Special Program in International Relations

Supporting young policymakers in Asia: Government officials from the region can take sabbaticals to develop professional skills at the University of Tsukuba

Qiran Dong was well aware of the resource wealth in his home province of Yunnan, China, an important gateway to the country’s southwestern region. Known for its rich plant diversity, water sources and mineral deposits, this mountainous province also has the country’s largest reserves of lead, zinc and tin. Qiran had been working with Yunnan’s Department of Commerce for more than a decade, reaching the level of deputy director of the Division of Planning and Finance. Yet he wanted to improve his understanding of the potential for expanding trade between his province and neighboring countries Bangladesh, India and Myanmar. So in 2014, he took a year-long sabbatical to join an English-language master’s and scholarship program at the University of Tsukuba.

“The University of Tsukuba is well known for its international atmosphere,” says Qiran. “And the one-year program was just what I needed, since I cannot study abroad for too long due to my job responsibilities.”

The Special Program in International Relations was established in 2002 to cater to the research needs of young government officials like Qiran from developing regions across Asia. The scholarships are funded through the Japanese Grant Aid for Human Resource Development Scholarship (JDS). About 10 fellows are admitted annually to the University of Tsukuba, following a rigorous selection process involving government officials from Japan, the students’ home countries and a team of university professors. Past students have come from as far as Bangladesh, Indonesia, Vietnam and Kyrgyzstan, among other countries.

Fellows join one of two tracks — international relations or public policy — and are integrated into the curriculum of the two-year Master’s Program in International Area Studies at the Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences. They can choose from more than 50 courses on a range of subject areas and geographic regions. “We have a very international faculty,” says Mari Minowa, JDS program coordinator and an associate professor of economics specializing in Latin America. Among her colleagues are Jeet Sapkota from Nepal, with a background in Southeast Asian economic development; Nathan Gilbert Quimpo, who studies democracy, conflict and corruption specifically in the Philippines; and Leslie Tkach-Kawasaki from Canada, who analyzes political communication and the use of new media.

Qiran has taken courses relevant to his long-term professional growth and plans to make good use of expertise gained in the economics of development, global negotiation and international dialogue when he returns to Yunnan after graduating. “The research and knowledge that I have gained at the University of Tsukuba will be of great assistance in helping me to do my job better,” he says.

As part of a large and growing family of JDS alumni, faculty and fellows, Qiran will leave Japan with more than knowledge. Alumni keep in touch over e-mail and social networks, hosting regular workshops and lectures in their home towns with visiting faculty from Tsukuba, explains 2014 graduate Ly Sengchrea (known to Tsukuba colleagues as Sun Sophea) from Cambodia. “Sometimes, we meet to relax, eat and discuss what we have achieved so far,” adds Sengchrea, who works at the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, where he is responsible for bilateral relations between Cambodia and South Asia countries. He uses insights gained during the master’s on a daily basis to explore explicit and implicit interests underlying international relations-building.

“Since I come from a developing country, many areas, including education, are still at a low standard compared to Japan,” says Sengchrea. “It was great to have the time to absorb courses from professional lecturers at the University of Tsukuba relevant to the needs of my ministry.”

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