Following his special lecture at APU, the former UN Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, Mr. AKASAKA Kiyotaka, sat down with three members of the SPA team for an interview and talked candidly about his experiences working at international organizations around the world. Just how did he reach such a high level of foreign language proficiency? How has this experience changed his outlook on the world? How can APU students follow in his footsteps? Read his answers to find out more!
What is a good way to study foreign languages?
I have found that the best way is to keep studying throughout your life – consider language learning as a life-long endeavor.
I was working in an international environment for more than 30 years, but I am still studying English, French and other languages. For example, in the morning I read newspapers in English and watch the BBC, CNN and so on. I am still a learner.
Based on my experiences, I would like to say that even native speakers make mistakes in their own language – nobody can really speak the language perfectly. So please do not hesitate to speak in a foreign language – everyone makes mistakes!
My advice for people who are trying to improve their non-native language is that learning a foreign language is not temporary – it is a life long challenge, so even if you feel that you are not making progress, please don’t stop! Just carry on!
Why did you get into international politics?
I joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs because I wanted to see the world. I was born in a small village in Osaka and as I wanted to shift myself from there to big cities like Tokyo and to the world, working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was a good option. I was placed in the Geneva headquarters of GATT (the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade - forerunner of the World Trade Organization), and I found working in an international organization to be very stimulating. I didn't really have a grand dream for my political career, except that one day I would speak in front of the UN General Assembly in New York, which I achieved thirty years after I graduated from university.
How has working in international organizations affected your world view?
I worked in the trade sector for several years and realized how important trading is for the world. Later I worked in environmental issues and I became an ecologist. Then I worked in development issues, and realized the importance of sustainable development. I learned many things while working in international organizations, and at one point came to think like an American. However, in the end, I tend to shift to the European way of thinking. Instead of having the American dream of a big house and great wealth, I wish for sustainability, a good environment and traveling with my family. I also longed for spiritual peace.
Did you get what you expect from working in international organizations?
I learned so many lessons from books. There was a Japanese politician who said in his seventies that, "everything I have been doing for the past sixty-four years is the preparation for what I will do tomorrow, and in the end, I might be preparing for my death." Some people said that people rise during their twenties and by their forties people reach their peak and begin to slow down. I don't believe in that. For me, everything that I have been doing is just preparation for what I will do tomorrow.
The nature of your career requires you to be on the go the entire time, so how Japanese are you?
At a young age, at around 24 or 25, I travelled overseas for the first time. I went to England and stayed there for four years without coming back. When I came back in 1976, I found it very difficult to readjust myself to Japan, so I wanted to go back at any cost, seriously. Gradually I regained my “Japanese-ness”. After having experienced coming and going from Japan and overseas many times, my ability to adjust to a different place has improved enormously. I have come to realize that everybody is the same. I know I’m very much internationalized. Still, I always think I haven’t done enough for my relatives back in Osaka. People watching me may say “Mr. Akasaka, you’re not a good Japanese!”, so before I die, I’ll do something for my ancestors’ tombs in Osaka.
What should you pay the most attention to when working for international organizations?
Working for international organizations means you’ve got to restrain yourself. Unlike how you deal with anger in your own nation, you can’t express the anger or dissatisfaction in your own words at international organizations. While working in your office at an international organization, you consciously or subconsciously restrain your emotions. In international organizations, there are quite strict rules – rules and practices you’ve got to follow, otherwise, there could be internal disputes. If you use dirty words, behave badly, or harass others, often you will end up with internal disputes and people could even sue you. The internal justice system is very well-established right now, in the UN in particular.
Do you have a message to APU students who are having this international experience at APU at a very young age?
I’ve been telling young people that when you are young, it’s good to think about a mission for your life – what you are living for and what you’ll be working for. That life-long mission, if you can establish it when you are young, will play an important role. You know, I often refer to the words of Steve Jobs and how he talked about “Connecting the dots”. You cannot connect the dots right now, so you may fail here and there, but whatever you do will be connected later on. Whatever you do is the preparation for what you are going to do tomorrow, so keep going. I wish you all the best.
Related Link: Special Lecture by Mr. AKASAKA Kiyotaka, former UN Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information: