Finding fulfillment the hard way through NGOs, activism

Sonoko Kawakami has forged a career fighting for the most difficult causes

by Gianni Simone

Special To The Japan Times

The tiny Amnesty International Japan headquarters is hidden on the fourth floor of a nondescript building in a dull business district not far from Ochanomizu, in central Tokyo.

You would think they should at least fly their bright yellow banner from their windows to advertise their presence not only in the area but on the national NGO map.

As part of Amnesty International’s network of activists who since 1961 have fought a hard battle to defend human rights around the world, the Japanese office needs all the support it can get.

Unfortunately, things are not so easy. “Running a nongovernmental organization in Japan is a difficult task compared to over countries,” says Sonoko Kawakami, AIJ’s campaign coordinator. “NGOs in Japan don’t have a long history. Most of them have been founded in the 1980s or later. Many people still don’t know what NGOs really are or what they do.

“Also, people tend to associate them with leftwing politics. Bitter memories of the defeat of the civil movement of the ’60s and ’70s still linger on here. So I guess many still think that this kind of action is useless because no matter what we do, we cannot change society.”

Kawakami, 43, has been with AIJ for nearly nine years since 2002, but her involvement in activism began almost 20 years ago. Born in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, she first learned about NGOs at her university, and later joined the Japan International Volunteer Center. A staff member told her about a vacancy, so she moved to Tokyo in 1992 to work at their office.

“Our focus was protecting the rain forest. I was a paid staffer, but I worked for the very minimum wage,” Kawakami recalls with a chuckle. “But it was a very interesting and exciting job. We often invited indigenous activists from such places as Malaysia, Indonesia or Papua New Guinea.”

At the time she met several activists who told her about Indonesia. “I got more and more interested in the country, which has so many different ethnicities, customs and traditions.” This led Kawakami to a new job in 1995 at the Japan NGO Network on Indonesia.

“JANNI used to be a liaison office of the International Organization for Indonesian Human Rights and Development, so I was sent to West Papua (former Irian Jaya) and Ambon, a small island in the eastern part of the archipelago. Our project was supporting the development of the rural communities, which entailed raising funds in Japan and discussing with the local communities how to better use them.

“We also monitored the human rights situation there. At the time — even now, actually — there was an independence movement. One of our jobs was lobbying the Japanese government into putting more pressure on the authoritarian Suharto regime that routinely harassed the local activists. At the same time, we monitored the Japanese development projects, like dam constructions, that were sometimes harming the environment.”

Being the director and only paid staff member of this very small organization meant a lot of work. Eventually, in 2001, Kawakami suffered serious burnout and left JANNI. “My original intention was to go back to university, but I soon realized that I wasn’t all that keen on studying. What I really liked was getting involved with an NGO. Then I found out that AIJ was hiring people, so I applied for a job.”

With only 6,500 members, AIJ is very small when compared with its counterparts in other countries, for example 100,000 in Australia and more than 140,000 in U.K., even though their total populations are much smaller than Japan’s. “This is a generalized common problem for every NGO in Japan,” admits Kawakami. “The fact is, basic popular understanding of human rights is far behind that of other countries. For this reason changing the human rights policy of the Japanese government is a real challenge. For instance, Japan still maintains the death penalty, and we don’t have any national human rights institutions. Also, Japan is very reluctant to accept refugees,” she said.

Kawakami concedes that most people (85.6 percent, according to last year’s Cabinet Office survey) are still in favor of the death penalty. “Apparently there is no reason for debating an issue on which almost everybody seems to agree, although we can’t forget that France and several other countries used to have the same support rate before they scrapped the system.”

What changed the situation, Kawakami says, was a clear political will to educate the people while harmonizing domestic laws with international rules. “Instead of hiding behind statistics, the government needs to disclose more information to the general public. Only this way can we really start a national debate on this issue. Unfortunately it’s difficult to reach this stage when many politicians lack a thorough knowledge of the subject.”

After the Democratic Party of Japan won the general election in 2009 there were high expectations because the DPJ’s manifesto supported many human rights issues about which AIJ had been campaigning for a long time.

“Former Justice Minister Keiko Chiba was openly against the death penalty. She showed for the first time the execution chamber to selected members of the media and encouraged a debate on this issue. So we were obviously very disappointed when, before resigning, she ordered the execution of two people. The current minister, Satsuki Eda, is also an opponent of the death penalty, so we really hope he is going to do something in order to reach at least a moratorium on its practice.”

Another important issue whose development AIJ is closely monitoring is the introduction of full video recording of the police interrogation process. “There have been many examples of miscarriage of justice when the police have abused their power in order to extort confessions from the suspects. We are working closely on this matter with the Center for Prisoners Rights and the Japan Federation of Bar Associations.”

When asked about the heavy psychological toll that this job takes on her, Kawakami says, “More than tired or depressed I feel angry about the whole situation. I just can’t understand how people can accept all the violence going on. But what is most taxing is that we keep lobbying the government and nothing really changes. Even when something actually happens, the justice minister is replaced or there is a complete overhaul in the Cabinet and we have to go back to square one.”

Funding is another sensitive issue for AIJ. “We don’t receive any money from the government because we try to stay as much independent as possible. We do receive financial support from some companies, but we are very careful about how we handle that. At the end of the day, most of our money comes from membership fees, donations from individuals and revenue from AI merchandise.”

After almost nine years with AIJ, Kawakami has reached a top position within the organization. “As one of the two vice directors it is my responsibility to supervise all the campaign-related activity, constantly monitoring the hundreds of projects being planned worldwide every year. With only eight full-time paid staffers — besides out executive director — our office is rather small and there are limits to what we can do. Part of my job consists of choosing what international campaigns work best in Japan while running our local projects.”

2011 has already been a busy year for Kawakami. “In January we organized our biannual Amnesty Film Festival, a two-day event in which we screened nine to 10 films — both fiction and documentaries — covering different kinds of human rights issues, including the death penalty, refugees, discrimination, human right violations during wartime, etc.”

In 2009 AI launched a new worldwide campaign called Demand Dignity in order to expand its action to social, cultural, and economic problems like slums, forced evictions and maternal mortality in African, Latin American, and Caribbean countries. This year also marks the 50th anniversary of AI and the local office is using the occasion to raise its image in Japan.

Between regular office hours, meetings, symposiums, demonstrations outside embassies and other events on weekends, Kawakami has very little time for herself. “I mostly spend my free time chilling out at home watching movies on cable TV. I can even watch five movies in a row, morning to evening. In this respect, being in charge of the AI Film Festival is a good chance to mix work with my passion for movies.”

What Kawakami really likes to do, though, is travel. “I’m especially fond of Southeast Asia, and I go back to Indonesia every time I can. I was deeply involved in this country’s vicissitudes for about six to seven years, during which I met a lot of amazing people who had a great influence on me.”

One of them, Munir, founder of the Committee for Victims of Violence and Disappearance, was a famous activist who fought for justice in East Timor and Aceh. He was murdered in 2001 soon after visiting Japan at Kawakami’s invitation to speak about his work.

“I respected him so much, his death was a real shock for me.” To this day, Munir’s death remains surrounded by mystery.

Apart from her close relationship with Indonesian people, Kawakami feels endlessly attracted by the place itself.

“I love its rural area, where I go looking for batik and ikat textiles. I always feel so at ease there. It has become a home away from home for me. I especially like the wetland area at the border between Papua New Guinea and West Papua, where one finds oneself surrounded by pristine nature which is so gorgeous and so different from what one can find in Japan. At night when you look up at the sky you don’t feel the stars close to you; rather than that, you feel like you are floating in a sea of stars. Every time I return there, it’s a very humbling, amazing experience.”

For more information on AIJ, including its English-language groups, visit www.amnesty.or.jp