Role models for a changing nation

by Janet Ashby

One welcome exception to the gloomy news in Japan last year was the unexpected awarding of a Nobel Prize in chemistry to an apparently ordinary company worker. Koichi Tanaka’s steadfastness, lack of personal ambition and open, nice-guy persona were a refreshing throwback to a less cynical age, and his success gave new hope to Japan’s beleaguered middle-aged salarymen.

The potential inspirational power of role models like Tanaka can be seen in an earlier example of a Japanese who seemingly came out of nowhere to win success and fame. Sadako Ogata emerged from relative obscurity as an academic to achieve worldwide recognition for her work as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees from 1991 to 2000.

In the recently published “Watakushi no Shigoto” (“My Work”; Soshisha), Ogata looks back at her 10 years as commissioner as well as reprinting a work journal from 1993-4 and various interviews and speeches. In one particularly interesting newspaper essay, Ogata gives advice to young people about to go out into the world.

She believes that human beings grow through their work and that the key to that growth is curiosity — one must be ready at all times to question things with an open mind and heart. While of course it is good that there is relatively little inequality of wealth and societal discrimination in Japan, this does make it harder, she says, to develop a social and political consciousness of problems both within Japan and abroad.

When she became commissioner, Ogata urged Japan to become a “humanitarian superpower,” but now she has come to think that the keyword should be solidarity — building a sense of empathy and identity with people throughout the world. The Japanese will never be truly international or make a significant international contribution, she believes, until they abandon their uchi/soto (us vs. them) mind-set and overcome their island mentality that values homogeneity above all else.

Ogata also stresses the importance of good foreign language skills, not just as a practical tool but as a door to new cultures and value systems, to new feelings of empathy with people living in faraway lands.

Although the book is interesting in its own right, Ogata’s focus on her refugee work left me with many questions about her personal life. How did she come to be appointed commissioner at the age of 63? How did she successfully combine work and family? Many of these questions were answered by a book published last spring, “Ogata Sadako to iu ikikata” (“Sadako Ogata’s Way of Life”; KK Bestsellers) by the journalist Tatsuhiko Kuroda.

Not surprisingly, it turns out that Ogata did not actually come out of nowhere to become commissioner. Born into a diplomatic family in 1927, she spent her early years in the United States and China, returning to Japan for schooling at age 10. Shocked by Japan’s defeat in the war, she studied international relations at Georgetown University, writing her master’s thesis on the Manchurian Incident and the policy developments that led to war. While at Georgetown she learned how to organize her thoughts, write in English and participate in American-style discussions in seminars, skills that later served her well internationally.

Returning to Japan, she confirmed her own roots as a Japanese while studying Japanese politics and diplomatic history as a special student at Tokyo University. Later, she returned to the United States and earned a doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley. At the age of 33 she married Shijuro Ogata, the third son of an elite political family whom she met while at Tokyo University. He went on to an illustrious career at the Bank of Japan, the Japan Development Bank and Barclays Bank.

Kuroda points out that although Ogata has become a symbol of internationalization, she actually lived as a traditional Japanese wife, raising a son and daughter while following her husband in his work relocations and teaching part-time. She was able to work because her mother helped with child care. Later, when her mother became bedridden, Ogata cared for her while teaching and working in administration at Sophia University (as director of the Institute of International Relations, and dean of the Faculty of Foreign Studies).

Ogata often advises female students to accept that the cycle of a woman’s life is different from that of a man’s, and to think in the long term rather than focusing on immediate goals. She herself forwent many chances of early career advancement while her children were small, but did participate in some Japanese delegations to the United Nations in the 1960s with the encouragement of her father and husband — and at one point by early feminist Fusae Ichikawa. Later, in the 1970s and 1980s, she served as minister of Japan’s mission to the U.N., chairman of the executive board of UNICEF, and as Japanese representative to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.

When Ogata went to the Thai-Cambodian border in 1979 as a U.N. special emissary investigating the problems of Cambodian refugees, there were virtually no Japanese participating in relief efforts. Now there are many young Japanese working abroad in nongovernmental and international organizations, in part inspired by Ogata and in part due to the reduced opportunities for college graduates (particularly females) after the bursting of the real estate bubble.

And what of Ogata as a role model for women wanting meaningful work without giving up marriage and children? Not everyone is born into a well-connected family or lives in a country with a geriatric ruling class: Where else would a woman in her 70s, no matter how many peace prizes she had won, be a serious candidate for foreign minister or even prime minister? But women everywhere can learn from Ogata’s flexibility and ability to make the best of restricted opportunities without bitterness. They can also take their cues from her capacity for hard work (while at the U.N. in Geneva she came to work 30 minutes early every day to polish her French-language skills) balanced by recreation (tennis), her ability to make quick, firm decisions and, above all, her choice of a supportive husband.