JQ Magazine: JQ&A with JET Alum Kalu ‘Kaz’ Obuka of Meta-Culture

"My time on JET bolstered my thinking that we need better institutions and processes for dealing with difference. To its credit, the prefecture I worked in was definitely ahead of the curve."

By Renay Loper (Iwate-ken, 2006-07) for JQ magazine. Renay is a freelance writer and associate program officer at the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership. Visit her blog at Atlas in Her Hand.

Originally from London, Kalu “Kaz” Obuka (Saitama-ken, 2005-08) is currently working as a conflict resolution specialist at Meta-Culture, a conflict resolution NGO in Bangalore, India.  Having a unique career fueled by his graduate studies in Coexistence and Conflict at Brandeis University paired with his time on JET, Kaz spent a little time with us to share more.

How did your time on JET influence your decision to take up your particular course of study?

My time on JET bolstered my thinking that we need better institutions and processes for dealing with difference. I think it was seeing the way that the institutions I worked with were absolutely out of their depth when, for example, it came to dealing with pupils with migratory backgrounds. To its credit, the prefecture I worked in was definitely ahead of the curve, and was actively looking to develop mechanisms and services for immigrants to help them navigate what, in some cases, would be a very alien cultural landscape.

Aside from immigration, it was seeing the way politics played out, especially the posturing with which the Japanese and their neighbors engaged one another, and their history.

How did your JET experience help you to secure your position at Meta-Culture? 

I think my JET experience helped me to the extent that it bolstered my desire to enter the conflict resolution and consensus building field.

What fields did you work in prior to JET?

Prior to JET I dabbled in the NGO sector with an organization that worked to empower disadvantaged youth in London, as well as PR and some professional modeling.

You spent three years as an ALT. What were your biggest takeaways?

Not sure about my biggest takeaways from my experience, though after my tenure on JET I would quip that if you can live in Japan for three years, you can probably live anywhere. The experience definitely helped me learn about myself. So I came to Bangalore somewhat prepared for—and I daresay inured to—the culture shock, and feelings of frustration and isolation that come with moving to a completely new context on your own.

What made you stay on JET for so long?

I completed the years because despite the difficulties, I was attached to Japan and the life I’d managed to build for myself; I really came into my own in the middle of my second year, and wanted to see it through; I wanted more time to cultivate the relationships I’d developed; and I wanted to save up a decent amount for grad school.

What is your role at Meta-Culture? 

We design and facilitate processes that help individuals, communities, governments and organizations build relationships, manage differences and resolve conflicts. Some of the projects, past and present, include: An inter-religious dialogue series with Christian, Hindu and Muslim leaders; an assessment of conflict dynamics in Orissa after an outbreak of inter-communal violence; conflict management training for the police; and the Garment Sector Roundtable (GSR), a multi-stakeholder initiative in the Indian garment sector.

I am like the “special ops” guy for our team. My main role is to support the development and delivery of our projects and occasionally I’ll get pulled in by my executive director to execute some key tasks for him.

All in all, we’re a pretty lean organization, so I may do a wide variety of tasks in one day including carrying out qualitative interviews; writing articles; working on the design of new programs; communicating with high-level government advisers; work on the design of some training modules; work on funding applications and more.

What’s the most rewarding part of your position now?

I enjoy being the special ops guy—especially when they require me to be creative. The opportunities for learning and creativity are amazing. One of my favorite projects started when my executive director suddenly popped out of his office and said, “Ya know, I’m thinking that we need a grievance resolution mechanism for our multi-stakeholder group,” and asked me to design and present one at the next GSR meeting.

If someone were interested in working in your current field, what advice would you give them?

I would tell them to network as if their life depended on it!  Also, specialize in a region or country seen as needing development or peace-building interventions, or a field of expertise (like program evaluation or economics) all the while strengthening their peace-building skills. Oh and get as much overseas work experience in countries seen as needing assistance as possible.

During my master’s program at Brandeis [prior to applying for JET], I conducted fieldwork in Japan, where I assisted the Japan Immigration Policy Institute with their synthesis and promotion of policies for increased immigration and inter-ethnic coexistence. Quite frankly, until the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, I’m sad to say that more than a few people I encountered in the field were left somewhat dubious about my bona fides. I’m in a very competitive field for positions, so it has to be very easy for potential employers to imagine you as a fit. I didn’t make it as easy for them as I could have. That being said, I really don’t regret that Japan ended up becoming the site of my fieldwork. I did something pretty unique, and I’m extremely proud of it.

“Dubious about my bonfides”? Can you please elaborate on what exactly you mean?

I did JET before my master’s. However, much of the work I did during and after my master’s course was carried out in industrially developed nations like Japan. So after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, a few of my contacts suggested the possibility of getting involved in the relief operations given my experience in Japan and my Japanese language abilities.

In short, I felt I was easily imagined as a fit for work in Japan, but not so for other contexts. Hopefully my experience in India will help change that. Fingers crossed!

How is living in Bangalore like any other city you have lived in, say Saitama or London?

As for life in Bangalore, infrastructure development is far behind that of cities like London, Tokyo, or Saitama. Regular power cuts, irregular refuse collection, a ton of stray animals, uneven and incomplete distribution of potable water, iffy sewage systems, that sort of thing. At the same time, the city has a thriving middle class, and there are quite a few decent bars, clubs, and restaurants. The annoying thing is that everything closes down by midnight.

The chaos gives the city a completely different feel from any place in Japan.

Where do you see yourself going next?

That’s a toughie. I think I’d like to stay in India for a while; the field doesn’t yet enjoy the same legitimacy it has in a place like the U.S. I’d like to make significant contributions to building the field here before moving on. I think if I do move on, I’d like to get more involved in the development field designing larger scale programs. I’m thinking Africa. However, I’ve always wanted to learn Spanish, so maybe I’ll eventually look to Latin America.

If you weren’t working in your current position, where do you think you’d be?

Before I decided to join Meta-Culture, there was the possibility of me taking a volunteer position in West Africa. Failing that, I’d be in London.

What is the most unique thing you have learned about India since living there? What gives you most joy? What do you find most humorous?

The delicious sambar at a breakfast restaurant near me! Other than that—the idiosyncrasies of the Great Indian Middle Class, the way that things get done, somehow, in spite of absolute chaos; random animals—cows will just be ambling along unattended, dogs sleeping in the sun, giant rats scurrying about in the dark places, cats in high places looking at you with disdain, and the crows that insist on eating rice, not bread!

Visit Meta-Culture online at http://meta-culture.org.