In 1998, a march to protest child labor involving people in 107 countries made Yuka Iwatsuki realize that the issue, which she had been interested in since college, was a global movement. She also realized that there were no organizations in Japan leading the global fight.

“This is the perfect opportunity to inform people of the realities of child labor,” she remembers thinking at the time.

Iwatsuki, 44, together with a few college friends, had formed Action against Child Exploitation (ACE), a group working to combat child labor that went on to achieve official nonprofit organization status in 2005.

“ACE has rescued 1,884 children from child labor and trafficking, and has been involved with school and community improvements that have benefited around 13,000 children in India and Ghana,” she says.

“One of the unique aspects of ACE is that we are trying to work globally with governments and businesses,” Iwatsuki says. “We have focused on child labor in Ghana’s cocoa industry and in India’s cotton industry,” she adds. “In the case of Ghana, we are collaborating with confectionery companies to become part of the solution to ending child labor.”

That includes a partnership with Japanese confectionery giant Morinaga, which donates ¥1 for every piece of chocolate sold during designated months to a program that supports the creation of educational and social environments for children in Ghana and other cocoa-producing countries to safely attend school.

More than ¥200 million has been raised since the program began in 2008. ACE, along with humanitarian organization Plan International Japan, has used that money to put more children into classrooms by providing technological guidance to farmers to help end child labor, while also improving hygiene at local schools.

This year, Iwatsuki is busy not only with ACE but also as the chair of Civil 20 (C20), a group of civil society organizations that includes representatives from nearly 50 such groups in Japan and across the globe. It is one of seven official engagement groups for the Group of 20, whose leaders will meet in Osaka in late June.

C20 consists of different working groups focusing on themes like anti-corruption, education, environment, climate and energy, gender, global health, infrastructure, international financial architecture, labor, business and human rights, the creation of more effective civil society organizations, and trade and investment.

Each group meets and will present its own recommendations, which will then be compiled and presented to the Japanese government for consideration at the Osaka G20 leaders’ meeting on June 28 and 29.

“C20 is important because it exists to contribute to the progress of the G20 through proposals that are based on the values of civil society,” Iwatsuki says.

The C20 Summit will be held in Tokyo from April 21 to 23 and a communique outlining their stance on the various issues will be presented to Japanese G20 officials for consideration and debate by the leaders at the Osaka summit.

As chair of the G20, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has publicly indicated some areas of international concern that Japan has focused on in the past.

These include the promotion of free trade and innovation, bridging growing wealth gaps, developing quality infrastructure, as well as a focus on global health, climate change, marine plastic waste, rules for data governance in a digital global economy and issues involving aging societies.

Asked what themes Abe is expected to prioritize in Osaka, Iwatsuki says that various financial initiatives will likely take precedence, but beyond that it remains unclear. One issue expected to feature prominently in discussions is what exactly quality infrastructure development — long the subject of debate at G20 meetings — means.

“The Japanese government is trying, based on discussions about the subject, to create a shared understanding in the G20 of what is meant by ‘quality infrastructure’ development,” Iwatsuki says. “For example, does the process of creating infrastructure projects lead to proper employment for local people? Is investment in these projects sound? Is the infrastructure project effective, safe and transparent? How to establish quality infrastructure is a topic of great interest to the Japanese government.”

Data governance has also emerged over the past few months as an issue of increased importance and concern worldwide, making it a likely contender for discussion at the summit.

At January’s World Economic Forum meeting, Abe outlined his thoughts on the issue.

“I would like Osaka G20 to be long remembered as the summit that started worldwide data governance,” Abe said, adding that he hoped an “Osaka Track” for finding solutions to data governance under the World Trade Organization would be established at the meeting.

“We must, on (the) one hand, be able to put our personal data and data embodying intellectual property, national security intelligence and so on, under careful protection, while on the other hand, we must enable the free flow of medical, industrial, traffic and other most useful, nonpersonal, anonymous data” across borders, he added.

But Abe’s proposal for an Osaka Track is likely to generate a great deal of controversy due to privacy concerns.

Iwatsuki points to numerous issues involving digital rights in general, including the protection of individual data, the impact of the digital economy on social values and relations, the rise of fake news and the equity issue — and the power and influence in the digital economy of just four companies: Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon.

“The Japanese government says it will talk about the dataflow problem at the G20 this time,” she says. “It’s important to properly discuss how the data will be treated. But, from a civil society perspective, we have to be strongly concerned about how this kind of digital economy structure impacts us.”

Iwatsuki’s successes have also served to inspire youth with an interest in international issues.

Asked what advice she would give to younger people who are thinking about following her path and participating in initiatives by NGOs, or even starting an organization of their own, she says that the most important thing is to have boundless confidence.

“One of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize winners, Kailash Satyarthi, often tells young people that ‘three D’s’ are important: Dream, Discover and Do. I say that, before ‘Do,’ you need ‘B,’ which is believe — in yourself and in others,” Iwatsuki says.

“Because a lot of people don’t have that belief, they can’t ‘Do.’ I didn’t know, when I set up ACE, if it would work,” she says. “But I thought ‘maybe it will work,’ and ‘let’s give it a try.’ And the result was support from a lot of people, so it’s extremely important to be able to think, ‘I can do this.'”

Key life events

  • 1997 Founds Action against Child Exploitation (ACE) with four other college friends
  • 2006 Works as a fellow in Washington on a child labor project team for Winrock International, a nonprofit organization involved with social, agricultural and environmental issues worldwide
  • 2007 Returns to Japan to concentrate on ACE
  • 2007 Co-authors book on child labor
  • 2017 Speaks as a panelist at the 4th World Conference on the Sustained Eradication of Child Labor
  • 2018 Attends Civil 20, a meeting of international civil society leaders, in Argentina

“Generational Change” is a series of interviews profiling people in various fields taking a leading role in bringing about changes in society.

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