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Opinion

Sadako Ogata's legacy should restrain Shinzo Abe's military enthusiasm

Changing Japan's constitution betrays humanitarian example

Sadako Ogata talks to a young refugee family from Myanmar at their camp in Thailand in October 2000: she represented Japan's boots-on-the-ground with a heart.    © Reuters

In late October I was preparing a lecture on gender diplomacy. It was 5 a.m. in Seoul and my audience would be women undergraduates from Ewha Womans University. I checked for updates on my social media and my heart sank. A friend had written: "Sad that she has passed away."

The comment was left below a 2015 photo of me, my university vice-president and Sadako Ogata at the United Nations University in Tokyo. My caption read: "It's been a lifelong dream to meet one of my heroines in international humanitarianism. No surprise, she's quite an excellent intellectual sparring partner."

At that time, at age 88, she was president of the Japan International Cooperation Agency, the Tokyo-based overseas developmental assistance organization. But she had been the most prominent Japanese diplomat in the world as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees from 1991 to 2000, earning global respect.

When it came to humanitarian crisis awareness, particularly regarding protection of the most defenseless, Ogata dominated media headlines. She was notable and quotable. In the last decade of the 20th century, with its ethnic cleansing and genocide, Ogata traveled the world from one humanitarian emergency to another, including Iraq, Rwanda, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Cambodia.

While I was working in the U.S. Department of State's Bureau for Refugee Programs in 1993, there was no more prominent Japanese woman in the world to admire. At that time I had no idea how few women there were in senior positions anywhere in Japanese society, from the corporate suite to the government ministry.

Her political celebrity came when the Japanese government felt a strong need to show that it could transcend its passive role on the international stage, having been bound by Japan's constitution to contribute mostly financially or with humanitarian assistance, not militarily, to resolving conflicts.

In the face of the fear that this seemed a lesser kind of intervention, Sadako Ogata represented Japan's boots-on-the-ground with a heart. She was an international model of humanitarian intervention who showed Japan could stand out as a soft-power superpower committed to the needs of global victims.

In November 2000, six weeks before Ogata gave up her decadelong reign as UN High Commissioner for Refugees, she said: "Protecting refugees is -- by its nature -- controversial. Carrying out this dynamic and action-oriented function requires us to challenge the sovereign preserve of states to deal with noncitizens and, in some instances, their own people."

Sadako Ogata visits Kosovska Mitrovica, Kosovo in March 2000 on the first anniversay of NATO bombing: she was notable and quotable.   © AP

A few months after those remarks, the actress Angelina Jolie would be appointed Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, becoming Special Envoy in 2012 after more than a decade of tireless service.

The life of Sadako Ogata had no such glamorous hinterland. Her celebrity derived from the strength of her convictions that the leading countries of the world needed to help the world's weakest.

Izumi Nakamitsu, the UN Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, calls Ogata her mentor. There are many Japanese women in international organizations like the U.N. who credit their international service to the Ogata effect. Many of these women have had overseas education and are redefining domestic perceptions of Japanese women as leaders.

But will today's Japan follow the direction of Ogata's legacy in humanitarian international intervention? I hope so, for its own and the world's sake. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should pay attention.

Under the euphemism of Japan as a "proactive contributor to peace," Abe wants to tinker with the constitution and increase aid to military contractors through arms exports. Instead of easing human suffering, he advocates for easing restrictions on Japan's Self-Defense Forces so that one day these forces may serve alongside international allies in violent conflicts.

The Abe Doctrine is far from what Ogata had in mind. Her life proves that a life well lived is one where you can serve the needs of others. Your own security comes from improving the security of those who surround you. Wars must be last resorts, not first options.

For Ogata, reaching out for the hands of child refugees in Zaire was a message that their neighborhood was our neighborhood.

She was respectfully diplomatic in her words about Japan's abysmal record in accepting refugees who seek asylum. She knew that Japan could do more. But it seemed in her twilight years that her lifelong push for global nonviolent peace measures of deployment was abandoned by the government in favor of a push for military measures.

In toasting her memory, may we all follow Ogata's example, to protect those who are suffering and relieve their suffering as much as possible.

Dr. Nancy Snow is Pax Mundi ("World Peace") Professor of Public Diplomacy at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies. She is author or editor of a dozen books, including the forthcoming Japanese-language version of "Japan's Information War."

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