by Dr. Shukuko Koyama
The Black Lives Matter movement has reached the aid industry and triggered many discussions within it. Aid workers are now critically looking at systemic discrimination within the international aid community and their organizational culture. Most of the discussions so far, however, seem to assume a dichotomy between the white and non-white and focus on unequal and unjust relations between the so-called Global North and ‘Africa'. As a former aid worker for international organizations and as an Asian and Japanese woman, the current framing of the discussions makes me wonder: where do I find myself in the current race-focused discussion about the aid industry? This essay may make the current discussion landscape a bit more complicated by adding an element of intersectionality into the context.
When I was browsing through various discussions on racism in the aid industry, a conversation I had 15 years ago with my colleague back in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, came to mind. His grandfather used to tell him about people who were forced to work on rubber plantations. In a matter-of-fact tone, he would recall how those who worked there had their arms cut off if they couldn't meet their daily quota. “‘Oh, this guy didn't meet his quota.', they'd say. 'Well, then,' and they'd simply cut off an arm of the plantation worker at the end of the day." I had read about this kind of treatment from books such as Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost, one of the popular must-reads for aid workers deployed in the DRC during the early 2000s. But hearing such an intimate account as a family story of someone I knew, especially someone around my age, made me realize that this was a frighteningly close time period. We were not separated from their time; we lived in the same immediate continuum.
While political cartoons depicted the grave situation in the Congo with levity, the personal accounts of those who lived through this era were never truly made available for the public.
However, even then, I had the sense that work was work and that it was separate from my personal life. I was in the aid industry, and a work site was never a place where I could speak my mother tongue. My commutes involved waiting for chartered planes, hopping on helicopters and sitting on land cruisers for seven-hour drives. The language barrier and physical distance created a space between work and my personal life. Thanks to this space, I could completely separate myself from work, rest, and retrieve energy. It was a well-established formula for me to keep a work-life balance as an aid worker.
But that formula disappeared when I started working in Japan after the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011. It was my first time working in my country and using my mother tongue. My own family members became so-called Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), the label that I used all the time as an aid worker. Since then, the physical and psychological boundaries between a 'work site' and 'personal and intimate place' started to dissolve, and I found it unsettling.
The wake of destruction following the 2011 Tsunami pulled global disaster response groups to Japan. (Akira Kouchiyama)
In addition, the boundary of time also started to disappear. Back in 2006, a colleague in Kinshasa shared the details of her field visit in the eastern DRC. "We received a report that an old massacre site was found, so we went to check,” she said. “When we arrived at the location, I asked the locals where the massacre site was. They told me that I was standing right above where the victims' bodies were lying." Her story made me realize how close the proximity between the massacre site and oneself could be.
I could have never imagined back then, however, that I would have quite the similar experience when I returned home 15 years later, in Tokyo, Japan, not a few hundred meters from where I was born and still live today. When I was young, my grandmother would describe what she saw and heard a few days after the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake, as a child in her downtown Tokyo neighborhood. It was not until after I landed a job at a university that I began to research the details of the massacre following the disaster, nearly a century old. I studied historical materials and documents, learning detailed specifics about individual massacres: among them was one which took place in my neighborhood. When I read the descriptions of this specific case–who killed whom and how they killed on the streets I walk every day–along with many similar cases, the distance between what happened in Tokyo about a century ago and my experiences in the DRC started disappearing.
Refugees rush to Ueno Park to escape fires started by the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake.
With all the boundaries between my 'work' and 'personal life' becoming blurred, I feel I have traveled across the border that used to define me as an aid worker. Having been stripped of my professional identity, one of the things my journey taught me is the multifaceted complexity of my attributes: being an Asian, a Japanese and a woman. When I bring myself to the current race-focused discussions in the aid community, I cannot help but be aware of the multifaceted nature of my intersectionality, not only as an object of being discriminated against, but also as a subject discriminating against the other. A blurred boundary, indeed.
Dr. Shukuko Koyama is an Associate Professor at Waseda University and teaches Conflict Resolution and Social Innovation. Prior to joining Waseda, she worked for international organizations and engaged in disarmament, peacekeeping, emergency response and reconstruction assistance. Dr. Koyama holds a PhD from the School of Social Sciences of the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom.