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Nongovernmental organizations play an extremely important role abroad, with their activities constituting an effective form of diplomacy, according to a new ambassador tasked with overseeing Japanese NGOs.

“It is often said that Japan has been conducting diplomacy that is not visible . . . but NGOs are going out in the field and are making Japan’s presence visible,” said Mitsuhiro Saotome, who was appointed Nov. 8.

Raising the level of government funds allocated toward NGOs would see cash funneled directly to the grassroots level and used more effectively to finance specific projects, Saotome said in a recent interview.

On his new role at the Foreign Ministry, Saotome said, “I don’t have many restrictions. In a sense, the judgments are left up to me.”

Saotome has a wealth of experience in working with NGOs, following his appointment in 1994 as the ministry’s first director of the Non-Governmental Organizations Assistance Division.

He voiced regret over the ministry’s attempt to bar two NGOs from an international conference in Tokyo last January on reconstruction of Afghanistan.

The incident, which was allegedly due to meddling by scandal-tainted lawmaker Muneo Suzuki and caused a showdown that resulted in the sacking of the popular Makiko Tanaka as foreign minister, led to the creation of Saotome’s new post.

“Personally, I think through my experience in Tokyo and in the field (while serving as ambassador to Zambia and Malawi), I’ve been able to establish close and trusting relations with people from Japanese and international NGOs,” Saotome, 64, said.

Prior to his stint in Africa, Saotome had served as consul at the Consulate General in Los Angeles and as consul general at the Consulate General in Auckland, New Zealand.

He joined the Foreign Ministry in 1965, after studying psychology at Chiba University.

He said he hopes to keep in close contact with NGOs and to bolster ties in an effort to prevent a recurrence of the January incident.

He said he hopes to create an environment in which NGOs can function effectively.

Saotome said he believes the government must collaborate with NGOs, companies and the media to allow NGOs to carry out their work effectively.

He also hopes to promote information exchanges between the public and private sectors.

Saotome advocates providing the kind of support that would allow NGOs to place more emphasis on training their personnel to become specialists in their fields.

Specialists are beneficial in Japan as well as abroad, he said, citing NGO workers who are engaged in disaster-relief operations overseas as an example.

A native of Utsunomiya, Tochigi Prefecture, Saotome has lectured at universities, including Meiji Gakuin University and Teikyo University, on a part-time basis about contemporary U.S. politics and development assistance theories, as well as other topics.

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