Sadako Ogata, formerly United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, is one of Japan’s most prominent international figures.

Born in Tokyo in 1927, she grew up in Japan, China and the United States, receiving her PhD in Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. Her doctoral thesis, titled “Defiance in Manchuria,” examined Japan’s failed, military-led expansionism in China in the 1920s and ’30s, known as the Manchurian Affair. While working as an academic in Japan (where she became Dean of the Faculty of Foreign Studies at Sophia University, Tokyo from 1989), she moved into diplomacy, serving on the Japanese delegation to the United Nations General Assembly in 1968 and as a Minister on the Permanent Mission of Japan to the United Nations in New York between 1976 and 1979.

By that time a mother of two, Ogata followed her husband, Shijuro Ogata (a banker and former deputy governor of The Bank of Japan for International Relations), to New York, bringing her son and daughter to live there with them. The experience, she has said, taught her how to work within the international political arena — and also made her aware that Japanese representatives were frequently not participating in debates for fear of “giving the country a bad image.’

With a self-declared fondness for direct participation herself, Ogata’s first direct contact with refugees was when she was asked by the Japanese government to lead the Japanese mission to plan and provide assistance to Cambodian refugees in 1979. The post indirectly led to her being elected as a U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in 1990, and thereafter to her being re-elected for three terms until 2000. While Ogata was serving in that capacity — due to the unexpected collapse of the Soviet bloc — she was responsible for mobilizing support for displaced people during some of the worst worldwide refugee crises since World War II.

A diminutive yet formidable figure, Ogata has many times risked her own life on the front line. She made frequent visits to the Balkans in the early 1990s, and also to the African Great Lakes region [on the borders of Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo], and was frequently featured in the international media wearing a bulletproof vest. During that decade, she was named one of the 10 most influential women in the world.

Respected by leaders everywhere for her diplomatic skills and hands-on approach, she has, as U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan writes in his introduction to her recent memoir, “A Turbulent Decade — Confronting the Refugee Crises of the 1990s” (March 2005; W.W. Norton and Co.), “left no stone unturned in her efforts to protect the world’s dispossessed.’

Those efforts, as her book details, also involved her — through the UNHCR — in the largest crises to rock the world in the 1990s, including not only those in the Balkans and Africa, but also those concerning Kurdish persecution in pre-invasion northern Iraq and the war in Afghanistan.

Ogata’s political skills appear to run in the family — her great-grandfather, Tsuyoshi Inukai, was prime minister from 1931-1932. A staunch defender of parliamentary democracy, he tried to rein in the Kwantung Army in Manchuria, but paid the price for this when he was assassinated by ultranationalist naval officers in 1932 in the so-called Goichigo Jiken (May 15th Incident), a failed coup d’etat that led to the demise of the party system of government until 1945.

Driven by tireless energy and dedication, Ogata, now 77, continues to bring international causes to the attention of the Japanese government and media. In her new post as president of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) — a national agency for development assistance overseas — she has criticized her government’s reluctance to develop an effective and humanitarian domestic policy on immigration and refugees.

Last month, fresh from a grueling three-week lecture tour of the United States to promote her book, the indefatigable Ogata found time between meetings with international officials to give The Japan Times a rare interview at her office in Tokyo’s central Shinjuku district.

Your book bears witness to recent world politics and the conflicts that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union in a very direct and sometimes critical way. Was it difficult to write?

Yes and no. You see, when I retired from the UNHCR at the end of 2000, I did want to put what happened on record — because it is the story of an agency that was very much in the front line.

I think there were enough articles by scholars and journalists assuming reasons why we did what we did, but no one really presented the case for the opportunities that we had, the choices, the solutions selected and so on. I thought it had to be presented for the sake of the record. Being an academic, I could write academic types of books, but I didn’t want to do that — I wanted to do something that would be for the general public, in the sense of policymakers and those interested in international affairs. So it was a new kind of writing for me, which I wanted to do.

The selection of sources was difficult. There were so many other situations that I would like to have written about, but if I wrote down everything nobody would be able to follow it. My life at the time was like being on a merry-go-round, going around the world and seeing all sorts of people’s situations.

Focusing on the UNHCR as a world body during that particular decade is a very interesting way of seeing that era in history. You were often operating alone around the world and saying things that governments didn’t want to hear. Do you think there could be an expanded role for the UNHCR in the new world order?

No, probably not. This was a transition from a highly structured world political order, to something that we can’t quite predict what it will be like from here on. It was a period of very great fluidity when there was no order. And that was why people wanted to do things. At least there was humanitarian compassion, brought out not only by the realities, but also by the reporting of those realities.

CNN came in during this period and there was new mass reporting [of refugee issues], which led to a lot of interest in the humanitarian aspect, and governments were obliged to do something. But it was not very well organized in the sense that a lot of the things that governments did were not effective, so us humanitarian agencies were left to devise whatever we could.

It was also a period [in which ] a lot of internal orders were breaking down. The fact that there are now fewer refugees than there were 10 years ago — or during my period — shows that things are stabilizing somewhat. So in this sense, if you ask me if there will be an expanded role, I think there may be different roles. We may — when I talk about “we,” I am still talking about the UNHCR — have to be more restrained or constrained in our given role. Also, we will have to work with new partners that are not necessarily the military and so on, but more with development assistance, the rule of law and those more structured areas of international collaboration.

The huge humanitarian crises of the 1990s shocked the world. Do you think that international bodies have learned from that experience and are able to predict more clearly where these crises will occur?

Prevention became a new battle cry toward the latter part of the ’90s, and then after that came peace-building, which was also a new kind of consensus. Neither of these were really able to prove their effectiveness.

Prevention, everyone agrees, is important, but nobody has succeeded in doing very much about that. Peace-building is also a new political agenda, trying to draw in more resources from the military, from development — I don’t see much happening yet, but at least these are new grounds that they are exploring. Prevention is possible only if there is a perfect development agenda, but I don’t think that will come through.

Before I came to it, JICA had an agenda for peace-building, but I don’t think they knew precisely what that meant. I think it has become more attuned to that, trying to enter into operational areas earlier than used to be the case.

At times in your book you express regret about an ultimate settlement or outcome, but you also express a degree of pride in the success of some projects — such as in creating Kurdish safe havens in northern Iraq following Saddam Hussein’s bombing in 1991. Why is that?

That worked out alright because the strategic interests of the great powers — the coalition forces’ action and the willingness of the would-be refugees to go back to where they came from — they all coincided rather neatly. But in any other situation, first of all the strategic interest of the major powers was inadequate if not weak, and since they were not going to sacrifice anything of their own, the results were halfway.

This is still the case in the bulk of the Great Lakes Region, although Afghanistan, after such a long time, is making some progress.

You have described how you took up your role at the UNHCR after some deliberation. To what extent do you think you were motivated personally as well as politically to take that position?

I didn’t really know what I was getting into, because what happened after I took up the office was very different from what everyone assumed would happen in the world. In the end, I had a very enriching experience and I am very glad that I did it.

You have also talked recently about a deep-seated memory of your great-grandfather having been assassinated. As a Japanese taking up an international role, were you partly motivated by that experience?

Yes, in a rather remote, indirect way. You see it was the turning point of Japan to the right — nationalism, and the military taking over Japan’s political role. I knew, my family and myself knew, that this was the wrong way to move for Japan. And we paid the price — losing the war — it was a heavy price to pay. In that process, the Manchurian Incident [in 1931] was the first turning point. This was when when Japan left the League of Nations and turned toward a more self-centered, nationalist course, leaving the League of Nations and also destroying the League of Nations. Japan, Germany and the Axis Powers actually destroyed the League of Nations.

I felt that multilateralism was something that Japan could not destroy again, and so the United Nations was important to me.

You end the book with an invitation to the United States, first made in 1999, to stand with you in a joint humanitarian project. Do you think that joint leadership role in humanitarian affairs can still be achieved?

That invitation still stands. I would like to see Japan do more, and I would like Japan to invite the U.S. to do more. There should be much more collaborative responsibility taken by us, as great countries, on behalf of the world. I would say that if the U.S. or Japan turned away from multilateralism, then multilateralism will collapse.

Do you see your role in JICA as being able to further that?

JICA deals more directly with developing countries. I think this is a very important role for Japan anyway. I don’t have to do diplomacy anymore. (Laughs.)

You first got involved directly with refugees when, in 1979, Japan made a very positive contribution to the refugee crisis in Indochina.

I became operationally involved for the first time. I got more interested in the “doing” aspect of multilateral collaboration rather than just talking about it. That has become my second nature — I like to get things done.

To what extent do you see that change of approach toward refugees abroad actually changing here in Japan?

It hasn’t changed here as much as I would like to see. I got support from the Japanese government and the public at that time — I got enormous support from the public. In the private sector, the biggest fundraising country was Japan. That is partly because ordinary people felt a direct link to these causes through my office and my work. In that sense, I think I had a chance to spread the message to Japan and the Japanese people. But that does not really change the overall scene.

This is very much a closed society. We used to talk about one language, one race, that kind of thing. In fact that is breaking down, but it is still not breaking down in the sense of being able to be inclusive, either in terms of workers or refugees or foreign visitors. There is still not enough of a sense of inclusiveness. This has to develop and for the Americans too . . . the possibility of seeing other than their American way of life, so-called, is very slim.

The sense of inclusiveness is a very important thing to nurture further in Japan, and I would like to see that extended. I am not saying that everyone has to be brought in, but that we have to move toward openness and managing the right balance of the movement of people, which is inevitable.

Do you think the younger generation is similarly motivated to take on humanitarian causes?

Humanitarian causes are just one of many to take up. Some people are very attracted to cultural diversity for instance. I don’t think that everybody has to be in the humanitarian business, but it does lead to more openness and inclusiveness. I think the younger generation is much less inhibited. They travel around. JICA has about 2,000 Peace Corps working all over the world. When you go abroad and visit them, there are a lot of women who go alone into villages and they don’t think anything of it. In that sense, I think there is a lot more openness. But at the same time, since life is so much more comfortable here in Japan nowadays, there are people who are just ordinary and selfish among the younger generation. (Laughs.)

After a long and successful career in the U.N. and JICA, what is your next step?

I am not thinking much further ahead than the next three months. (Laughs.) I am very happy to do what comes to me, if there is some interesting work for me to do. . . . I haven’t really thought through a phase in which there is nothing to do, because things are piling up all the time. If the requests come in a way that challenges me, I will do them.

Do you think that the peaceful image of Japan around the world is being jeopardized because of the proposed rewriting of [war-renouncing] Article 9 of the Constitution?

I don’t think there is that much difference in the revision proposed. De facto there is a self-defence force, de facto it is doing some peacekeeping work; de facto it is not going to be a war power. These are realities — the revised version would not be that different.

If you look at the way the Constitution has been interpreted and practiced so far, it does not seem to be very different from what is being discussed for the future, but I am not studying this whole constitutional issue very closely.

Your husband has also published a book this year [titled “Harukanaru Showa. Chichi. Ogata Taketora to Watashi (My Father and I in the Times of Showa)”; Asahi Shimbun.] Would you ever talk about your life together?

Some people have asked him to write about me, but if that happens, that would be the end! We try to keep ourselves separate. In Japan or anywhere, if you let your private life come out, that is the end — people like to take your pictures in the kitchen. (Laughs).

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