Interview: Japan International Cooperation Agency’s (JICA) new Chief Representative, Koji Yamada, a Sustainable Development Goals specialist. Kuensel’s Tshering Palden asks him about his priorities, programmes, and views about his new posting. 

Could you tell us something about your past?

Koji Yamada: This is my 23rd year in JICA. I am very delighted to be here after working in two other countries in the region, Nepal and India.

I worked at the JICA research institute as a senior researcher for 3 years. I then served at JICA’s operations strategy department.

I observed the development of sustainable development goals and the outcomes. After that, my job was to mainstream the SDGs in the JICA’s operations. I conducted training for several months on SDGs and their implications on JICA’s operations for JICA staff before I was posted here.

What are your impressions of the country?

Koji Yamada: After arriving in Bhutan, I heard a lot about the Bhutanese government’s engagement in mainstreaming the SDGs in its policies. While many countries are still in initial stage of mainstreaming the SDGs into the development policies, Bhutan government has already made it. I want to share Bhutan’s success story and the best practices in mainstreaming SDGs with the rest of the JICA offices across the world.

This is my third visit to Bhutan. I visited twice in 2007. I am surprised by the number of building constructions taking place in the capital. I hear that a lot of people are now coming to the capital from the rest of the country. So that makes me wonder what is the situation in the remote areas.

Japan has experienced migration issues since 1960s through to 1980s.  I moved to major cities for education and then employment. My father is a rice farmer and even at the age of more than eighty, thanks to highly mechanised agriculture, he continues to work in the fields.

I fully agree with the Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay’s views on agriculture mechanisation. I believe that it would definitely increase agriculture productivity in the rural areas.

The cooperation between Japan and Bhutan has expanded from agriculture to hydromet, disaster management, health and infrastructure. What further cooperation areas do you see?

Koji Yamada: I respect the initiatives of my predecessors. Agriculture is still important. Communications network such as bridge construction or telecommunication network are still important for this country. If I may add flavour to JICA programmes, employment opportunities or ways to create jobs both in capital city and rural areas would be interesting. Even in Japan, in the 1960s, farmers did not just do farming. While they were idle from farm works, they would go to nearby factories to compliment income from their farming activities. So in order to control rural urban migration, we should create some job opportunities in the rural areas besides farming.

Of course, Bhutan has geographical disadvantages. Still, we can think of ways to overcome these disadvantages. If we can ensure internet access in rural areas, some innovative youth can think of starting business there. How can we do that or create the enabling environment for them in the rural areas? That is what I would like to think about during my tenure here.

We have already launched a catalogue of products with the Department of Cottage and Small Industry. This is to give hands-on experience to tourists on the production side. This type of producer-consumer communication will help enhance the quality of products. If there is internet connection, that type of exchange is possible, and producers can understand what consumers want.

Japan had plans to establish a Japanese Embassy in Bhutan. What are the advantages? How much priority would you give to that? 

Koji Yamada: There was once an intense discussion about the establishment of a Japanese Embassy. Later both countries decided to keep it at status quo. So I have no idea.

The government is emphasising so much on clean energy, including electric cars. Do you see any opportunity for further assistance in this sector?

Koji Yamada: It is all up to the interest of the private sector. I have seen a lot of Nissan electric vehicles. This is also one of the big changes that I have observed after I arrived here.  In order to popularise the EVs, as far as I understand, there are two conditions. One is the interest of the major motor companies that depend on the market potential of the country. The second is the affordability of the consumers. It is entirely up to the policies of the Bhutanese government and affordability of the consumers. So, as a government agency working for the public interest, it is a bit difficult to intervene in the interest of the private sector. We have supported the establishment of four quick charging stations. Market expansion is up to the interest of the private sector and consumers.

The government has requested for 1,450 power tillers to be distributed across the country. There was a verification team from Japan in Bhutan earlier. Has the number been decided? 

Koji Yamada: Not finalised yet. A Japanese mission is coming on May 8.  It will discuss with the government and decide on the final number to be provided as a grant aid.

The agriculture ministry is expecting 400 power tillers under a Japanese grant. As you said, a team from Japan is expected in Bhutan for the finalising of the agreement on May 8. What kind of agreement should we expect? 

Koji Yamada: Yes, that’s part of the 1400 power tillers requested by the Bhutan government. We received the request for the power tillers and the mission will conduct a study. We cannot give you the exact number yet. Sometimes it is very difficult to convince the Japanese about the needs of the Bhutanese government. Once they come here and see the situation they understand that the country has very good absorptive capacity to use the assistance provided by the Japanese government and the taxpayers. For example, we have heard a lot about late Dasho Keiji Nishioka but we have no written material or documents to show what has happened since the sudden demise of Dasho Keiji Nishioka in 1992.

So during my tenure, we want to write a book about the history of our cooperation  in agriculture development.