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This tireless philanthropist takes a hands-on approach


The Nippon Foundation building in Tokyo, Japan.

Sasakawa does not believe economic sanctions are ever successful.

UNLIKE many rich bigwigs, Yohei Sasakawa, the chairman of Japan’s Nippon Foundation, did not spend his days in Phnom Penh cruising from one ministry to the next in a chauffeured limo before retiring to his five-star hotel.

During his time here last month, he got down and dirty with the plain country folks of Cambodia to find out what they really think and what kind of assistance they require.

Said Sasakawa: “I don’t talk down to people as if I am giving orders. I chat to them like one of their own. It gives them a sense that I am on their side and that I know what they need.”

He does this because he is fired with a commitment to help disadvantaged people around the world. And he has been doing it for most of his life.

Cambodia is one of Sasakawa’s favourite places and he delights in coming here to see how the foundation’s projects are progressing.

Last month he opened a new school designed to help those who need artificial limbs.

He is also planning to galvanise some of Cambodia’s rich traditional heritage so that poor country people can recapture their aspirations for a better future.

In this regard, Sasakawa is keen for the foundation to shore up sectors of the Cambodian lifestyle that the current helter-skelter race for fast economic progress has somehow left behind.

Said Sasakawa: “While Cambodia’s recent economic development is something to be very proud about, its effects do not always trickle down to the people in the countryside so quickly.”

For instance, he wants the foundation to help rejuvenate the lapsed art of Khmer pottery and traditional medicine.

And although he is cautious never to offend his hosts when he travels, Sasakawa is not afraid to voice strongly felt convictions.

He does not believe, for instance, that economic sanctions like those imposed on Myanmar are ever successful.

In conveying such views, his style is to walk softly and carry a firm but persistent message.

“I could bang on the front door of politicians and say: Look here, what you’re doing is wrong, you should do it differently. But that’s not my way. I fight humanitarian problems in a soft way.” And he succeeds.

Yohei Sasakawa is chairman of  The Nippon Foundation, Japan’s largest philanthropic organisation. Set up more than 40 years ago by his father, the foundation uses funds from legally approved gaming on motorboat races to carry out humanitarian activities around the world. In recognition of this, Sasakawa has received awards from many countries, including Cambodia, China and Russia. He spoke to The Phnom Penh Post’s Regional Insider columnist Roger Mitton about his work and other issues. The following are edited excerpts:

Q&A

Do you run the foundation from its headquarters in Japan?
Not really. Of course, I could sit at my Tokyo desk dealing with requests for assistance from around the world and be very comfortable in my air-conditioned office. But the problems and difficulties are in the field and that’s where I figure the solutions must be. So I hit the ground to see what’s happening with my own eyes. I believe that the actions of a committed, passionate individual can become a communal force for good. And when I visit troubled and impoverished places, I don’t talk down to people as if I am giving orders. I chat to them like one of their own. The other day, in a Cambodian village, I sat down with a family and talked to them about their lives. It gives them a sense that I am on their side and that I know what they need.

What exactly does your work involve?
In 115 countries, we do large-scale humanitarian activities focused on three basic areas. First, people need to eat to live, so we work at increasing food production. Second, everyone gets ill now and again, especially poor people, so we fight to eradicate diseases and provide medicine and treatment. And lastly, we promote human resources so that people can raise themselves out of poverty and aspire to a better future. We tend to focus on those who are marginalised – disabled people, deaf and blind people. You know, their social integration and rehabilitation is what reflects true economic development – not the glittery visual affluence that people mostly see. I work behind the glitter and help forgotten marginalised people in the shadows.

What are you doing in Cambodia?
We are working in our basic areas, particularly health and education.

Yesterday, we opened a new school for prosthetics and orthotics. It’s been a 10-year project that we did in partnership with a UK-based NGO and now it’s up and running. The principal is a Cambodian lady who takes students from the region and trains them to be technicians for the disabled.

So now there’s a school that Cambodia can be proud of and that can transmit its influence and knowledge to the region.

But while Cambodia’s economic development is also something to be proud of, its effects do not always trickle down to the countryside so quickly. So we want to help poor rural people and encourage their, traditional arts and culture. For instance, the famous Khmer pottery has unfortunately lost its allure and reputation in recent times, so we want to revive it once again. Likewise, Khmer traditional medicine can also be revived and used to treat the poorest of the poor who have no access to medicine and doctors. We have just started to build a school for traditional medicine here.

What are you doing in neighbouring countries?
Well, in Vietnam, we are educating deaf people and facilitating their rehabilitation into society. We’ve also provided 45,000 Vietnamese with artificial limbs and built a school for them. In Myanmar, we’ve distributed kits of traditional medicine to 7,000 villages which had no previous access to health care. We’ve also built 130 primary schools for poor rural kids. When we do this work, we never give a cent to the government of any of the countries we’re in. We channel all our funds directly into the projects.

It must be difficult to work in places like Myanmar and Vietnam.
You are 100% right. It’s extremely tough to deal with the stubborn bureaucrats in those countries. They always have this top-down mentality and want to protect their own position and interests. It requires great perseverance and over-flowing passion. We become stronger as the bureaucrats become more stubborn and eventually we overcome whatever difficulties we meet.

Some say you should boycott places like Myanmar.
Listen, I believe in free speech and democracy and I work for that goal. But there has not been a single case where economic sanctions have been successful. In any case, our work is philanthropic, not political. And the way we do things is different from the politicians. I could bang on their front door and say: Look here, what you are doing is wrong, you should do it differently. But that’s not my way. For instance, when China ordered that people with leprosy could not visit Beijing to watch the Olympic Games, I wrote a letter to President Hu Jintao saying that was wrong and against human rights. Within two weeks, my message was heeded and the order was rescinded. That is the way I prefer to do things ... in a soft way. That is how I fight humanitarian problems.

Are human rights respected in this region?
It depends on how you look at the issue. Not everyone has the same view about human rights. I just mentioned discrimination against leprosy sufferers – that is a violation of human rights. Then there is the question of human rights and poverty – the growing gap between the rich and the poor is a human rights issue. On the positive side, human rights for elderly people are improving in Southeast Asia, where the family system ensures that older people are not disregarded. Generally speaking, I think things are going in the right direction around here.

The foundation has been criticised for relying on revenue from gambling on boatraces.
That criticism is no longer heard. After all, such comments are not made about horseracing in the West. Both are considered as all-round sporting events. Our money comes from a legal source and we work under a law that entitles us to 2.6% of the income from boatracing. We are very transparent about how we use this money and nobody doubts the validity of our work. I also do fund-raising and we have just got US$ 5.8 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Japanese government gives us money and the German government wants to cooperate with us. So fortunately, we also get funding from outside today.

Tell us about your Young Leadership Programme.
To deal with the wider problems of global warming, environmental degradation, urban drift and so on, we must nurture young visionary leaders. So the foundation is funding programmes at 69 major universities that have already produced 13,000 graduates who are now active around the world. One has already become a central bank governor, another an ambassador to the United States, one is the minister of transport in Turkey and another the Serbian foreign minister.

Under this programme, we also bring together intellectuals from this region, including Cambodia, to study and research different spheres that we hope can uplift civil society here in Asia. These people, what we call the Asian public intellectuals community, interact and form a network that is our pride and joy.

You’re 72 this month, why not retire, take it easy, play golf?
Golf is the most stressful game in the world, so I won’t be doing that. As for retiring, my late father once told me: Yohei, when you retire every day will be Sunday. You’ll have all the time in the
world to do nothing. So remember, you only have one life – please make the best use of it while you can and do good things.

The story behind Yohei Sasakawa  and Japan’s largest charitable foundation
IN 1989, Yohei Sasakawa was made president of  Japan’s largest charitable foundation, The Nippon Foundation and became chairman in 2005.  Sasakawa also serves as Goodwill Ambassador of the World Health Organisation for Leprosy Elimination.

Sasakawa helped The Phnom Penh Post Publisher Ross Dunkley when he was starting up The Myanmar Times in Yangon through the Sasakawa Peace Foundation.

“I cannot over-emphasise the enormously important role SPF played in the early days of our Myanmar operations providing much-needed training support when we had no cash to do so, and also allowing me to travel and meet important personalities who influenced and helped focus my energy,” Dunkley said, “People like Vaclav Havel, Frederick de Klerk and Madeleine Albright as well as the people from within SPF including Dr Seki Akinori and Prof Lau SimYee amongst others.”

Dunkley said Sasakawa was vital as a supporter and mentor.

The Nippon Foundation is a private, non-profit grant-making organisation, established in 1962 by Ryoichi Sasakawa. The foundation’s mission is to direct Japanese motorboat racing revenue into philanthropic activities, and it uses this money to pursue global maritime development  and assistance for humanitarian work both in Japan and around the world. In the humanitarian field, it focuses on such fields as social welfare, public health and education.

Chairman Yohei Sasakawa donated US$500,000 at a critical moment in Cambodia’s history for radio equipment so that election information could be broadcast during the time Cambodia was being administered by the United Nations transitional authority. Sasakawa was later awarded an honorary degree by the Royal University of Phnom Penh.

Described as a social engineer, Sasakawa is internationally recognised for his planning and leadership on a global scale. Projects have included medical examinations for 200,000 children who were affected by the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident, establishment of a system of safe passage for shipping through the piracy-troubled Straits of Malacca, development of a global scholarship network of 69 universities, bringing 2,000 Chinese doctors to Japan for training and creating Arctic Sea shipping lanes that are navigable year-round.

Sasakawa’s international aid activities have focused on three essential areas:  food security, health care and education. His aid activities within Japan have centred on areas not addressed by government policies, including the development of NGOs and  volunteer activities, the enhancement of services for senior citizens and the disabled and the donation of 20,000 care vehicles to social-welfare organisations throughout Japan.

Sasakawa says modern problems require collaborative solutions and has built wide-ranging networks encompassing the political, governmental, academic and private sectors. One example is Forum 2000  which brings together experts and distinguished individuals from around the world, like Vaclav Havel, to discuss global issues.

In Japan, Sasakawa is also known for his efforts to ensure passage of Japan’s Basic Ocean Law in 2007, and his central role in organizing the Tokyo Marathon.

In 1965, Sasakawa accompanied his father to a leprosy-treatment facility in South Korea and the shock at seeing, first-hand, the discrimination faced by affected people - convinced him of the need for leprosy control, leading him to conduct his own activities.

Sasakawa works to advance dialogue between people affected by leprosy, government leaders, the media, and other parties in many countries, with a particular focus on places where the disease is endemic. He focuses a special amount of effort on promoting an accurate understanding of the disease: particularly the fact that it is curable.  Since May, 2001 he has served as WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination.

In the 1990s, Sasakawa worked to promote the distribution of multidrug therapy (MDT) as a means of controlling leprosy. However, realising that people affected by leprosy, and even their families, continue to face discrimination in areas such as employment and education even after they have been cured, he has advocated that leprosy be approached not simply as a medical issue but as a social one involving human-rights concerns.

Sasakawa’s global achievements in controlling leprosy have resulted in international prizes, such as the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Yomiuri International Cooperation Prize (2004), and India’s International Gandhi Award (2007). Most recently, the Japanese foreign ministry appointed him as its Ambassador for the Human Rights of People Affected by Leprosy.

Support for the maritime world remained an important focus in the 1980s, building on the work of the previous decade. Examples of projects include “Swift Wings,” which was a sail system designed for modern cargo ships, and research toward a “Techno Superliner”, a 1,590-ton cargo vessel that could attain speeds of up to 50 knots.

On the international cooperative support front, the foundation involved itself heavily in disaster relief, sending aid to help the victims of major disasters in countries around the world, and establishing the UN Sasakawa Award for Disaster Relief. In response to the Ethiopian famine of the mid-1980s,  The Nippon Foundation began a program of agricultural education throughout sub-Saharan Africa that reached 14 countries, improving farmers’ yields by up to six times in some places.

Sasakawa is hailed for his global achievements in controlling leprosy.

The Nippon Foundation also created the Sasakawa Young Leaders’ Fellowship Fund, a program that established million-dollar funds at 68 major universities around the world.
Dunkley said of Sasakawa:  “If I had to sum up his philosophy in life it would be appropriate to use the words of Akira Matsunaga, a doctor of philosophy in literature and project director at SPF:

"Everyone in the world has unique and innate talents. Let us all use them for a better society and a better world. We shall respect, accommodate and interact with others in a friendly way, putting ourselves last. If we compete with others, putting ourselves first, we will ultimately fail. Conflict and wars lead to loss, so we shall avoid them. We shall study hard, overcome the obsession with money and things, discover from life and nature the true meaning of contentment, and become spiritually rich guardians of the beauty of the world and the universe.

People throughout the world must understand that egotism is the beginning of deterioration and unhappiness. Egotism takes us on the road to ruin. We must intuitively understand that egotism is cancer of the world – and history proves that when people get infected by egotism, their society, their country, their natural environment and everything in the universe fall into ruin, as if gripped by the deadly cancer.

In the 21st century, we, the people of the world, must thoroughly understand that ‘vivid pictures that we hold in our minds become our own reality, and concepts and images that we keep engraving, projected onto time and space, become our own lives’.

"Moreover, we must strive to intuit about imagination and eternal life. We human beings, the lords of creation, have moved far away from nature, our home since the creation, in an effort to satisfy our desires. If we continue to be enslaved by the ‘rules of the Renaissance’ the control of nature by the artificial and human centrism based on egotism, our brains will become disconnected from our natural roots, and the stress resulting from such self-contradiction will lead us rapidly toward annihilation.

Therefore, we must quickly reconnect with the enormous energy body that encompasses the extraordinary and prosperous vital intention of the genesis, and the wisdom that comes from such an energy-body." 

* Divine Creation – The genesis of the Heaven and the Earth, the origin of the whole universe. An infinite amount of energy that encompasses extraordinary and prosperous vital intention of the genesis.

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