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By Kit Pancoast Nagamura
(The Internationalist Spring 2014 Vol. 52)
When asked if he ever misbehaved during his elementary years at Nishimachi International School, Kenro Oshidari (class of 1970) admits to forgetting to bring his lunch. Several times, in fact. Then as now, parents were not allowed to swoop in and deliver the forgotten lunch; instead, classmates were expected to donate portions of their own repast to the student in need. "It was great," Oshidari says, with a guilty grin, "because you'd get all this international stuff, like pizza—unique back then because there were no pizzerias in Tokyo—and tonkatsu (pork cutlet), and some kids, like Mark Melnick (class of 1970) even brought caviar sandwiches."
Perhaps memories of this lunch-sharing generosity led Oshidari to his calling with the United Nations World Food Programme. As the Regional Director for Asia, his primary mandate is to supply food to those in dire need, modeling the selfless altruism he once took for granted at Nishimachi International School.
Visiting Japan rarely, and only for brief stints, Oshidari nonetheless has agreed to meet me in the lobby of the International House of Japan in Roppongi. Nervous about squandering his time, I move us swiftly to an interview room. Oshidari, however, clad in seersucker shirt and jeans, seems unrushed and affable, and puts me instantly at ease. His sharp wit, composure, and self-effacing manner make it easy to see how he rose in the ranks of the UN.
Oshidari's California-raised Japanese-American father came to Tokyo after graduating college, and married a local Japanese woman. "I was born here," Oshidari says "and that's what put me into Nishimachi. My parents wanted me to be able to speak English."
Following his time at Nishimachi, Oshidari attended St. Joseph's in Yokohama, and then the American School in Japan. Though he gleaned experience from each, he fondly recalls Nishimachi as "a wonderful school." When asked to elaborate, Oshidari says, "Nishimachi is so much like a family. Even now, 50 years later, I still see my NIS friends. I think most of us would say it was a very special place." Oshidari then regales me with tales of sneaking out at recess time to go "crayfishing" in Gamaike, a neighborhood pond officially closed to the public. I wonder aloud if lunchbox disobedience and stolen moments in nature led Oshidari to his globetrotting career.
Oshidari quickly parries that, at least at first, his path to the UN was guided more by chance than anything else. As a parent of a teenager, I find his admission comforting to hear. Oshidari completed his BA at the University of the Pacific, then started a Master's degree at Vermont's School for International Training (SIT). At SIT, a highly selective program, Oshidari encountered veterans of the Peace Corps and other volunteer organizations; people who may well have subconsciously directed his trajectory. But once his course work was done, Oshidari returned to San Francisco, where he roomed with friends from Nishimachi International School, and landed a part-time job as a driver for the Japanese Consulate. From there, things accelerated, as it were.
Oshidari's bilingual skills did not go un-noticed, and he floated from the consul section, dealing with passports and visas, to the nitty-gritty consul work of handling accidents, deaths, and arrests of Japanese citizens. Oshidari's skills were such it was suggested that he look into taking a job as proper hire for the gaimusho (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) in the late 1970s. "But I wasn't too interested in that," Oshidari says, "it's just too bureaucratic, plus my master's thesis focused on the gap between officers who came from Japan and people like me who were locally hired. The difference between entitlements, pay, and everything else is huge."
A visitor simply passing through the consul on his way to the UN in New York changed everything for Oshidari. The official mentioned to the consul staff that the UN was scouting for Japanese bilinguals who held at least a Master's degree. Someone mentioned Oshidari's name. "Right after he approached me, I quickly finished my MA," Oshidari laughs, "and I went for an interview at the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme). In those days, you couldn't check on a website to see what the place was all about, so I had no idea what was in store. In the HR office, I quickly took a pamphlet and tried to read up on it."
Returning to San Francisco, Oshidari found himself, at 24 years of age, in limbo, with neither green card nor citizenship to guarantee his presence in the states. "It was mentally a very difficult time, and I had to try to figure out what I was going to do," he says. "So, when I got a call from the UNDP asking if I would be willing to go to Libya, I said 'Yes!' without even knowing where in the world Libya was!"
Oshidari worked with the UNDP for two years in the Junior Professional Officer system, funding agricultural and industrial projects in North Africa. "It was lots of deskwork; interesting, but not all that exciting," Oshidari comments dourly, giving me a clue to his character. From there, he applied to other UN agencies, and chose a position with Habitat in Nairobi, where he stayed for 6.5 years managing projects in Asia and Latin America. "I was already in Africa," Oshidari explains, "and I loved living in Nairobi. The nature is amazing. You could drive 20 minutes from the office and see giraffes and lions, with no fences. I went very often, once a week at least. Also, the weather is perfect—no heating required all year round. It's heavenly, but the crime these days is very bad, so you have to be careful."
Much as he loved working on socially and environmentally stable housing projects from Nairobi, where he married and fathered two children, Oshidari once again found himself stuck behind a desk. He squirms in his chair as he points out that he was looking for humanitarian work with more immediacy. "I want to see what I'm doing," he says, "so I moved to the World Food Programme. To feed people, to help hungry people, is a very clear mandate. If people are food insecure, they are not able to invest their time into any kind of development activities themselves. If you don't have proper nutrition, you won't get out of poverty. It's basic, and work-wise, it's tangible—you actually see the people you give the food to, and you're in contact with them."
By 1989, Oshidari was in Zambia, then by 1990 had moved to Lesotho. While there, Bosnian war created dire circumstances for refugees in Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, etc., and Oshidari saw his chance to get out from behind the desk. He volunteered for six months, and found himself in Zagreb. "Zagreb wasn't that dangerous," he admits, "but from time to time, I had to go to Sarajevo, and it was under daily mortar shelling. Literally, I slept in a bulletproof vest and helmet behind sandbags. We would drive out in white UN vans. Nowadays, those are bulletproof, but in those days, they were not! There were snipers and shootings all over the place—even driving there was scary, because bulletproof vests don't protect everything on your body."
At this point, I came up with the typical parental question: weren't his parents worried about him, moving from country to country, zipping in and out of war zones? Oshidari smiles. "My dad always told me I should consider myself as born on this earth, not necessarily in Japan," he says. Then, he produces with a flourish a small bright red booklet, the coveted United Nations Laissez-Passer passport, of which there are only just over 35,000 in the world. "The picture is really bad," he says, laughing, "but when I got this, I thought I am doing exactly what my father said to do."
Something about Zagreb seems to have galvanized Oshidari. He returned to Lesotho, only to pack up for Cambodia. His wife and sons, one of whom required special medical care, returned to Japan, as Oshidari set up in Phnom Penh to help the country recover from post-Khmer Rouge atrocities and guerilla warfare. "It was a mess," Oshidari recalls. Oshidari did not meet the Krishers (founders of World Assistance for Cambodia, and facilitator for Nishimachi International School's building of Kirivorn School) but he was close to all the staff at the Cambodia Daily (founded by Bernard Krisher in 1993).
From there, Oshidari moved to offices in Rome, where he tried on all sorts of hats, including even HR, circulating through positions which must have given him a sense of the entire scope of WFP operations.
Then, the Kosovo War broke out in 1999, generating serious and immediate need for assistance. Oshidari was given one weekend to assemble a functional team willing to depart for Kosovo over the Easter holidays. It took him all night on the phone, and once he had 30 volunteers, his boss said, "Good, but you don't have anybody senior to lead them..." Oshidari filled in the ellipses, heading up the Macedonian team himself. Unable to enter Kosovo at first, Oshidari helped refugees on the outskirts. By June, the war had largely ended, so Oshidari moved his combined Macedonian and Albanian teams into the city. "I had no office, nothing. I slept on top of the UN truck, on bags of wheat flour. We set up seven offices in no time. I told my staff, 'take this organigram I drew up, and these stickers, and if you find anything that looks like a good office space and warehouse, slap the stickers on. We also hired 500 people in one week. Basically we said, 'If you speak English, you're hired.' "
Around him, Serbian soldiers were torching cars and buildings, and someone even tossed a grenade into the house Oshidari had occupied. "I wasn't there," he says, his eyes wide, "but it blew out all the window and doors."
Oshidari managed to keep in touch with his family through the UN's advanced communications systems, and he was able to visit them in Rome once a month or so. But what was supposed to be a three-month mission in Kosovo ended up saddling Oshidari with full charge of the entire Balkans for a year and a half. "After that," he admits, "during which I did a good job, and kept the reputation of the WFP up, I was given a choice of what to do next." And Oshidari felt it was finally time to come back to Asia.
Oshidari chose to be the Deputy Regional Director of Asia, stationed in Bangkok, for 5.5 years. From there, he went to the Sudan, the biggest WFP operation in the world. "In Sudan, I had a staff of 3,000, from 77 nationalities, with 33 offices, 12 airplanes and six helicopters. It was like running an airline company. It was a huge operation, and an honor to do that, to lead a quarter of the entire staff of the WFP."
How does one prepare for that kind of responsibility, I ask Oshidari. "When you grow up in a community like Nishimachi International School, it's natural to be with different nationalities, working and partying together. Nishimachi gave me that." The word "partying" makes my ears perk up, and it occurs to me it would be fun to work for Oshidari. "Fifty percent of my job is keeping a happy, cohesive team," he admits. "With that, you can do anything." Oshidari has one approach that he feels accounts for the loyalty of those who work with him. "I represent my staff well, and get their views across to people above me. You shouldn't work to please the people above you—that doesn't work—you have to please the people below you."
We discuss Oshidari's territory, and the widely held misconception that Asia has few food shortages. "Food stability is all about access," he points out. "Look at India, for example, which has millions of tons of surplus, yet also has the largest number of malnourished and hungry people. We don't need to bring in food there, we just need to help them set up their own social 'safety net' programs so that people don't starve. But if we're talking about Afghanistan, which has conflict and is underdeveloped, this is a country where we have to bring in a huge amount of food and provide assistance."
Asia presents many unique challenges to Oshidari's skills. Afghanistan, currently the most dangerous posting, has him constantly concerned for the safety of his 500 staff members. Pakistan is risky, too. In the case of North Korea, where WFP has offices, the issue is more about securing money. "Donors decide on political grounds instead of humanitarian grounds," he says grimly.
The one thing that really makes Oshidari angry, and fuels his mandate with WFP is "unfairness." He sees it everywhere, and he thinks others really should, too. "We have 860 million people right now who cannot access the food that is available in the market, and that's a poverty issue." Oshidari explains that the WFP maintains there is enough food produced on earth to feed the entire human population, but that profound unfairness prevents this from happening. He underlines how insidious the situation can be. "The first 1,000 days of a child's life, from the mother's pregnancy to the baby's second birthday are crucial," he explains, "because without proper nutrition during that time, the intellectual and physical growth of the child is forever damaged. You can't fix it after that time; stunting occurs," Oshidari says, citing figures in East Timor where one of every two children is stunted, and North Korea, where one out of three suffers. "This, of course, affects the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of a country." It's a vicious cycle, and one that Oshidari hopes to interrupt. The WFP is dedicated, he says, not just to handing out food, but working on long-term goals, assisting with nutritional supplements, school lunches, and incentives for mothers to stop by clinics to pick up food, and while there, get care too.
When I ask how people can assist the World Food Programme, Oshidari immediately points out that the WFP is a tax-funded organization. "It's your money, so if you have an interest, you could influence the government's decisions on how they spend that money. Find the problems and then work on aid policy."
Does Japan have specific issues that he would like to see changed, I ask. Oshidari nods. "Japan wastes 8 million tons of food a year. This is bigger than our entire food assistance that we give the world each year. Imagine a pick-up truck, a one-ton truck, now imagine 800 million of them, full of food, wasted." One policy that contributes to this waste is Japan's law of one-thirds, Oshidari elaborates. If a can of food, let's say tomato soup, has a one-year "best eaten by" date, once the can is more than one-third (four months) old, it will never even be put on the grocery store shelf. Furthermore, if it has been on the shelf, but hits the two-thirds mark (eight months), it is taken off the shelf and tossed, even though that soup still has four months left on its optimum consumption date. "This policy wastes perfectly edible food, incredibly!"
With the afternoon deepening, and once we've chatted about Oshidari's hobby of playing the double bass in performances once every month or so, I ask if there is one last thought he'd like to share with the Nishimachi International School community. "Remember that food security is a prerequisite for peace," he says. Now there is a serving of something to chew on.