By Saki Ouchi
Senior Research Fellow at the Yomiuri Shimbun Research Institute.
In March 2000, I accompanied Sadako Ogata on her final inspection tour of the former Yugoslavia as the U.N. high commissioner for refugees. We bounced around for hours in a four-wheel-drive vehicle down a bumpy road still scarred from recent fighting, moving between accommodations that lacked even hot water.
She listened intently as local people told her stories of losing their families and livelihoods and condemned the ethnic groups with which they were in conflict.
At a meeting in Kosovo, Ogata told a staff member who complained about a shortage of funds and manpower, “Tell me what you can do, not what you can’t do.”
Her tone of voice was calm, but the atmosphere of the meeting changed drastically and the discussion became constructive.
The driving force behind her motto to always be “first on the scene” with humanitarian activities may have been a sense of noblesse oblige — the idea that people born to privilege have social responsibilities.
She was born into a distinguished family — her great-grandfather was Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai, while her grandfather was Foreign Minister Kenkichi Yoshizawa. She was raised in an environment that placed the utmost importance on discipline, she said.
At the request of the government, she gave up her career as a scholar in international political science and took up a new life course as minister at the Permanent Mission of Japan to the United Nations. Then, after leaving UNHCR, she assumed the post of president of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) at the age of 76. She likely accepted all of these tasks out of a sense of public service.
It was obvious to everyone that she had no attachment to money or position, and that she possessed a strong determination to accomplish her mission. These characteristics earned her respect at the United Nations, which is in fact a worldly place.
Ogata also liked new things. She was delighted when I took her to a restaurant she had never visited before. She also tried out every new IT device that came her way. She liked cutting-edge ideas more than anything.
Regarding advice for working women, she said: “Women with families have a later work cycle than men. Take your time and prepare for a protracted struggle.”
Many Japanese staff members who have been influenced by Ogata are now actively involved in front-line work at the United Nations. Ogata has bequeathed to Japan a new generation of internationally minded people who learned from observing her own way of living.