The Lesson Learned from Two Japanese Humanitarian Actors Tackling Human Security Issues towards Refugees

หมวดหมู่ข่าว: arcid-analysis

The Lesson Learned from Two Japanese Humanitarian Actors Tackling Human Security Issues towards Refugees


Reni Juwitasari

Japan Program Analyst, ARCID

School of Social Innovation, Mae Fah Luang University


At the end of the year 2019, the world witnessed the loss of two powerful Japanese humanitarian actors, Professor Emeritus Sadako Ogata (92) in October and Doctor Tetsu Nakamura (73) in December at the hands of assassin effort in Afghanistan. This grief news was not only the utmost condolences for the humanitarian realm, but it was also for Japan. For more than three decades, Prof. Sadako Ogata and Dr. Tetsu Nakamura dedicated their lives to protect refugees from human security issues and to support humanitarian development assistance toward the international community (The Japan Times; The Asahi Shimbun, 2019). Prof. Ogata was the first female chief of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 1991. Dr. Nakamura served as a volunteer in the border of Pakistan-Afghanistan in the 1980s, both of them left us a taught on "no matter the distinction of gender, ethnicities, religions, and cultures, the humanitarian work is to protect the human beings". Their legacy strengthens our humanitarian practice following the four humanitarian principles by OCHA (1991), namely humanity, neutrality impartiality, and independence.

Amid the legacy, this article explores how they contributed their lives to the humanitarian realm and gave us lessons learned from their humanitarian movements. The international community trusted Prof. Ogata for her leadership and her firm determination to engage every means possible to save people in the crisis. Meanwhile, Dr. Nakamurawas respected by Afghans for his dedication to supporting their community. However, they often faced the challenges of becoming humanitarian activists, even giving the influence for the Japanese to continue their legacy.


Two Japanese Humanitarian Actors and Their Biographies

Prof. Emeritus Sadako Ogata and Dr. Tetsu Nakamura were acknowledged as the honoured citizens by the Japanese Government for their contribution to the humanitarian realm. With different life backgrounds, Prof. Ogata was raised in a diplomatic family and educated in the field of political sciences. She received her doctoral degree from the University of California, Berkeley in 1963, and became the Dean of Faculty of Foreign Studies at Sophia University, Japan (The Japan Times, 2019). Meanwhile, Dr. Nakamura, called "Kaka Murrad" by Afghans, was a physician or a doctor born in Fukuoka in 1946 who volunteered to treat leprosy patients in Afghanistan since 1984 (BBC, 2019).

Prof. Ogata's diplomatic career started in 1968 as a Japanese delegation to the United Nations General Assembly. Continuously, she became a Minister on the Permanent Mission of Japan to the U.N. in New York from 1976 to 1979. From 1990 to 2000 she was appointed to be the High Commissioner of UNHCR, and from 2003 to 2012 to be a JICA President respectively. During her tenure in both institutions, she kept maintained the neutrality of humanitarian principles and pushed for refugees' support or aid assistance, especially to Afghanistan (Nippon, 2020). Besides, she spoke up critically towards the Japanese Government and people on low acceptance of refugees, whereas Japan is one of the major donors to the UNCHR (Kyodo, 2020). According to Justice Ministry data, in 2018, 10,493 people applied for asylum seeker in Japan, but only 42 people were accepted, and 40 more were permitted to reside in the humanitarian zone (The Japan Times, 2019).

Dr. Nakamura's humanitarian career was a bit later than Prof. Ogata. He was starting his interest in the humanitarian realm since he visited Pakistan in 1978 as a mountaineering expedition team companion to discover rare butterflies. During his visit, the local Afghans knew his identity as a doctor; they later asked him for medical examination. Being inspired by this coincidence, furthermore, he established the non-profit organization in Fukuoka, named "Peace Japan Medical Service", Peshawar-Kai in Japanese, aligned foremost with the needs of Afghans in 1983 (BBC; Azami, 2019). Following a year, he decided to move to Afghanistan. Later in 1991, he established his first clinic in Afghanistan.

On December 4, 2019 it was the time that took the life of Dr. Nakamura and also the other five Afghans, including doctor's bodyguards, the driver and a passenger (Mainichi, 2019). There was an attack by unknown gunmen when Dr. Nakamura and his team were heading to the provincial capital Jalalabad. So far, there has been no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack (NPR, 2019).


Reflecting Humanitarian Principles on their Contribution

Throughout her diplomatic journey, in 1979, Prof. Ogata was assigned to tackle and help the Cambodian refugees in the border of Thai-Cambodia (The Guardian, 2019). Continuing her career as the Higher Commissioner of UNHCR, in the early weeks taking office, she worked in dealing with war crises of the Gulf War in Iraq and the Balkan War in Yugoslavia. Prof. Ogata made a bold decision by restoring the credibility of an agency shaken by administrative and financial crises. She transformed the outlay of the commission in its 42-year history by allocating an annual budget of $748.3 million to supporting 18 million refugees (The New York Times, 1993).

Besides, she also concerned about social security protection. When she visited two places of the Gulf and Balkan Wars, Prof. Ogata had taken duties monitoring borders. She guaranteed these borders safe and open to be crossed to, ensured to access for medicines and food, strived towards discrimination, assisted in healing trauma, advised refugees to return home, and became diplomatic negotiation with government and non-governmental forces (UNHCR, 1991). In a time when she gave her speech, she asserted that the United Nations must be neutral not to be used as a political machine. She was also against any kind of racism and xenophobia toward refugees and asylum (The New York Times, 2019). 

As for the journey of Dr. Nakamura in the 2000s, he ought to encounter the drought disaster and a shortage of clean water, which affected people suffering from malnutrition and diarrhea (The Japan Times, 2019). Due to the scarce clean water, he had thought that building the canals and irrigation was more crucial for people's life continuity than providing treatment for patients one by one (SCMP, 2019). Moreover, by this period he also had to deal with the US-led invasion against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, or so-called, 9/11. Due to this situation, his Japanese team was evacuated back to Japan, while Dr. Nakamura remained stayed in Afghanistan

Furthermore, in 2003, he started to build a canal that changed the life of Afghans. Even though his background from scientists, to create the canal, he adopted knowledge of Yamadazeki, a Japanese traditional method from the Edo period. He combined the Japanese method with the Afghans technique. He constructed a 25-kilometers canal from eastern Afghanistan Kuz Kumar (Kunar River) to the desert of Gamberi in Jalalabad. According to his statements published in the Peshawar-Kai website (Peshawar-Kai, 2002), the project helped to revitalize 16,000 hectares' farmland, improved livelihood of 600,000 residents in the region, and thus contributed food security there a lot (The New York Times; NHK, 2019).

In order to highlight the lesson learned from the two most noticeable humanitarian actors from Japan, I would like to usefour principles from OCHA in 1991 (OCHA, 2012). The four principles are: 1) humanity -- action to protect life and health and ensure respect for human beings, 2) neutrality -- no taking sides of political, racial, religious or ideological nature, 3) impartiality -- carrying out the basis of need alone, giving priority to the most urgent cases and making no distinctions toward people's background, and 4) independence -- be autonomous from the influence of the political, economic, military or other objectives. Furthermore, according to Lebbe and Daudin in 2016 described that the humanitarian principles from OCHA are divided into two major practical foundations;first, consisting of the principle of humanity and impartially indicates a moral idea and an ethical framework for humanitarian action, and second,comprising about the principle of neutrality and independence refers to the practical instruments for making humanity and impartiality a reality (Lebbe & Daudin, 2016).

Now let me compare Prof. Ogata and Dr. Nakamura’s actions by following the OCHA’s four humanitarian principles.

The first analysis bases onthe principles of humanity and impartiality. The humanity principle was reflected by Prof. Ogata when she had made explicit action on restoring the administration and allocating budget. Her decision on transforming the administration and budget allocation was a practice to put refugees' needs as a priority and to make sure that refugees can live properly. Even more, in her speech, she urged others on respecting refugees as human beings, "I wish to call on you to join hands in the building of a world in which fewer people will be forced to flee, and in which refugees are protected until they can safely return home one day" (UNHCR, 1992). In the case of Dr. Nakamura, he had also contributed his ability as a doctor to treat the patient. In the case of the impartiality principle, both of them understood how to tackle the problem of food and medicine access. Moreover, the impartially was also strengthened by Prof. Ogatas duty of ensuringthe border open and refugees returned home safely. Meanwhile, for Dr. Nakamura, he found the basic need of Afghans, which was clean water so that he projected the canal construction.

The second analysis comes from the principles of neutrality and independence. Prof. Ogata asserted not to spread racism and xenophobia against refugees. Furthermore, she criticized the Japanese Government for low acceptance toward refugees. Dr. Nakamura remained to help Afghans on an irrigation project in the time of the 9/11 attacks by Taliban or Al-Qaeda to the U.S. despite the international community cornered Afghanistan. Both of them left us formidable legacy on being neutral and independent for humanity and impartiality

Nevertheless, the humanitarian passage was not always smooth, but maintaining the neutrality on humanitarianism used to become a dilemma. As Prof. Sadako Ogata said in an interview in 2008, "humanitarian work cannot solve the underline problem due to political influence. Even though the Government in the state was not comfortable having their citizens in a dangerous situation, but if it was about politics and critics, it would be a different story”. Furthermore, the dilemma of maintaining the neutrality principle is also influencedby foreign bilateral cooperation which affects the foreign policy decision. For instance, Japan's foreign cooperation with U.S. forces during the Gulf War in 1991, Japan extended its financial contribution to multinational forces, which triggered Dr. Nakamura against that decision (Mainichi, 2020).

Besides, for Japanese government, they need to follow the direction of the legacy from Prof. Ogata in humanitarian international intervention of refugees, because the direction of Japanese government on international humanitarianism of refugees is still far from what Prof. Ogata had in her mind. According to Nikkei Asian (2019), Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has tinkered with the constitution to increase military aid contractors through arms exports and advocated for easing restrictions of Japans Self-Defense Forceswhich may serve international allies in violent conflicts, instead of easing human suffering or accepting refugees. As a consequence, this direction caused critics from Prof. Ogata which led to her reaction, it’s very unfortunate Japan has little sympathy to those who are suffering”, and she also added “if Japan doesn't open a door for people with particular reasons and needs, it's against human rights" (The Japan Times, 2019). In addition, she uttered her experience during her position in UNHCR facing the obstacles of protecting refugees in the borders, "yet, we chose to act" (Brookings, 2019). Also, the Japanese government discontinues the legacy of Dr. Nakamura which has already built the trust with international community, especially Afghans. During the US-led invasion in 2001, he warned the government against sending the Japanese Self-Defense Forces to Middle East to help the Americans, yet the Japanese government had sent the forces to Afghanistan (The Japan Times, 2019; Nippon, 2020). Moreover, at that time Dr. Nakamura advised the Japanese government to keep Constitution Article 9 that renounces war and militarism, but the government had not heeded his advice (The Japan Times, 2019).

In conclusion, their contribution toward the humanitarian realm gave us the lesson learned on how we could be a prominent humanitarian practitioner. Prof. Ogata has always taught us to put neutrality value to do humanitarian work, meaning that she reformed the U.N. body to be neutral. Dr. Nakamura taught us the important value of impartiality which brought the idea of constructing the irrigation for the lives of Afghans. Moreover, Prof. Ogata left a legacy on the "bottom-up" approach. If becoming a humanitarian actor, we have to listen to the refugees' voices and witness their lives directly to guarantee and empower them (JICA, 2016).


Thanks to Dr. Yuki Miyake, the Head of Japan Program, Asian Research Center for International Development, School of Social Innovation, Mae Fah Luang University for supervising this article.



Online Newspaper:

Afghanistan remembers Japan's Tetsu Nakamura, the Slain doctor who brought water to thousands. (2019). SCMP.Retrieved from:

Asylum seekers in Japan face battle for survival in time of coronavirus. (June 26. 2020). Kyodo News. Retrieved from:

Death of a doctor who devoted his life to Afghanistan. (2019). NHK World Japan. Retrieved from:

He Showed Us Life: Japanese Doctor Who Brought Water to Afghans is Killed. (December 04, 2019). The New York Times. Retrieved from:

Humanitarians we lost in 2019 demonstrated ways Japan can help int'l community. (January 2, 2020). The Mainichi. Retrieved from:

Japanese Diplomat Puts Refugees Before Politics. (1993). The News York Times. Retrieved from:

Japanese Doctor Tetsu Nakamura Dies after Attack in Afghanistan. (December 4, 2019). The Mainichi. Retrieved from:

Sadako Ogata, First Female U.N. Refugee chief, dies at 92. (2019). The Japan Times. Retrieved from:

Sadako Ogatas Legacy Should Restrain Shinzo Abes Military Enthusiasm. (November 14, 2019). Nikkei Asian Review. Retrieved from:

Tetsu Nakamura, a humanitarian who was more than a doctor. (2019). The Asahi Shimbun. Retrieved from:

Tetsu Nakamura: Japanese doctor among six dead in Afghan gun attack. (2019).  BBC. Retrieved from:

Tetsu Nakamura’s death in Afghanistan Exposes A Gap of Perception in Japan. (December 28, 2019). The Japan Times. Retrieved from:

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Azami, N. (2019). Nakamura Tetsu: Humanitarian Doctor, Farmer, and Hero of Afghanistan. The Asia-Pacific Journal, 17 (24), pp. 1-4.

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