HE reminds you of one or two of those tough characters in the popular Japanese and Chinese films of the early 80s, in which karate and kung fu were effortlessly expressed, to the admiration of young secondary school children in major cities, who flocked cinema houses every weekend to watch the films over and over again. His oval, no nonsense typically Japanese face, when he is not smiling, is sort of a deterrent to potential troublemakers.
But Mr. Toshitsugu Uesawa is not a karate or kung fu actor. He is the Japanese Ambassador to Nigeria, who, in an exclusive interview with The Guardian in Abuja last Tuesday, admitted that he has great respect and admiration for Nigerians. "I'm sort of an African Spe...t," he told the newspaper gleefully. "I have been to Tanzania where I spent a couple of years. I was also in Kenya for a couple of years. Africa is my second home."
Besides, Uesawa affirms Japan's commitment to helping Nigeria overcome poverty. This underscores his country's policy, which focuses on three major areas: Education, Water and Electricity. Between 1999 and 2008, the Japanese government spent N2.1 billion on Education, N3.5 billion on the provision of bore holes, and N6.1 billion on rural electrification in the country. This is part of the N622.5 billion expended on various projects since 1960.
However, next year tends to be very exciting for the education sector as Japan prepares to spend about $12 million on the expansion of radio networks to enhance distance education. Responding to a question on his country's interest in Nigeria's education sector, Uesawa said: "We are giving a lot of assistance to your country. But we believe that Nigeria can afford to support itself, because you have money. For example, there's oil money and so forth. So, what Japan should do is to give supplementary support to Nigeria in her efforts on development issues.
"We attach more importance to poverty reduction. One is Education, second is water, third is rural electrification. Those are the three important areas in terms of reaching the poor people in Nigeria, and all of them are aggregates of human resource development. However, education is one of the most important issues, not only for the sustenance of development, but also in the realization of a real democratic and fair society. In that area, our task has been to build schools. The Japanese motto is 'to take concrete action, rather than complaining of policy failure.' You have to take action. The victims are always the women and children. So our motto, that action should be taken, is most important. But in addition to building schools, education requires a complete, hands - on approach. It is all right to build schools, but what about the training of teachers? Providing technical assistance towards this is also very important. At the same time, if the poor children cannot go to school because of poverty, then poverty issues are also very important. Health issues are also important. After graduation, can students get jobs? So job creation is also important.
"I decided to start a new project, that is, to expand radio coverage. You know radio is very important. You have a huge country, and to reach every corner of the country, radio is a good weapon for Distance Education. We want to use this to expand the quality and quantity of education in Nigeria."
On the what the Japanese government plans to do for he country's education sector over the next five years, the ambassador stated: "I am determined to continue as we have done. We'll keep building schools. That's all. How to use the schools is up to you (Federal Government). Of course, we believe in the idea that education should be comprehensive and cross sectoral. We may add some technical cooperation, and we will also pursue the radio expansion project to enhance distance education to the tune of $12million. But we want to continue building schools, until we see a smile on every poor child. We have so far built 600 classrooms."
Japan is renowned for its technology, which is rooted in science, and Uesawa explains why. "Science is very important, in particular for industrialization," he affirmed. "But it has to start when children are still very small, in the primary school. Science is very important in Japan. Here in Nigeria, we have just recently started the technical cooperation for the enhancement of science education. It is a design for developing countries. For example, you know that for the science subjects, you have to carry out experiments. But many teachers say, 'we don't have the tools.' But what we suggested is that, they can still use what they have, like paper, which could be used for measurement. You can show air pressure to children, something like that."
On how the embassy monitors its projects in Nigeria, the ambassador said: "We are very strict because we have to send a report back to the Japanese Auditors. Before deciding to take up a project, we have to go through the project document, and then at least once, we send an officer to the site to see and evaluate the needs of the project as well as the operations of the project's management. And during implementation, we send our officers for inspection at least twice. And after the completion of the project, maybe a couple of years after, we still go to see how the project evaluation is going on. Maybe the NGOs (Non Governmental Organizations) could get fed up with this process, but that is the way Japan operates. They have to accept this, otherwise we cannot be given anything."
Although, the ambassador declared that the Japanese government works directly with some Nigerian NGOs, the major mode of operation is to work with the federal government. "Our system is government to government," he noted. "So, our counter part is the federal government. When it comes to project planning, we have to think about the population, the importance, and so forth. We hold consultation with the federal government as well as the provinces." However, the embassy gives what he described as "small scale grant assistance" directly to the NGOs. "We have no intention of bypassing the government," he added quickly, "but sometimes, direct contact is very important. Again, building of schools is a very important area of the small-scale grants. Almost 40 per cent of the small scale grants is for education, and it's just $1.7 million."
Asked if the Japanese government would like to encourage the introduction of Japanese language into Nigeria's school system as the French government had done, Uesawa nodded, then said, "education is a part of culture. My government does not intend to pursue the introduction of Japanese language in Nigeria. We don't like to over ride in that manner. You can refer to the American system of education as a model, you may refer to the Japanese model, you may refer to the French model, but you should not copy. You have to create your own education system, based on your culture. That's our motto, so, we don't like to force you to learn Japanese language for the sake of learning Japanese technology or something like that."
On the level of trade between Nigeria and Japan, the ambassador averred that what both Nigerian and Japanese governments could do would not be as much as what the private sectors of both countries could do together.
His words: "The Japanese business men have very keen interest in investing and expanding their businesses in Nigeria. The natural gas is a very promising area. You have abundant natural gas, and Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) is in popular demand worldwide. If you have abundant natural gas, Japan also has world-class technology. So, Nigeria and Japan can shake hands and make a lot profit from this, for the people themselves. This is a very promising one.
"Also, in the long run, Nigeria has a huge population, and this means a huge market, and huge market means that Nigeria could be a centre of excellence. Automobile manufacturing is also very promising. So far, Toyota Nigeria Company is importing cars from Japan into Nigeria. But in the long run, there could be the possibility to build a car factory here. But it takes time. Once it comes to business, we have to carefully look at the volume of sales here in Nigeria, which is not so high, at least not enough for the establishment of a car factory."
On how difficult it is for Nigerians to obtain Japanese visa, the ambassador said that Nigerians with genuine documents and intentions need not entertain any fear. "For Nigerians who want to go to Japan," he said, "I don't think it's difficult. But if you feel it's difficult, then there must have some difficulty about you (general laughter). But Frankly speaking, I always give instruction to my officers that, you don't have to be too strict. Just relax. You only need to follow the formality. We have a process. Our officers are very rational and swift. If the documents are correct, then it's easy for you to get the visa. But we have issued very limited students' visas. You know we have the language problem. However, we have one Japanese student studying at the University of Jos. Very few Nigerian students study in Japan, and about 100 Japanese nationals are living in Nigeria. But I think the number will increase, if security is guaranteed here in Abuja and other places. Once there is security, one businessman can come in with his entire family."