Trailblazing volunteer reflects on path to NGO icon status

by Akemi Nakamura

When Keiko Kiyama went to Yugoslavia in the early 1990s to help people in the war-torn region, many Japanese probably thought her a bit eccentric.

Now, the 45-year-old is viewed as a role model for many young people who want to engage in a seemingly unconventional job.

Earlier this week, Kiyama, secretary general of the nonprofit organization Japan Emergency NGOs, won the Woman of the Year 2006 Grand Prize, set up by the monthly magazine Nikkei Woman to honor working women who have taken initiatives in various fields.

“I never thought of working at an NGO (as a child). I didn’t even know about the existence of NGOs,” Kiyama said in a recent interview at JEN’s office in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo.

Kiyama worked at a manufacturing firm for five years and obtained a master’s degree in sociology at State University of New York in Buffalo in 1992 before embarking on her career in international cooperation.

JEN was founded by six Japanese nongovernmental organizations in 1994, and in May that year Kiyama was dispatched to Yugoslavia, where ethnic groups had been at war with each other since 1991. It was the group’s first foray into actual field work.

“I oversaw our activities by taking care of logistics and negotiating with the United Nations,” Kiyama said, noting that the activities included providing refugees with vocational training, helping to rebuild their houses, and medical and psychological care.

During her first three weeks there, she only got two hours of sleep a day, and got very little free time in the next four years.

“I was trying desperately (to do something) for the refugees,” Kiyama said. “But the refugees, who had survived numerous hardships, were cheerful and trying to be tough on the surface. Looking at those people, I was encouraged.”

JEN’s activities in the East European country continued for a decade until local NGOs succeeded them in 2004.

Kiyama returned to Japan in 2000, but her efforts to help those in need become independent continue today in other countries ravaged by disaster and war.

Kiyama believes she has supported more than 1 million people in 14 countries over 11 years, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Her most trying experience was when NATO started air raids on Serbia in 1999.

At that time, JEN was in Bosnia, promoting peace-building projects, including sports and art events and job training programs in which people with different ethnic backgrounds could jointly take part.

Many people were skeptical about whether such projects would get off the ground, Kiyama said, and the bombings led to “mounting tension among participants.”

“(The air raids) occurred after people had come to realize that war does not solve any problems (in Yugoslavia). I felt despair and powerlessness,” she said.

More than a decade after Kiyama first set foot in Yugoslavia, the environment for NGOs in Japan has taken a dramatic change for the better.

An increasing number of young people in Japan have started working at NGOs like JEN, especially since the Great Hanshin Earthquake in January 1995, a disaster that blazed the trail for volunteer relief activities here.

In 1998, the government enacted a law to enable certain NPOs to gain certification and corporate status, which boosts their credibility and helps them raise funds. As of the end of October, 25,500 NPOs had obtained this status.

However, these groups are operating in a difficult environment compared with their European and North American counterparts, due to lack of financial support and public understanding, Kiyama said.

“Our activities need to be supported by our communities. I think (many) people want to build a better world, but they do nothing because they believe they cannot do anything,” she said.

“I hope people will see (volunteer activities and support such activities) as part of everyday life. . . . I would like to study and propose measures (to realize this) in the future.”