Weekly Local Biography

  Goro Hirata

How does a young boy from Kobe Japan end up working with the Tourism Authority of Thailand to develop tourism in this region? The answer is via a very long and roundabout route that took Goro Hirata over 60 years and through probably just as many countries! During that voyage of discovery he has seen at first hand where the North Koreans will go if there is a nuclear strike. He also found that he was discriminated against on account of race, but not in the way that you might at first imagine!

He was indeed born in Japan, and is Japanese. There were seven children in the family, and Goro was the youngest. “This made me very free,” said Goro, “I could do whatever I wanted.” What he wanted was to go and study in New York, in the USA, as an architect. However, he quickly found out that what you want and what you get might not be the same, even if you are a youngest child. New York did not want the Japanese student, but Toronto University in Canada was prepared to accept him, and he spent the next few years there to complete his architectural training.

As an architect, he also found out that much of the work related to environmental considerations, and his initial foray was in designing a multi-transportation complex in Toronto. From there, he moved across the border to America and secured a job designing a housing project in New York using modular houses. At last, he was in the city of his dreams.

He worked in New York for 18 months, but it began to dawn on him that he was not going up the architectural ladder. In fact, he was frankly told, “You’re not Jewish. You won’t go upwards in New York!” Whilst this may not quite be the situation today, it was then, and Goro decided to move on.

One of his brothers in Japan was trying to sell and export equipment to Tanzania, for a proposed amusement park, but there were no master plans or designs. His brother convinced him he should go there and do it. So, to help his brother he went to Africa. He quickly found that the Tanzanian authorities did not really understand what was required in such a design, as they suggested that they would give him one week to draw it all up! He begged for a fortnight and produced a master plan in the two weeks. “Nobody knew (previously) how to develop this area in Africa. I worked very hard for those two weeks. It was very difficult.”

He then decided to try his luck in New York again. However, the doors were still firmly shut, but his brother who was pleased at the success of the Tanzanian project begged him to go back to Africa and Goro ended up designing three amusement parks in Zanzibar for him. Again these were very successful, with large numbers of people coming to the opening.

This in turn began the ball rolling, and he was invited to other countries to design similar parks, as many governments thought that they were good public relations moves, and kept the workers happy!

One such country was North Korea, very much in the news at present, having declared its nuclear armament to be ready. The Kim Il Sung governing party wanted three amusement parks in Pyongyang and Goro was welcomed there. However, despite the welcome, they were not free to roam around the city. “We were treated as VIPs and taken everywhere in nice cars and had interpreters, but (otherwise) we had to stay in the hotel.”

It was 1976, and even almost 30 years ago, North Korea was preparing for nuclear retaliation. “They were setting up offices underground, in case of war. These were reached via very long escalators. They could house the whole population of Pyongyang underground.” Goro could also see that the people were oppressed. “The people were not really ‘free’. They never said ‘I’, they said ‘we’ and that is very different.”

Despite the oppression of its people, they received their government-approved Goro Hirata amusement parks and Goro became well known for his abilities in this area of architecture.

As his name spread, he was asked to design amusement parks for such non-amusing locations as Bangladesh and Iraq! The Baghdad that Goro saw 20 years ago was a multinational and very historical city for which he was asked to revise the master plan for the city. This plan was funded by the Baghdad municipality and included the metropolitan Baghdad boundaries. I am sure that Goro would have had information that could have helped George W Bush discover no Weapons of Mass Destruction even earlier! As it was, Baghdad was even then in the throes of war, with Goro’s six months assignment being during the Iran-Iraq conflict.

After his time in the desert, Goro was asked to come to the south of Thailand to come up with a master plan for the region, including Phuket and Krabi in 1987. “That was my very first contact with Thailand,” said Goro. “Thailand was hoping that Japan would help them to get a project running to develop tourism infrastructure.” Goro also said, rather prophetically, “We never thought about a tsunami, but we did suggest nothing should be built within 500 meters of the beach.” History has shown that his advice was not heeded.

After that he continued his international consulting in Panama and Mexico, but has returned to Thailand becoming very much involved with the tourism development project for the Greater Mekong Sub-region, through the Asian Development Bank.

Towards that end, his company produces tourist maps of the region. Goro is also helping develop 20 villages in Thailand with display centres, home-stays and even village guides.

Despite his slight appearance, Goro is still a powerhouse. “When the local people catch up, I will go,” he said. I think he will be here for a long time yet!