you. Followed by gunshots.

This might sound like the opening sequence to a Hollywood film, but for Tomohiro Kuwabara, it really happened—in fact, it’s what he signed up for.

While traveling the Middle East during college, Kuwabara, now a deputy director of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), discovered his personal mission to support emerging markets in some of the world’s most turbulent environments. War, famine, and failing infrastructure were just a few obstacles he would face.

We spoke to him about how he turns career challenges, a passion for education, and even a GLOBIS MBA into meaningful global impact.

Mr. Tomohiro Kuwabara and Ms. Sadako Ogata
Mr. Tomohiro Kuwabara and Ms. Sadako Ogata

Learning Trust from a Military Coup

Insights: You’ve had some harrowing experiences in your career with JICA. Could you tell us about that?

Kuwabara: Absolutely. After five years of working in JICA’s Tokyo office, I had just taken my first foreign assignment in South Sudan. At around 5:00pm on Friday, July 8, 2016, I received a frantic message from a consultant over the radio reporting that they were hearing “gunshot-like sounds.” The next thing I knew, gunfire was roaring into my ears.

That was the beginning of large-scale conflict between the government of South Sudan and its opposition. It broke out suddenly and simultaneously in the center of Juba, the capital. Local mobile networks went down. The only evacuation route, Juba Airport, was quickly closed. Our office didn’t have much: just two bullet-proof vehicles, satellite phones, radios, and a few (unarmed) guards.

Over the next five days, under the supervision of our director, my five colleagues and I worked to ensure the safety of the ninety JICA-contracted personnel scattered across the country.

Insights: That sounds terrifying. Did the experience impact your desire to work overseas?

Kuwabara: It was indeed terrifying. Our vehicle was shot as we made our escape. It was a close call–but we survived thanks to the quick thinking of my security advisor.

After that, I did decide to relocate and be with my wife, who also works for JICA. I took a year off to join her in Bolivia, where she was assigned. I actually completed about half of my GLOBIS MBA during that time.

That said, I never considered leaving JICA because I always knew these things could happen. Even right before my assignment, some of my colleagues evacuated South Sudan due to violence. But I wanted to work in the most challenging overseas JICA office, and that was South Sudan.

Insights: What did you take away from that experience?

Kuwabara: The importance of trusting people with their boots on the ground. In a life-threatening emergency, what we really needed was trust and encouragement from Tokyo—but we couldn’t get that. In that moment, there was nothing management could do except trust their people.

And everything turned out all right because they did just that.

Students from South Sudan after arriving in Japan
Students from South Sudan after arriving in Japan.

Building Bridges of Trust

Insights: Did you always envision yourself working with emerging markets?

Kuwabara: Yes, I’ve always dreamt of working in the realm of international development. There are two major reasons.

First, I’m passionate about assisting emerging markets around the world that are affected by complex issues like hunger, poverty, conflict, or inequality.

Second, I was inspired by Ms. Sadako Ogata, the eight high commissioner for refugees in UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. I first discovered her work while I was traveling throughout the Middle East in college. After I read her book, she quickly became my role model. She has made great humanitarian contributions, and it’s thanks to her that I’m now working at JICA myself.

Insights: Can you give us a rundown on the work you’re doing now?

Kuwabara: I’m back in Tokyo, working on building partnerships with Japanese firms to make an impact on emerging countries. More specifically, with JICA, I help companies conduct feasibility studies in target markets to enhance the product-market-fit.


 


Insights: Can you give us an example?

Kuwabara: Sure. One of my clients is Aster, a startup founded by Tokyo University alumni. They invented an earthquake-resistant paint called Power Coating with the goal to build a safer world against natural disasters.

Aster’s target market, the Philippines, is susceptible to catastrophic earthquakes, and many buildings are formed with masonry construction. So clearly, the need for this product is quite high. But neither the effectiveness of Power Coating nor its verification by Tokyo University research was enough to gain the trust of the target customer: the Philippine government.

This is where we come in. We, of course, provide financial support—but we’re also able to leverage JICA’s reputation. Emerging markets know us, so we can help garner trust and encourage cooperation between Japanese businesses and government bodies.

Finding Purpose in a Turbulent World

Insights: How did you get from being one of those “boots on the ground” in Africa to your current role?

Kuwabara: One day in Tokyo in May 2017, after I evacuated from South Sudan, my supervisor told me, “Ms. Sadako Ogata is worried about the situation in South Sudan and wants to hear stories from younger staff. Can you do it?”

I accepted the offer immediately and presented what I’d witnessed. Afterward, she said something that really stuck with me: “To do something meaningful, organizations need to understand the changing times. If they can’t do that, they are unnecessary.”

To me, it seemed she was not only talking about organizations, but also about individuals. I asked myself, “Am I aware of changes in society?” I felt like she’d given me a gentle push and encouraged me to get out of my comfort zone. From there, I pivoted my career direction to public-private partnerships. And for that, I decided I needed an MBA.

Insights: What were your goals while studying at GLOBIS?

Kuwabara: GLOBIS was absolutely the right choice for my new career journey. There were three main reasons.

First, I wanted to get a generalized experience and learn how the private sector designs a business from scratch.

Second, I wanted to equip myself with the ability to create something from zero. While I wasn’t sure exactly what that would be, I knew I wanted to work on my own passion project. I didn’t want to continue working for someone else.

Finally, I wanted to boil down my long-term goals into one clear vision.

Insights: And were you able to achieve those goals?

Kuwabara: The experience at GLOBIS was just what I expected. Ultimately, my business plans did not change. It is now up to me whether I apply what I gained.

Jump to...