THE 77TH COUNCIL MEETING and 43rd General Assembly of the Asian Pacific Parliamentarians Union (APPU) was held from 25-27 March in Tokyo, Japan, Asia’s most developed and technologically driven country.
APPU is an organisation of parliamentarians from countries in Asia and the Pacific Islands. In Asia these are countries from the north-east, south-east and south-west. There are 21 member countries, with associate groups and observers.
APPU was formed out of shared concern for political stability, economic and social prosperity, preservation and promotion of freedom and democracy, peace and security in the region.
Papua New Guinea gained membership in 1988 and continues to remain committed to the activities of APPU. Each delegation from member countries are known as national groups. At the most recent meeting, PNG was represented by a delegation of three.
My desk phone rang and, recognising from the ring tone that it was an inside call, I decided not to answer. Another staff member calling to disturb me, I thought. But it would be a blatant arrogance to leave it unanswered.
“Boss wants to see you, can you come”, said the voice of the Parliamentary Clerk’s secretary. The first thought that raced through my mind was, what did I do wrong? Was there a task assigned to me by the Clerk that I hadn’t done?
I pushed the door, which was not locked and was eye to eye with the Clerk, who was with the Sergeant-At-Arms. I took a chair and the Clerk looked at me asking, “Do you want to go to Japan”. I looked at both of them smiling.
“If you do not have anyone in mind, then I am willing to go”, was my response. “Why are you saying this?” the Clerk uttered these words looking at his computer screen.
“Sir, it will not look good taking two overseas trips in two months”, I answered with reluctance. I was to go to Canada the following month, as most of my colleagues were aware. Both men smiled and nodded their heads to confirm my travel.
It would be my first trip to Asia.
My interest in Asia, its people and its politics goes back to my undergraduate years at the University of Papua New Guinea. One of the courses I studied was South-east Asian Politics, and I enjoyed understanding what makes Asian values different from the West and us Pacific islanders.
I had to leave my three-year old son for a week. The first time I left him he was only eight months old. Now he understands and appreciates his parents, it was really difficult for him and me.
I told him, “Dada will go in a plane to a faraway place and you are going to stay with Mummy”. “Can I come too please”, he responded. At the terminal, both of us did the check-in together. I was required to be with the delegation and so whispered into his ear saying “Goodbye son – you be good to mummy” and gave him away.
Six hours in the plane, three hours from airport to hotel and a first evening in a different and chilling environment was too much for the three of us. We soon found ourselves in bed, only to be awoken by the noise of metropolitan Tokyo and the smell of freshness in our rooms.
Our trip to Japan coincided with a few national events. The country was also still recovering from the tsunami of 2011 and reconstruction processes were underway. During the opening statements and remarks of the meeting, tributes poured in from speakers from the member countries of APPU.
The National Diet or Parliament in Japan was in its budget session. The Diet comprise two chambers, the House of Representatives with 480 members and the House of Councillors with 242 members.
There is also a total of 17 standing parliamentary committees from both houses as well as special committees established when necessary.
The FIFA qualifiers matches for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil were gaining momentum throughout the world and Japan was no exception. During one of the evenings, in the company of my two colleagues, I decided to experience the night life in Tokyo.
Since this was the beginning of the week, most pubs or clubs were not as hectic as they would be at the end of the week. We were directed by a Bangladeshi, who had been in Japan for over eight years, to a place which in Japanese is called a Sports Pub.
This could be a nice spot to have a few drinks one of my colleagues suggested in a loud voice because the pub was walled by huge flat TV screens, with noise enough for a mini-theatre. I realised that these flat screens were tuned to football (soccer) and nothing else.
This is great, I thought to myself as someone who loves watching soccer. The commentating was in Japanese but this did not concern me. The actions of the players on the field would speak louder than those commentators.
The pub was not crowded when the four of us, including the Bangladeshi, made our way there. We noticed an African, who was fluent in Japanese, and overheard some of the conversations he had with Japanese. We met him and, after conversing with the Bangladeshi, we found ourselves a corner for the evening.
I had temporarily quit alcohol for some months and so turned down the offer from my two friends. Giving my back to the bar, I faced those huge flat screens. The pub was growing in numbers as mostly young people came in.
I noticed something extraordinary among the people well as the waitresses. They were all wearing the jersey for Japan’s national soccer team. At first I thought to myself that it is a normal practice here for the pub. This was not only the answer as I finally gathered that this night Japan would be playing against Jordan.
The game was televised live from the Jordanian capital, Amman. Vibrant and cheerful Japanese supported their team. Though there was much alcohol consumption, responsibility was the norm. The final result ended with Jordan defeating Japan 2-1. I reflected that Asian values were defining attributes for the good behaviour of those who came to watch the game.
On the final day of the conference a tour of Tokyo was organised for participants. The weather was not good at first but things turned out well at the last minute. There were a couple of spectacular places: the old and new Tokyo Towers, the Emperor’s Shrine as well as a cheap place for shopping.
One of the eye-catching features of the tour was the Cherry Blossom or Sakura. It is a special time of the year when cherry trees lose all their leaves but blossom with flowers. This happens only in Tokyo and the other cities on the island of Kyushu in the last days of March or first days of April. We were the lucky ones.
On the morning that I checked out of the Hotel New Otani, I left behind this message in Japanese: Dohmo arigatoh gozaimas. Hontoh ni tanoshikatta des. Go shinsetsu ni(‘Thank you very much. I enjoyed it very much. Very kind of you.’)
The flight from Narita in Japan took almost nine hours over the East China Sea, past Taiwan, over the Luzon Strait of Philippines and again over the South China Sea separating Brunei and Vietnam.
The plane hovered over Malaysia and finally made its landing at Changi Airport in Singapore. I thought to myself, this is Asia I have covered, though not by foot. But through gaining impressions and tasting the food and I am satisfied.
Werner Cohill is Senior Parliamentary Officer (Committee Secretariat) with the national parliament of Papua New Guinea