Inspiring Thursday: Sadako Ogata

Sadako Ogata (1927-2019) was a Japanese diplomat, who became the the first woman, the first Japanese person, and the first academic to be appointed as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Sadako Ogata was born in Tokyo in 1927, the daughter of a Japanese diplomat father. She was also the great-granddaughter of the former Japanese prime minister Tsuyoshi Inukai.

She spent her early years in the United States, China, and Hong Kong, and was back at school in Tokyo when the US firebombed the city in 1945. She graduated from the University of the Sacred Heart in Tokyo, and went on to study at Georgetown University, in Washington DC, and Berkeley, in California. Before joining the UN, she was an academic serving as dean of the faculty of foreign studies at Sophia University in Tokyo in 1989, where she had been a professor since 1980.

The first contact with the United Nations was when she was invited by the Japanese government in the delegation of Japan to the UN General Assembly, in New York in 1968. In 1979 she had her first direct contact with refugees, when she led a Japanese government mission to help Cambodian refugees. She was involved with Cambodian fugitives again in 1990 and her work there impressed the UNHCR that she was chosen for the top job later that year.

In 1991, she became the first woman, the first Japanese person, and the first academic to be installed as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

When Ogata started working as UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the rest of the staff knew almost nothing about her. First impressions were that she was too quiet, too self-effacing, too timid. There were doubts about whether she was up to the challenge of running one of the world’s biggest humanitarian organizations. The skepticism was partly because she was a woman, at a time when few occupied senior UN positions.

The skepticism about Ogata disappeared on the cold mountains of northern Iraq. More than a million Kurds were fleeing Iraq in the aftermath of the Gulf war. She flew by helicopter into the mountains to hear, at first hand, accounts from the refugees trying to escape to Turkey or Iran. Here was a UNHCR chief who refused to be deskbound, one who asked the right questions, listened, and followed up with action. From Iraq she flew to Iran and Turkey to seek their cooperation and succeeded. She was quietly spoken and courteous in negotiations but direct and persuasive. Ogata is remembered for having broken the gender barrier at a major UN agency and for her transformation of UNHCR, expanding its role to help millions more refugees.

She was well respected by UN staff and world leaders alike and was described by her colleagues as a “five-foot giant” for her formidable negotiating skills and ability to confront hostile factions.

“My concern was always centered on providing security to the refugees and giving them opportunities to lead happier lives”.

In 1995, she was awarded the Philadelphia Liberty Medal, an annual award given by the National Constitution Centre of the US, which recognizes “leadership in the pursuit of freedom”. From 2003 to 2012, Ogata was the head of the Japan International Cooperation Agency, overseeing efforts to aid those in developing countries.

Sadako Ogata died 22 October 2019 at 92 years old.

Written by WAVE Intern Diva Adelaide Edosini


Sadako Ogata obituary | Refugees | The Guardian

Sadako Ogata: First female UN refugee chief dies at 92 – BBC News

Sadako Ogata – The Lancet