Following a career as an Olympic swimmer during university, Naoko Imoto shifted gears, started down another path in international relations that has led her to UNICEF, where she has provided aid to victims of war, natural disasters, and extreme poverty around the world.
As an Education Specialist for UNICEF, my work is to provide access to education for children who have been deprived of their right to be educated due to wars, displacements, natural disasters and extreme poverty. Currently, I am engaged in the European refugee crisis, which has been making recent world news headlines. In Greece, there are currently around 60,000 refugees and immigrants, most of whom have come from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East. But because Greece, which is itself experiencing a severe economic crisis, doesn’t have enough jobs for these refugees and migrants, many of them tend to leave after a while legally or illegally, seeking the kind of economic stability in other European countries such as Germany. Refugee children are exposed to a number of risks while being displaced multiple times, and many of them are unable to receive an education. Education plays a vital role in protecting these children, in giving them a sense of normalcy and psychosocial support, in learning literacy, numeracy, a new language, problem-solving and communication skills, and much more.
-What kind of assistance do you provide for refugee children?
Basically, our job is to assist the Greek Ministry of Education in developing educational programs and training Greek public school teachers who teach these refugee children. We also advocate with ministers and senior government officials to integrate refugees and immigrants into the national education system.
But government engagement alone isn’t enough when the formal education system is not ready. The children who need help right here, right now, cannot wait for the system to change. Non-formal educational support is crucial as a more immediate response to help them with reading, writing, and other skills. So we set up these non-formal education programmes in camps and in urban areas.
In the West African nation of Mali, where I was previously stationed, we created educational materials with the Ministry of Education to teach the importance of peace for children who live in conflicts where terrorist groups affiliated with al-Qaeda have capitalized on a civil war between the government and ethnic militias. When there was an outbreak of Ebola, we would teach students about the importance of handwashing and other ways of preventing infection.
As long as conflicts and natural disasters continue to cause poverty and humanitarian crises around the world, UNICEF has a mission to fulfill. Yet there are no easy fixes to the crises that we face. That was something that used to frustrate me when I was starting out. But at this point in my career, I just try to focus on the people I’m helping and the tasks at hand, as best I can, one day at a time.
-You are now changing the world as an education specialist in international aid, but as a child you dreamed of being a swimmer.
In sixth grade, I set a new record for the Japanese primary school record in the 50m freestyle swim, which led to an invitation to join a renowned swim club in Osaka. My parents told me to make the decision for myself, and although it wasn’t easy, I decided to leave my family in Tokyo and move into a dorm in Osaka to focus on swimming. At first, I constantly felt homesick and cried myself to sleep every night.
It sure was. Everyone there wanted to be the best, so in addition to intense training, there was fierce competition among the swimmers. The swim club tested me both physically and mentally. I believe those were formative years that helped shape who I am today. And being in Osaka, a place where humor is ingrained in the culture, I was convinced that I had to learn how to make people laugh. After a while, my meek disposition turned assertive, so much that when I made a trip back to Tokyo, my friends couldn’t believe how much I’d changed.
When I was 14, I participated in the 1990 Asian Games in Beijing, and seeing athletes from impoverished countries made me realize just how privileged we are here in Japan. Since then, every summer in international competitions, I saw how athletes from those countries were competing in worn-out uniforms and torn swimsuits, and heard that some didn’t even have proper pools to train in back home. As we ate our balanced meals in the athlete village in preparation for the races, some athletes next to us laughed as they made a huge tower with cups of pudding and ice cream. I remember thinking that they didn’t know how to prepare for the races and that they were probably just happy to be able to eat everything for free. I couldn’t help thinking about the difference between them and myself. I had everything I needed to focus on swimming. These experiences taught me about the overwhelming inequality that exists in the world.
At school, I had always enjoyed studying English and wanted to work abroad. When I was in my final year of high school, I read in a newspaper about the ongoing genocide in Rwanda, where I would later end up working. Reading about a million people being slaughtered in just 100 days—ten thousand per day—I remember being so shocked and compelled by how humans could be capable of such cruelty. That’s when I started thinking about working for an international organization. I looked at several universities that had programs related to international relations and international aid and decided to apply for the Faculty of Policy Management at Keio University.
Well, my coaches thought that it would be better for me to train at the same club in Osaka if I wanted to qualify for the Olympics, so the standard course of action would be for me to go to a university in the Kansai area. But I had two goals of going to the Olympics and after that, working at an international organization, and I really wanted to study at Keio. When I finally worked up the courage to talk to the chairman of the swim club, he encouraged me to consider my life beyond swimming and do what I wanted based on that.
-You were chosen to compete for the Japanese swim team at the Atlanta Olympics when you were 20, while a student at SFC. That must have been a dream come true for you.
Indeed, it was amazing to finally be there, after dreaming about it for almost 15 years. But I wasn’t satisfied with my results at the individual event, and we came in fourth in the relay. We were so close to winning a medal. I was so filled with frustration and regret that I couldn’t stop crying on the plane home to Japan. Six-time Olympian speed skater and cyclist Seiko Hashimoto was sitting behind me—she is now a member of the House of Councilors—and she convinced me that if I still had my regrets, then I shouldn’t quit swimming just yet. Once back in Japan, I began to look for a new path that would let me continue my swimming career.
-And that new path led to Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Texas.
Yes. This was a time before everyone had a device in their pocket, so I had to use the computers available at SFC to look for a university that would give me a scholarship to study and compete abroad based on my Olympic track record. Nowadays, it’s common sense to start by searching online, but the internet was still in its infancy back then. I was certainly grateful to have access to the information technology environment that SFC provided.
At SMU, I studied international relations and competed as a college athlete at national college championships. When I started at the university, I could hardly keep up with the classes, and I was at a loss with the mountain of readings I had. But I told myself that if some other Japanese students had done it, then there was no reason that I couldn't do it either. And that’s how I went about my academic studies. One of my goals for studying abroad was to be fluent in English, so while I was in Texas, I made it a point to only speak English and didn’t spend time with other Japanese people. And it worked. I managed to graduate from SMU in two and a half years with transferring credits from Keio. In the end, I had a very satisfying study abroad experience where I was able to grow both as an athlete and as a student. However, I did not get to qualify for the Sydney Olympics in 2000, and it was at that point that I decided to pursue a new path: a career in international development aid.
I knew that if I wanted to work in international aid, I needed a master's degree. Of course, getting a master’s degree doesn’t guarantee you a job. So I designed my career in a way that I would gain a lot of experience in my 20s that would help me make my dreams come true in my 30s. In 2003, I applied for an internship at the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to gain experience. I was selected to go to Ghana in West Africa. I then got a paid post in project formulation and was stationed in Sierra Leone and Rwanda, where I learned about many poverty reduction and peacebuilding projects. I enjoyed formulating projects, building personal relationships, and discussing important strategies with high-ranking government officials and ministers. It wasn’t an easy job, but I enjoyed the challenge.
Then, in 2007, I qualified for the Japanese Professional Officer (JPO) programme, which sends young professionals to an international organization for a couple of years, by which time I had started my career at UNICEF. Since then, I have worked in tsunami- and war-torn Sri Lanka; in Haiti, after the 2010 earthquake; and in the Philippines when it was hit by a major typhoon. I returned to Africa to work in Mali before coming to Greece, where I am stationed now.
-What are your plans for the future?
I'll be happy so long as I continue to be involved in projects that are worth doing in providing better quality education to children. I am thinking about going back to graduate school to supplement my experiences with more knowledge. I would like to gain a firm grounding in research surrounding refugee crises, which is something I am currently working on.
-Could you say a few final words to current students?
SFC is a great place—I’m still friends with many of my classmates from SFC. The campus was a very stimulating place when I was there. There was this feeling that you could do anything and really make a difference in the world. All of our senior classmates were ambitious individuals, brimming with the confidence that they were the ones who were going to create a better future. I just hope that SFC still has that can-do attitude, that the students believe that they are the ones who are going to pave the way to a better future.
-Thank you for your time.
Chief Education, UNICEF Greece
Naoko Imoto graduated from Keio University’s Faculty of Policy Management in 2001. She began swimming at the age of three and broke the Japanese junior record for the 50m freestyle when she was in sixth grade. In 1990, she became the youngest member of the Japanese team to compete at the Asian Games in Beijing, where she took bronze in the 50m freestyle. In 1996, her team finished fourth in the women’s 4x200m freestyle relay at the Atlanta Olympics. Following the Olympics, Naoko studied at Southern Methodist University in the US before going on to an MA in Poverty, Conflict and Reconstruction at The University of Manchester in the UK. In 2003, she worked in participatory development projects in Ghana as an intern at the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and as a peacebuilding specialist in Sierra Leone and Rwanda. Since 2007, she has started working for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), where she is involved in educational programmes around the world.
*This article originally appeared in the 2019 summer edition (No. 303) of Juku.
*All affiliations and titles are those at the time of publishing.