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NPO chief builds a barrier-free world for the disabled and disadvantaged

Philanthropist's NPOs empower Asia's disadvantaged, supplying wheelchairs and building bridges with groups in Japan

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

Michiyo Yoshida’s quiet demeanor and polite reserve belie a tireless energy for helping others. The founder of two nonprofit organizations in Japan working both nationally and across Asia, Yoshida has become an expert on international philanthropy, teaching courses on NPOs at universities in Sapporo and traveling all over the nation to counsel others.

Yoshida has also lectured at the United Nations University and throughout Southeast Asia, where her organizations Go! Fly! Wheelchairs and Neighbors have acted as humanitarian bridges uniting local disabled or disadvantaged communities with groups in Japan. In the past 18 months, she has spent considerable time in India, the Philippines, Kenya and Bali; she brought over an American documentary filmmaker to screen her film “Atomic Mom,” which promotes peace through nuclear nonproliferation; organized a Christmas card drive for victims in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan; and visited Fukushima numerous times.

Yoshida downplays her accomplishments, preferring to discuss those she helps.

“I’m inspired by so many people,” she says. “When I visited Bangladesh in 1997 for the first time, the most impressive place I visited was the slum areas by the river. The simple structures housing the poor, just bamboo and blue sheets, were pushed away and destroyed every season by the floods, but the people rebuilt them every year.

“There I met many disabled people; I met blind people, people with cerebral palsy, an autistic child, but when I interviewed them, most of them said they were quite happy living there. When I asked why, they said that in the streets, people die because they have no food, but in the slums they share. If a neighbor has work they always share, so there is always food and shelter, and community.

“That outlook really motivated me to start Go! Fly! Wheelchairs, as I realized we can learn from them as well as benefit them by providing wheelchairs.”

Growing up, Yoshida believes her perspective was heavily influenced by her father.

“My father worked for the Asia Productivity Organization (a union of 20 countries that promotes socioeconomic development among its members) in Tokyo, so he traveled all over Asian countries, brought us back souvenirs and told us stories,” Yoshida explains. “He also brought co-workers home who were from different Asian countries.

“He was a Christian, and he decided to open up a new facility for physically disabled people, and he also brought people with different disabilities home. I remember from an early age serving them tea or coffee. At that time, our house was small and of course not barrier-free, so I remember them creeping up the stairs. I watched them but I never felt it was anything special because my father made it seem natural — they just couldn’t move the way I could.”

Yoshida also mentions several teachers at her junior high school, Joshi Gakuin in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, who “opened my mind to the world” by encouraging wide reading of international papers and literature. Yoshida adds, “I was quite free, I think, in my mind, because of this upbringing.”

Yoshida left Sophia University in 1970, when the university imposed a lock-out aimed at ending the occupation of buildings by left-wing students during that politically charged period. Planning to study overseas in the hope of becoming a foreign correspondent, she traveled to England to polish her language skills, intending to enter university once her language ability was up to the task.

Fate intervened, however, in the unexpected death of her father. Returning home to care for her grief-stricken mother, Yoshida used her English to land a job as the assistant to the American vice-president of Japan System Development Co.

Yoshida spent the next years taking care of her mother, whose condition gradually improved to the point that Yoshida was able to move to Hokkaido in 1975 with her first husband and open a small guesthouse. There, she helped her husband with the business while raising their three small children.

By the mid-1980s, Yoshida could no longer pretend the marriage would work out, however, and she admits that in the grief and frustration, “for some years, I really felt stuck.” In anger, her husband took their three children to Canada and froze her bank account. Yoshida taught English in Sapporo and started volunteering her translation services to the Ainu and disabled communities.

“Maybe I tried to fill the empty space in my grief by helping other people,” Yoshida says.

Eventually, all three children would return to her, and Yoshida built up many connections through her English teaching, translation and volunteer work. In 1998, after a visit to Bangladesh with her first child, who was attending university in Nepal, Yoshida started Go! Fly! Wheelchairs, collecting used wheelchairs in Japan and delivering them to people with disabilities in developing countries.

Her volunteer work also connected her with the man who would eventually become her second husband, Taizo Yoshida.

“Taizo worked in after-school care, and he was the first one to introduce the coeducation of disabled children with non-disabled children in the school system in Sapporo. He was in three films about the experience, which formed a series called ‘Kodomo no Sora’ (‘Children of the Cosmos’).”

United by their philanthropic work, her husband, an experienced photographer, later started using video to document their activities. Yoshida recorded their work in written form, penning two books, one about the creation of Go! Fly! Wheelchairs and another titled “Chotto Aozora” (“A Patch of Blue Sky”).

” ‘A Patch of Blue Sky’ tells the story of a severely disabled person who is one of my best friends,” Yoshida says. “He is wheelchair-bound but his mind goes out into the blue sky — of course, sometimes it is cloudy. It was interesting to write that one. I interviewed him mostly, but also the people around him, and then I tried to sum up his story in a book.”

Yoshida and her husband also organize frequent study tours, taking wheelchair-bound people in Japan on sightseeing trips and connecting with local disabled communities. Other times, Yoshida organizes trips emphasizing cultural exchange. She brought Ranbyoshi, a Japanese folk troupe, to India, where they worked together with various local arts groups, including the Aadima theater group in Karnataka, which is made up of Dalit, members of the lowest caste in Indian society.

“During my travels, I came to realize that giving wheelchairs is one thing, but there is another basic thing to face when considering disabled people in developing countries: to raise their standard of living by teaching or introducing some new business or new skills or new ways to think about the world,” Yoshida explains. “I gradually wanted to do something deeper within the actual communities than just giving wheelchairs. Giving wheelchairs you always receive smiles, and that is wonderful and a great experience for everyone, but it just brings up more and more issues that need to be solved.”

This realization culminated in the establishment of Neighbors, an NPO devoted to supporting disabled people and the elderly in Asian countries.

Yoshida also keeps busy helping her husband with the planned follow-up to his 2012 feature-length documentary about the people of Fukushima, “Ordinary Lives.”

As Yoshida explains, “I started Neighbors in February 2011, and at that time, I thought we would only focus on the Philippines and Indonesia, but then the (Great East Japan Earthquake) disaster happened, so Fukushima became our ‘Neighbors’ too.”

The couple is currently seeking funding for filming.

“‘These people, their story is continuing and it needs to be told,” Yoshida says.

Sometimes the smallest efforts reap great rewards. After the November 2013 typhoon that devastated Leyte in the Philippines, Yoshida organized financial donations, but also started a campaign to send Christmas cards to afflicted areas.

“I started simply, just a post through Facebook. I was estimating maybe 1,000 Christmas cards, but it spread quickly and we eventually collected 12,000 cards in Sapporo from the mainland and Hokkaido,” she says. “It also spread internationally to Taiwan and Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Canada — so many different countries. It was beautiful.

“We found volunteers who were traveling to the Philippines to take the cards or others who donated postage — it was an amazing effort to show the people our thoughts were with them.”

For more information on Yoshida’s work, please see tondeke.org, asianneighbors.wordpress.com and ordinarylife.bgettings.com. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp