The March 2011 disasters have increased Japanese awareness of international cooperation, says Sadako Ogata, and the departing president of the Japan International Cooperation Agency hopes this will lead the government to play a larger role in assisting developing nations.
When Japan was hit last year by the worst natural disasters in the postwar period, offers of help poured in from all over the world. Nations sent messages of solidarity and donated money, food and relief goods.
It was a rare occasion that Japan was on the receiving end and not the giver.
During her final news conference Thursday at JICA’s headquarters in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, Ogata expressed her gratitude that not only industrialized countries but also developing nations wanted to help. She noted that the city of Kandahar in conflict-ridden Afghanistan donated $50,000 immediately after the earthquake-tsunami.
“Japan is aware that it helped other countries but had no memory of receiving assistance from other nations,” said Ogata, who retires Saturday. “Japan received so much support from developing nations and I think that the awareness that we need to help one another spread throughout Japan has surfaced a little.”
For 10 years between 1991 and 2000, Japan was the world’s No. 1 donor of official development assistance. With a high point of ¥1.16 trillion in 1997, the ODA budget has since declined for 13 consecutive years. The figure for fiscal 2012 will be ¥561.2 billion, less than half of what it was at the peak.
“It’s true that there is criticism against Japan” over the reductions in ODA, Ogata said. “There was a point when the government said ‘cut cut cut,’ but I think the situation has become more balanced. I think people have a little bit more of a broader view now, focusing on the effects of ODA and its international importance.”
Ogata, who was appointed JICA president in 2003, said she was encouraged to find many young people interested in oversees aid, but she also stressed that language is a barrier and that Japan needs a better English education program.
The daughter of a diplomat, Ogata spent her childhood abroad and has a Ph.D. in political science from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s in international relations from Georgetown University in Washington.
“Japan needs to educate its people so that they can communicate with others globally,” she said, pointing out that English education in China and South Korea is improving rapidly. “It is sort of like after World War II. I think this extreme disaster led people to once again turn their attention to the international community.”
Aside from being president of JICA, Ogata was also appointed by the current government as a member of its national strategy council. She was the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees from 1991 to 2000 and served as cochair of the United Nations Commission on Human Security.
At 84, she is ready to “take a breather” and pass the JICA baton to Akihiko Tanaka, vice president and professor of international relations at the University of Tokyo.