On first impression Eri is a lady of few words; but on the contrary, her actions reveal a daring nature that spans working with a formerly militia-run country to swimming with hammerhead sharks.
The hidden adventure seeker
Growing up in Tokyo in the 1960s and 1970s has its ups and downs. For Eri Honda, principal urban development specialist in the Southeast Asia Urban Development and Water Division (SEUW), Tokyo is a model city.
It even served as a benchmark for her eventual work, motivating her to put in place needed infrastructure and basic services in still developing cities.
On the other hand, conservative cultural norms at the time meant she had to break the mold. Most women from her father’s town in the south of Japan did not go to university. Of those who did, the usual choices were to either become a teacher or nurse. Eri decided to study social engineering in the Tokyo Institute of Technology. Her father, an architect, was a natural influence. Afterwards, she went further, taking up a master of engineering in human settlements development degree at the Asian Institute of Technology in Thailand. She was the first in her family to leave home, and travel and live abroad.
Soon – although she doesn’t look it – she’ll hit retirement, and there’s nothing she looks forward to more than the prospect of traveling. After building a career that includes working for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris and conducting urban planning for ADB member countries such as Myanmar and Viet Nam, Eri plans to make her way to Costa Rica and dive with hammerhead sharks.
“I'm a person who likes to move around. This goes for both where I work and where I live. I oftentimes joke how I'm like a tuna fish. I have to swim all the time otherwise I die.”
Principal Urban Development Specialist
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like?
Eri: I’m from Tokyo, that’s where I grew up with my parents and a younger sister and brother. No one in my family, including my relatives, lived abroad; so I was the first one. My father is from the southern part of Japan, very conservative. Most girls there only study until high school. They don’t go to university; but my sister and I went. Back in high school, when I was at my father’s hometown, my uncle asked me what I wanted to do in the future. I said, ‘I didn’t know yet.’ Then he asked me if I wanted to be a schoolteacher. I said, ‘No, I don’t think so.’ Then he asked me, ‘Are you going to be a nurse?’ I said, ‘I don’t think I would be a nurse.’ It was really only those two choices for girls.
So why did you choose to go into development?
Eri: Since I studied in Thailand, I became more interested in development. I then went back to Japan and got into JICA [or the Japan International Cooperation Agency]. At that time, there was no one in my immediate circle who had studied or worked abroad. I just wanted to try it. In my university, one professor had studied at the Asian Institute of Technology and he asked if I was interested to pursue further studies there. It was an experience. Also back then it was difficult to work for the private sector. Many companies didn’t want to hire women.
What made you stay with international development for your entire career?
Eri: It’s always interesting to see the changes. In some countries like Lao PDR or Mongolia, you can see how the city develops. In Japan, the city is already developed. But in these types of countries, you start with a small city and then help it grow.
You were initially seconded to ADB from JICA. What made you switch to ADB permanently?
Eri: In JICA, the personnel department moves employees every three years. So we can’t choose the position. It’s difficult to expand my career as an urban development specialist. They basically groom people as generalists doing different things.
So from 2004 onwards you’ve been with ADB.
Eri: Yes, surprisingly [laughs]. I wasn’t sure how long I would stay here. As you mentioned I could have gone to private sector. I’ve been moving a bit.
Indeed. In your resume, you tend to move every two to three years whether within ADB or out. Do you like to try new things?
Eri: Yes, that’s right. This current assignment with SEUW has been my longest, almost four years. I developed the portfolio in Myanmar, so I want to implement the pipeline. I first went there in 2013. There were no projects yet [since ADB only resumed operations in the country in 2012]. Now we have quite a big portfolio. I’m working on the Mandalay Urban Services Improvement Project and the Third GMS [Greater Mekong Subregion] Corridor Towns Development Project. I want to stay here longer to see these developed.
Is there a reason why you’ve only predominantly worked with Southeast Asia?
Eri: I really enjoy working in Myanmar. For the past 20 years, there has been no investment in infrastructure under the military government. There are huge needs and we need to do a lot. Even the third largest city, Mawlamyine, has no water treatment. They get water from the river and put it in a tank without any treatment. In the hotel, the water gets brown, especially at the end of the dry season. A national consultant shared how in her house they have small fish in the water! I said, ‘Maybe a small shrimp?’ But no matter, the water simply lacks treatment. Oh, and I also got typhoid from there before.
You also had a stint at the Viet Nam Resident Mission. What was that like?
Eri: I was there for three years. It’s different. Part of my responsibility was doing a lot of administrative things, like office layout, hiring people, and even attending the funeral of a government official’s mother, or weddings. It was fun. And I guess, maybe, it was what you said. I wanted some change. I’m a person who likes to move around. This goes for both where I work and where I live—even here living in Manila I’ve moved in different places. I oftentimes joke how I’m like a tuna fish. I have to swim all the time otherwise I will die.
What do you like to do outside of work? What do you look forward to at the end of the day?
Eri: Traveling. I also do some sports like skiing, scuba diving, and a little bit of sailing. I want to dive in Central America. There are a lot of good places there, such as in Costa Rica. I heard there are a lot of hammerhead sharks. Those places are far from here and it’s difficult to go, so I want to spend time there when I’m retired [which is in two to three years]. I also want to ski in Europe and Canada maybe.
After work, I also like to read. The last book I’ve read is The Doll by Daphne du Maurier. I like this author. She also wrote The Birds and Rebecca, which became a film directed by Alfred Hitchcock. I like fiction. Oh, and I also enjoy a bit of whiskey.