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A lookback at the Core Leaders Development Programme, 2018

IMG_6989A lookback at the Core Leaders Development Programme, 2018

Earlier this year a delegation of leaders from the New Zealand disability, aged-care and youth sectors took part in the Core Leaders Development Programme, an exchange programme bringing together young leaders from New Zealand, Japan, Austria and Germany to collaborate, learn from each other’s expertise and cultural perspectives, and develop their personal leadership potential.

CCS Disability Action Senior Coordinator Sharleen Tongalea was a member of the delegation that went to Japan.



In this Q&A, Sharleen shares her thoughts on the trip, and what she learned.

  • What was the purpose of your trip?

To travel to Japan and give their Cabinet (Government) and NPO’s (Non-Profit Organisation) ideas on how we are doing things here in New Zealand in regards to the Disability Sector (what works and what hasn’t). We were to offer support, information, suggestions and recommendations on Japan’s disability Sector.

  • How long was the trip?

The trip was 15 days.

  • Who else were involved?

I applied to an advertisement put out by the Office of Disability Issues late last year seeking interest from people to travel to Japan to take part in an exchange program. Four participants were selected as part of the NZ Delegation to attend: Dane Dougan, Chief Executive of Autism New Zealand, Kristyn Gain from Idea Services, IHC New Zealand, Anna Parsons from Community Connections and Jade Farrar from Te Pou and EGL. We also had four delegates from the aged-care sector and four delegates from the youth sector.

  • What places did you go to in Japan?

We landed in Tokyo and our first NPO forum – conference was held at the Olympic Centre in Tokyo. We were then sent out to three different regions. I travelled to Kagoshima Prefecture for my field of Persons with disability workshop. During this time we visited a High Needs residential facility, a high school that was practicing inclusive education for people with learning disabilities, a farm (which had a workshop and other areas which were similar to a sheltered workshop), and a respite centre in its early stages in the centre of Kagoshima.

  • What were the big takeaways from the trip from a disability issues POV?

Japan is currently on a journey toward figuring out what inclusion actually means, and how to incorporate this into their communities and wider society. They are currently grappling with how to roll this out and there are parties on either side of the fence. It was part of our role to get the parties to build the same bridge that met on top of the fence. Instead of highlighting the negative attributes and attitudes, we wanted to present these as positives. For example, our sentences would start off with things like ‘Although this is the status quo for Japan, there is an amazing opportunity for Japan and its people to make some real societal shifts and change the lives of disabled residents of Japan.’ I learnt that I loved my country and was confident to lead the NZ Delegation into our Cultural performance with a Haka Powhiri. I also am appreciative of how accessible our MPs are to us as a community. There are some NPOs really struggling and they have absolutely no government support. Japan is in a really crucial time of change and there some real active pockets in its society wanting to make a real difference. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about Japanese culture and language, and I would love to continue connecting with colleagues and friends that I made during the trip.

  • What did you do off-working hours?

I did a lot of walking around Tokyo and exploring underground venues. I frequented a number of Karaoke bars, visited a shrine and market, tried on a full traditional Kimono, went on a tour of the Samurai Museum, went up the tower to view Tokyo at night, caught subways around, utilised the many vending machines available, purchased alcohol from the corner Family Mart (dairy), visited a number of eateries and made a whole lot of new friends along the way.

  • What was biggest culture shock moment?

I had done some preparation and research so that I would know what to expect when in Japan, however, I think the biggest culture shock for me personally is that the Japanese participants identified us as experts in our field. I wasn’t of the belief that I was an expert in any right, but it was very humbling. Another moment that stands out for me was the squat toilets. When you are busting to go, then open the door to a squat toilet, it’s awfully shocking and your anxiety levels of needing to go increase tenfold. Then you consider the option as the alternative isn’t worth thinking about. Another culture shock was getting used to having bidets on all the toilets you go to. Trying to locate the flush button was also a challenge for my sighted peers as well, so I wasn’t alone! The final memorable culture shock moment was the Japanese spas, which I did try out. Inside our hotel there were separate gendered spas and processes to using them. First, you put on your Kimono (which didn’t really fit me too well), then take the lift up to the 12th floor where the spas were. You enter, then strip completely naked (yes I said naked!). You then go and sit on a stool at a private little sink, with a removable shower nozzle and begin to clean yourself: your hair, face, body. This is a ten or so minute process, during which you are meant to relax. Then, you walk over and hop into the hot spa (yes, still naked). The spa I went to overlooked the local shopping mall in Kagoshima, so at night there were lots of lights in the backdrop of our spa. Oh, and you are not to let any article of clothing or any of your hair from your head touch the water. The other shocking thing for me was that they also allow babies into these spas. I know this as I saw a cot and change area for babies upon the completion of our spas.

  • Would you recommend the programme to other people? Why?

It’s an amazing opportunity to visit and learn about Japanese culture, connect with other overseas delegates and open your mind to other experiences. At times you may be outside your comfort zone, and you will soon learn either how to overcome this fast or get left behind.

I would strongly recommend the programme to others, as long as they have an open heart and an open mind to all sorts of new experiences. Also, they need to have a suitcase full of energy and enthusiasm to get involved and participate to the full.

  • What do you think you gained from the experience?

Aside from a group of new contacts to add to my existing networks in New Zealand, I also gained international connections in Japan, Austria and Germany.   I gained more self-confidence and self-awareness. During the trip you are tested, not only mentally, but spiritually and physically as well. I managed all this really well and I surprised myself. I gained confidence in asking for help from perfect strangers, which was a massive barrier for me since I am fiercely independent and do not like to ask for help. I used a white cane to help my mobility and ensure I didn’t fall flat on my face in a foreign country. This was a huge step for me as I ordinarily don’t use a cane, due to being fierce of course! Finally, I think I gained itchy feet, as I would love to travel back to Japan in the future to experience the culture as a pure tourist and not a busy exchange student. I also would love to travel through Europe one day too and learn the various languages and cultures in those Countries too.


To read more about this the programme click here


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