In November 2009, Tadateru Konoe, Japanese Red Cross Society head, became the first Asian president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

In just over a year into his term, Konoe has faced major global crises, including the devastating earthquake in Haiti and the political unrest in the Middle East. And the IFRC has continued to play a major role in providing humanitarian aid to such countries and regions in need.

“Asia has become a major presence in the world today, and I am actually surprised that there had not been any Asian leaders in the past,” Konoe said during a recent interview with The Japan Times.

“Even from the viewpoint of population and the number of natural disasters, Asia’s presence is overwhelming.”

Founded in 1919, the IFRC is made up of 186 Red Cross and Red Crescent societies around the world aiming to carry out disaster relief operations to assist victims and to introduce development programs in areas such as health, sanitation and food security.

In Haiti, the IFRC coordinated and cooperated with the local Red Cross. Most recently, it has set up refugee camps in Tunisia to assist the tens of thousands of people leaving Libya amid the movement to oust the decades-long dictatorship of Moammar Gadhafi.

One of Konoe’s key goals as head of the IFRC is to fill in the “gap” between the Red Cross and the Red Crescent, which is made up of national societies in Islamic countries.

“The Red Cross and the Red Crescent are operating on the same principles, but sometimes there is a strain between the two due to cultural and working-style differences,” Konoe said. “There is an overall image that the West side is calling all the shots. We must eradicate such an image and create an atmosphere that (shows) all participants are equals.”

In this regard, Japan can play a major role because many non-Western nations view it as impartial, Konoe said.

“I think Japan is relatively seen as neutral because it doesn’t try to impose its political views” when providing humanitarian aid, he said. “Some might say that Japan has no policy, but I think that it can place itself in other people’s shoes.”

The Japanese Red Cross Society has a long history, going back to 1877 when it was called the Philanthropic Society. The name change came in 1887. Konoe has been JRC president since 2005. Empress Michiko is the honorary president.

The JRC operates 92 hospitals nationwide, promotes blood donations, and engages in social welfare programs and international and domestic disaster relief.

Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, including the JRC, occupy a unique position of being independent while acting as auxiliaries to the authorities of their own countries in humanitarian endeavors.

“It is extremely difficult to balance the position of being an auxiliary to the government while maintaining independence,” Konoe said.

“Strong cooperation from the government can be a great deal of support, but the law also prevents it from using the national societies as a political tool.”

Throughout its history, the JRC has been active both in Japan and abroad, including the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, the postwar resettlement program from Japan to North Korea, the deadly 1985 Japan Airlines jetliner crash on Mount Osutaka, the 1996 hostage crisis at the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Peru and most recently the devastating New Zealand earthquake.

The main Red Cross activities in Christchurch are being taken care of by the New Zealand national society and the Australian Red Cross, but Japan has sent an eight-member team to give psychological support to Japanese victims and their relatives.

Another characteristic of the Japan chapter was that it acted as a liaison between Japan and North Korea over the abduction issue, trying to help relatives find family members who had been abducted by Pyongyang. But after Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi went to North Korea and succeeded in winning the return of five abductees in 2002, the JRC stopped taking part.

“The reality was that it became too political and Japan could no longer use its Red Cross channel,” Konoe said. “But there is an argument that there should be two channels — one between governments and the other between the Red Cross societies — because at times it may be easier to compromise to a certain extent from a humanitarian viewpoint.”

Konoe, younger brother of former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, has seen a difference in the government’s attitude toward humanitarian aid in recent years. Amid difficult financial times, Japan has been cutting down on official development assistance, but Konoe noted in the process greater focus has been placed on the quality of the aid.

“When trying to create a nation’s image, I don’t think it should focus only on its economic and military strength,” Konoe said. “I think that the area of humanitarian aid has an important meaning (in a country’s image) . . . and the Red Cross can play a major role in establishing such soft power.”

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