Table Speech

“Leprosy in the World and Assistance for the Great East Japan Earthquake”

June 22, 2011

Mr. Yohei Sasakawa
Chairman, The Nippon Foundation

 You must be surprised to know that there have been two kinds of human beings since the dawn of history: the “human beings” and the “lepers” who failed to be recognized as human beings.

 When I was 28, I visited South Korea accompanying my father who attended a ceremony to donate a nursing home for lepers. I was devastated to witness the plight of lepers, who were not treated as decent human beings. Numerous lepers around the world have been deprived of their basic human rights, freedom and equality. In some countries, lepers are forced to divorce or they have no access to public transportations or other facilities. Even after they are cured, it is not unknown for their families to be denied marriage for several generations.

 Serious discrimination against leprosy dates back thousands of years, presumably being the origin of various forms of human-rights issues and discriminations that still exist today. Lepers have been segregated on remote islands from ancient times with neither any means of transportation nor communication. Such islands include Molokai Island (Hawaii), Robben Island (South Africa), Mediterranean islands and Culion Island (Philippines). In Japan, the national sanatoriums exist in Kagawa, Okayama and Okinawa.

 Lepers had to endure intolerable stigma over centuries, partly because they themselves refrained from raising their voices to avoid further discrimination. Lepers had no voting rights till 1945 even in the US, and they were isolated at camps in Carville (Louisiana) or Kalaupapa (Hawaii). In medieval Europe, patients were given “Mass of Death” while they were still alive and were treated as non-existent beings.

 I have met tens of thousands of lepers through my visits around the world to assist them. I hugged them, touched their feet and purulent hands. Nevertheless I am quite healthy and it proves that this disease is not transmittable.

 We started to distribute the heroic drug developed recently to countries around the world, free of charge. We have experienced various difficulties in teaching the patients how to take the drug. For example, the pygmy patients in Africa shared the drug we had distributed among their tribesmen, according to their hunting tradition of equally dividing what they have gained.

 As we toiled to distribute the medicine throughout the world, Brazil is currently the only country where leprosy is yet to be eliminated (World Health Organization defines “elimination” to be “less than 1 case per 10,000 population”). In 1985, such countries totaled 122.

 Lepers are often tormented by continuous discrimination even after they are cured. It is extremely challenging to restore their human rights and promote their social integration.

 I have lobbied the UN Human Rights Committee since 2003. I met every single expert and explained the human rights issues concerning leprosy. At long last, the resolution on leprosy and human rights got unanimous approval by the 59 countries at the UN Human Rights Council in September 2009, followed by its adoption at the UN General Assembly last December with unanimous approval by all 192 member states. We are not satisfied with this, as there remains much more to be done. Collaboration with the local media or influential figures around the world could be effective in the crucial task of eliminating discrimination. I am determined to strive to eliminate leprosy and solve the patients’ human rights issues, abiding by my motto of “passion, patience and continuity.”

 Now, let me touch upon our assistance for the Great East Japan Earthquake. Massive amounts of domestic and foreign donations were made, to assist the quake-hit areas. Most of the donations were sent to the Japan Red Cross to be channeled to the earthquake victims. Yet, as much as 280 billion yen of the relief fund remains in the bank. This is because the local officials, who are entrusted with the fund distribution, are overwhelmed by their daily operations to assist the disaster victims and often they themselves are victims.

 On the other hand, NPOs and volunteers engaged wholeheartedly in the relief operations suffer from acute financial shortage. Funding NPOs and volunteers, who propel reconstruction of devastated areas, is as important as donations for victims. You can check our website to identify the best qualified NPOs to support.

 Donations in-kind are equally important. Up-to-the-minute information on what the disaster victims really need is essential to get the most appropriate relief supplies to the affected places. Our 40 staff members undertook surveys at 600 evacuation centers in Miyagi prefecture to assess the real needs. I sincerely hope this disaster will “foster a culture of donations in Japan.”

 CSR activities are gaining in importance for companies. The Nippon Foundation website releases the ranking of CSR activities for the listed 1,700 companies, serving as a good indicator for job-hunting students or investors. CSR activities will presumably take over the public relations function.

 The Nippon Foundation has abundant technical expertise through our 59,000 assistance operations. We are happy to collaborate with you and foster a new culture of donation in Japan. Time has come for each one of us to get committed to rebuild this country.