An enriching and remarkable journey on the “SMIPRP train” in Japan

By Awa Nnenna Ugo, Nigeria Customs Service

High rise buildings with beautiful lighting, fascinating road layouts and curves cutting deftly and sometimes complicatedly across each other, signalled my arrival in Japan. Almost every wall and sign post from the airport to the city was dotted with an intriguing mix of Katakana, Hiragana and Kanji, which beautifully spelt out Japanese words in a manner only the initiated could decipher. I came to Japan to attend the 2016/2017 Strategic Management and Intellectual Property Rights Programme (SMIPRP) at Tokyo’s Aoyama Gakuin University (AGU) as part of the Japan-WCO Human Resource Development Programme, which targets young Customs officials and contributes to the WCO’s efforts to build the capacity of Customs administrations across the globe.

The SMIPRP allows participants over the course of a year to pursue master’s level studies in Customs related fields, leading to a Master of Business Administration degree being awarded to successful students.

Upon my arrival in the “land of the rising sun,” staff of the Japan International Cooperation Center and graduating students from the SMIPRP welcomed me at the airport. Their exceptional politeness was the window through which I could foresee a very enriching and remarkable journey on the “SMIPRP train.”

Besides my coming from Nigeria, other foreign participants came from Azerbaijan, Bhutan, Ecuador, Indonesia, Kenya, Lesotho, Papua New Guinea, Tanzania and Vietnam. What a rich mix this was. Although we had lots of differences, we had two common features, namely: we were all in Japan for the very first time and we could all speak English, making communication between us easy.

With these two common features, we stood in awe of the sights and sounds of Tokyo and of each other’s culture. We became immersed in Japanese culture with its attendant valuable lessons, comforted each other during earthquakes, and built formidable relationships among one another. Several months after graduation, we can hardly go a day without checking up on each other through social media.

I had the honour of being the first Nigerian to participate in this very immersive 12-month course. It was a perfect mix of academic, professional and social endeavours. The programme agenda included study visits to various seaports, airports and postal offices, as well as to the National IPR Centre. We also met with representatives of brand owners such as Sony, Honda, Toshiba and Samsung. Moreover, we had the opportunity to attend training sessions and workshops at the WCO’s Regional Training Centre and Regional Customs Laboratory in Japan.

The academic programme entailed very well-articulated courses in intellectual property rights (IPR), multi-lateral trading systems , management , international development strategy, competitive strategy, statistics, organizational behaviour, Customs practicum, and Customs reform and modernization. The Customs instructors were excellent practising and retired Customs officers, most of whom are WCO accredited experts in various fields and seasoned WTO trade negotiators. We also had astute professionals who were successful business management experts, in addition to having public administration and international Customs expertise.

From classrooms to the streets, to the train station and after the train station; in between my chopstick and tea drinking sessions, which happened to be my favourite moments, I learnt huge pleasant lessons. Every sense organ I deployed brought back a bountiful harvest of life shaping lessons touching upon nationalism, resilience, disaster readiness, restraint, strong sense of ownership to assignments, passion, hard work, precision, beauty, harmony, punctuality, cleanliness, excellence, creativity, politeness, kindness, compassion, humility, integrity, and the list goes on and on.

“The huge impact of this course cannot be over-emphasized. My productivity and efficiency at work has been greatly heightened since I returned to Nigeria”.

I often remember sitting in class with other students, where, except for me, everyone seemed to understand the lectures. As my demeanour made the lecturer aware of my unease, after a few enquiries, he placed me on what could be called “private catch-up lessons” to make up for the challenges I was experiencing. This was quite a pleasant, but unusual move, which demonstrated the commitment of the lecturers to assist students in all possible ways to ensure that they remained on track. It was pleasantly surprising to me, yet very typical of the top-notch quality of the University’s professors: their goal being to impact knowledge, not merely read out lecture notes.

The journey was not without challenges too. The language barrier made everyday life overwhelming in the beginning. In fact, as I could not read Japanese, shopping and eating out at restaurants seemed daunting at first, but then I learnt to ask for help and to use the translator application. This makes an internet-enabled Japanese SIM card or “pocket wifi” a necessity. Access to a map application also helped me to get acquainted with Japan’s public transport system.

The huge impact of this course cannot be over-emphasized. My productivity and efficiency at work has been greatly heightened since I returned to Nigeria. Given my current assignment as a technical officer in the IPR Unit, responsible for promoting Customs/ right holder relations and the drafting of IPR training modules for frontline officers, I have had to make reference to my SMIPRP courses over and over again. This has further fine-tuned my work.

It is also important to mention that the SMIPRP enabled me to participate effectively in the drawing up of the 2018-2021 Strategic Plan for the Nigeria Customs Service. I am still often referred to by my superiors as the “Japanese lady,” due to my ability to deliver my assignments in a fuss free, high quality and timely manner – traits that are respected and admired in Japan and which were reinforced during my time in the country.

On my last morning in Tokyo, on 28 March 2017, a few days after I had received my Master of Business Administration degree, at the end of a trip which had broadened my horizon and further developed my emotional intelligence; I embarked on a solo adventure to Ueno Park to catch a glimpse of the sparsely bloomed Sakura trees, as the spring season had just begun. On the way, I took a detour from my usual route to the park and found restaurants and shops I had never quite noticed before. Indeed, there can be no such thing as seeing all of Tokyo, as so much is tucked out of view. With eyes brimming with nostalgic tears, I realized, I just might have some unfinished business with Tokyo.

Long Live Japan! Ichi-go Ichi-e!

More information

About the Scholarship Programme

Two types of master level studies are proposed under the Japan-WCO Human Resource Development Programme: