(Originally sent to Fukuzawa, ISSHO, and Friends Tue, 16 Jul 1996)

I was down in Fukuoka doing some intensive schooling this weekend, and happened upon a contingent of people riding the train that were way beyond the pale. I sat next to one gentleman, a Burmese, and quickly got caught up in a fascinating conversation about Japan and its relationship with the Third World (as these people referred to their countries). There was a Zairian across the aisle, a Bosnian sitting across from her, and a Sri Lankan keeping them company. The Burmese and I became fast friends, exchanged addresses, and met for dinner that night. He introduced me to his friends, and we all started talking business.


JICA (kokusai kyouryoku jigyou dan), short for "Japan International Cooperation Agency", is an organization which brings members from undeveloped and underdeveloped countries to study in Japan. Expenses paid.

I talked with a Ghanian, a Fijjian, and the Burmese about what was included in their deal and here's what they had to say:

1) You get flown to and from your home country for free. Business class. The Ghanian gentleman laughed at the fact that on British Airways he was the only black man in the section, and how people were looking at him as though he was the son of a prince.

2) You get put up in some real luxurious accommodations. I visited the JICA buildings in Yahata, Kitakyuushuu and Sapporo, and they are brand spanking new (in Sapporo's case, opened only in April of this year). In Yahata's case, it was built in an area where the telephone lines, which usually line the streets so unsightily, mysteriously get buried before they reach the manicured shrubbery. The front desk looks like a hotel reception and even says so. There is a cheap dining hall (paid for by special JICA card, which is settled upon departure, but the overseas govt, I was told, will pay), TV and billiards, and all sorts of amenities I didn't feel bold enough to snoop around and discover. This is a showcase dorm, giving people with a lower standard of living a higher of standard of living than even most Japanese. To top it off, residents apparently get their apartments (all singles) paid for by Monbushou.

3) You get a couple of weeks' crash course in Japanese language, history, culture, and business. I asked about this in detail, and the Ghanian noted that nowhere in the lesson about how Japan got rich was America's giving Japan preferential trade status mentioned. The point they learned was that Japan rebuilt solely through its own efforts and gosh, here we are and there you are. Typical.

4) You get three to four months of free lectures by profs in various institutions and in various degrees of fluency in English, not to mention tours of Japan and its facilities depending on students' technical specialties. The Ghanian and Fujiian were both dentists, and were visiting pharmaceutical centers and dentists' offices. (I did bite and ask them what they thought of Japanese dentistry. They didn't think the quality of Japanese dentists was all that great, but gee, they equipment that they use is. Herein lies the point I will get to later.)

I was listening to this over dinner and said, hey, wait, this is too good to be true. Where do I sign up? And here's what they told me about the requirements to participate:

"Generally, you must work for the govt of a nondeveloped country, in some sort of technical skill (engineering, health, etc). You need a recommendation from your govt as a person with some promise in the future (the potential head of a research institute or a university, etc). And you must be experienced--not just young students; most of us have families and are pretty well established in a prominent institution."

That ruled me out.

But something just kept niggling--the "no free lunch" rule, which is especially big in Japan. The Japanese govt is obviously putting out a hell of a lot of cash for no visible return. As is my wont, I kept asking questions until things made sense. I got answers that prompted me to write to Fukuzawa.

1) The main monetary contributors to JICA are private companies, it seems. Toyota, Nissan, and Mitsubishi were mentioned.

2) All the countries I talked to (and just about any country you would care about outside of Eastern Europe or North America was walking around the JICA premises, trying to speak Japanese but generally communicating in English) had high market shares of Japanese cars in their market. Myanmar, Ghana, and Fiji gave me figures of around 80% market share. This matters because people in these economies are already familiar with Japanese goods, and trust them. The "Made in Japan", as always, matters. By design.

3) JICA participants were getting firsthand experience seeing and using Japanese equipment, i.e. pumps, drills, the like. I asked them about their impressions of the technology and they said it was top-notch. The medical equipment was claimed to be "equivalent" to American, and that matters. America has the larger pharmaceutical market share in the countries I talked to. Not for long. Would they now be buying Japanese? Were JICA members in a position to recommend that their governments or institutions do so? They said yes.

In fact, they added, they would be getting free SAMPLES of the Japanese equipment to take home, just in case word of mouth was not enough.

I shrugged. I realized that JICA was a great marketing scheme to secure future orders for Japanese firms, putting a word in the ear of people of potential. It promised to have sea-change effects when these underdeveloped countries became richer and fussier about the technology they could obtain.

"Yeah, their propaganda is working", laughed the Fijiian.


Japan has been criticized by the Americans, the Burmese noted, for not doing enough for Third-World Countries. JICA, like JETRO, was created as a means to deflect international criticism of Japanese practices. But again, in a really spectacular ploy, Japan is once again making one of their philanthropic-looking organizations into a business opportunity.

There ain't no such thing as a free lunch. Especially in Japan.

Dave Aldwinckle




Myanmar has been getting a lot of attention in the Japanese press these days (the Mainichi Shinbun was running a column every morning I read it over breakfast). And it's not all political in nature. Myanmar looks to be a promising target for Japanese development, if it hasn't started in earnest already. Going in hand with that:

The govt in Myanmar, which sets exchange rates, has fixed value of the currency, the kyat, at six kyats to one dollar.

However, the same govt fixed the value of the Japanese yen to 1 kyat to 1 yen. Or 100 kyats to nearly one dollar for Japanese currency.

This gives Japanese investors AROUND TWENTY TIMES more buying power than Americans or US-dollar traders in Myanmar.

Easy to see who Myanmar wants investing in their country.