Where Are They Now? Vol. 5
“Where Are They Now?” is a series about TMU alumni that explores the relationship between studying and life as a student, TMU experiences, and their current work.
After graduating from the TMU Faculty of Urban Environmental Sciences Department of Geographical and Environmental Studies, Ito earned an MS from the Graduate School of Urban Environmental Science Graduate Department of Science (Geology). He then joined the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in 2017, working at the organization’s headquarters before being stationed in the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. He is also a staff member of the Japanese Albinism Network.
A Desire to Disaster Risk Reduction in Developing Countries through Disaster Prevention and Infrastructure Development
What was your time as a student like?
Having been influenced by Kotaro Sawaki’s “Midnight Express” in high school, I longed to backpack around the world alone. As a student, I used the money I saved up working part-time jobs to travel around Asia and Europe during long breaks from school. While abroad, I would often use university cafeterias to save money. Just walking around the campuses allowed me to experience a different atmosphere from that of Japanese universities. This gave me an expectation that staying longer at these places by studying abroad would allow me to broaden my perspectives on things like my field of study and my lifestyle. It gave me a great curiosity to see new things. In terms of my studies, I enrolled in the Department of Geographical and Environmental Studies at the Faculty of Urban Environmental Sciences, where I joined a laboratory focused on the study of geomorphology and geology. There, I mainly studied the evolution of river landforms and its system in Japan. In my third year as an undergraduate, I began searching hard for a job working in disaster prevention. However, I was born with albinism, a genetic disorder that causes low melanin levels. It was frustrating to see companies react negatively to my appearance during job interviews. Since then, my goal has been to enhance my expertise and abilities to an extent that people would genuinely want to work with me, regardless of my albinism and low vision. This is why I entered the TMU graduate school. During my time as a graduate student, I studied at Umeå University in Sweden in order to learn about geography from a perspective and in a research environment different than that of Japan.
So, you harnessed your frustration into motivation.
While studying abroad, I began to develop an interest in working abroad in disaster prevention or infrastructure development. After studying abroad, I used a long break to do an internship at Albino Peacemaker, an albinism support organization in Tanzania. While it was a refreshing experience to visit a developing country for the first time, I was also keenly aware of how big natural disasters can become in developing countries because of their underdeveloped infrastructures. This inspired me to pursue a career that would allow me to use my expertise to contribute to developing countries. This is why I joined the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). I am currently posted in Bangladesh.
Tell us more about the specifics of your work.
Working with the Bangladeshi ministries in charge of disaster risk reduction and climate change, we engage in policy level discussions of what projects Japan and Bangladesh could undertake to help make the country more resilient to natural disasters and help it address climate change. I then help to formulate and implement these projects. My specific focus is on natural disaster prevention. This includes storm surge and flood countermeasures, as these disasters are particularly devastating in Bangladesh. It also includes making buildings safer from the risk of earthquakes. What I emphasize in my work is actually going out into the field in various places around the country. There, I gather firsthand accounts from stakeholders, which I then analyze by comparing them with similar cases in Japan and other countries. In my Geography and Environment undergraduate program, too, I went on field excursions, which are a method of learning by physically going into the field and using your intellect to analyze the situation. The underlying mindset is the same as for my current work, so this experience as a student has been helpful.
You are also continuing your work supporting people with albinism?
I belong to an interest group called the Japanese Albinism Network. When I was in Japan, I sometimes even spoke at our international conferences. As a person with albinism myself, I consider my albinism activism to be my life’s work. I hope to contribute to a society where people with albinism, especially younger people, can live without feeling the same anxiety and frustration I felt. I want as many of them as possible to see me proactively pursuing a career in international cooperation and trying to contribute to developing countries and society. I want young people with albinism to see me and think “I, too, can achieve my goals. I, too, can contribute to a society.” Only people like myself can show firsthand that people with albinism can have rewarding careers even with our various disadvantages.
Being directly involved in an issue makes you the most qualified person to do something about it. It’s not about “what even you can do,” it’s about “what only you can do.”
What are your goals for the future?
Bangladesh has enjoyed robust economic growth in recent years, even during the pandemic. It is now at a stage where it is aiming for a GDP (Gross Domestic Product) on par with that of Thailand and Malaysia. The Bangladeshi people have a powerful curiosity, and the more ambitious among them are proactively going abroad to study and work, full of determination to play an active role on the global stage. However, even the newly industrialized countries that Bangladesh looks toward as a goalpost face various challenges on their way towards growing into a developed country. Based on the examples of those countries, I would like to propose supports for Bangladesh that look a step ahead the future vision it has for itself. JICA has a wealth of information and resources in this area, since it operates in more than 100 countries. I hope to continuing to do work that contributes to the national interests and economic growth of both Japan and developing countries by combining Japanese knowledge with the needs of developing countries.
Is there a final message you would like to convey to current and future TMU students?
What I want to convey above all is the importance of actually going to the places and seeing the things you are interested in. I also want to convey the importance of thinking proactively and from the various perspectives of different stakeholders. Doing research and studying abroad as a university student is the first step in this direction. Also, occasionally daring to confront a difficult problem can sometimes reveal its true essence. Some of the knowledge and skills you need to solve a problem can be acquired after the fact. As the sayings go, “there’s no time like the present” and “I’d rather regret the things I’ve done than regret the things I haven’t done.” I hope that you will develop the dynamism it takes to “take the first plunge.” TMU is such a nice place that there is a tendency for the campus to start feeling a bit too comfortable. That said, there is a certain sense of security in having a place you can come back to. It is for that very reason that I hope you will actively leave the campus and do challenging things.