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Yohei Sasakawa
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The Nippon Foundation Starts Free, Regular PCR Tests for Nursing Home Care Workers in Tokyo Metropolitan Area [2021年03月08日(Mon)]
Speaking at a press conference in Tokyo on February 25, 2021, to announce the start of free and regular polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests for caregivers and other essential workers at nursing homes in the Tokyo metropolitan area.

The Nippon Foundation has launched a project to conduct free and regular polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests for the novel coronavirus for caregivers and other essential workers at about 9, 950 nursing homes in Tokyo and three nearby prefectures.

To be covered by the initiative are some 560,000 care workers and other nursing home staff who wish to get tested. The tests will be performed on a regular basis, up to once a week for each person. About 750 nursing homes in the capital will be excluded from the program as the metropolitan government plans to administer PCR tests on their staff.

The foundation started to accept applications on February 24 from nursing facilities in Tokyo for conducting PCR tests on some 5,000 workers per day with the daily total expected to increase to up to 20,000 by the end of March. We will also take applications from care facilities in three neighboring prefectures−Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba.

The new initiative is intended to focus on containing infection clusters, many of which have been reported at long-term nursing homes in Japan. The foundation’s PCR testing program aims at identifying positive COVID-19 cases with mild or no symptoms among nursing home staff and thus preventing them from unknowingly transmitting the coronavirus to the elderly in their care.

Older adults and people with underlying health conditions are more vulnerable to becoming severely ill or dying if they become infected with the coronavirus, and the congregate nature of long-term care facilities can increase the risk of transmission. For many care workers, the services they provide cannot be suspended without compromising the health and well-being of those they tend.

However, many caregivers were said to be reluctant to undertake PCR tests due mainly to the cost, prompting the foundation to offer them free and regular testing.      

When we receive applications from nursing homes, saliva test kits will be handed over to their representatives and the samples will be analyzed after they are returned to laboratories run by Kinoshita Group, which has conducted PCR tests since December last year. We have dropped our initial plan to set up a testing center on our own for this initiative and decided to rely for the time being on Kinoshita Group for reasons of cost and efficiency.

Anyone who tests positive will be informed and their details reported to their local health center. Family members and others who have been in close contact with them will be tested as well. If our tests identify clusters of COVID-19 infections at nursing homes, the foundation will provide them with financial support for recruiting care workers to replace the affected staff.

For now, the foundation plans to continue the PCR testing through the end of August when Japan is expected to have made considerable progress in vaccinating the population. After ascertaining the situation concerning new COVID-19 cases in Japan and the progress of vaccinations as of July and August, we will decide what to do in September and after.
Posted by Y.Sasakawa at 18:03 | ENRICHING CULTURE | URL | comment(0)
Ultimate Hospitality Extended by the Emperor (2) [2019年11月14日(Thu)]
At the Imperial Palace on November 5, we then moved to the Rensui-kita (the north section of the Dining Room) for “a tea party.” In fact, as we had been notified prior to the event, this was a luncheon consisting of a full course of French cuisine. There were six round tables in the room and seven people were seated at each.

Joining me at the table were lighting designer Motoko Ishii, painter Toshio Tabuchi, movie director Nobuhiko Ohbayashi and dancer Nouhou Miyagi. Altogether, there were a total of 42 persons, including the Grand Steward of the Imperial Household Agency, the Lord Chamberlain, the Chief Lady-in-Waiting to the Empress and senior officials of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology in addition to the award winners.

The emperor and the members of the Imperial family, operating in three pairs, moved around the six tables. Joining our table first were smiling Princesses Mako and Kako, clad in graceful formal crested kimono with a beautiful white collar. I was surprised by how much they knew about what each of us has done in our respective fields, leading to lively conversation for about 20 minutes.

Coming next were the crown prince and crown princess, who also surprised us by the depth of their knowledge on a variety of topics. Sitting on my right was Mr. Miyagi, who is from Japan’s southernmost prefecture of Okinawa. We talked about Shuri Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was almost totally destroyed by fire in late October.

After days of not so friendly weather in Tokyo, the cloudless autumn sky seen through the well-kept garden was quite impressive.

Finally, the emperor and the empress came to our table. They were well aware of the achievements of each award winner seated there, and our pleasant conversation could have continued forever. Empress Masako, despite her hard work due to a long series of traditional rituals following the emperor’s proclamation of enthronement, including four banquets for foreign and domestic dignitaries, kept on smiling happily and seemed to be enjoying the conversation. I could not hold back my tears at her recovery of health.

At the age of 80, this was for me the most euphoric moment in my life, sharing a table with members of the Imperial family while enjoying wonderful French cuisine accompanied by fine wine.

The members of the Imperial family hardly ate, listening to us closely and carefully. I believe Emperor Naruhito and his family extended to us the ultimate hospitality, and this filled me with emotion.

The event came to a close as the evening twilight descended. I left the Imperial Palace, praying for well-being and prosperity of the monarch and his family.
Posted by Y.Sasakawa at 15:02 | ENRICHING CULTURE | URL | comment(0)
Ultimate Hospitality Extended by the Emperor (1) [2019年11月12日(Tue)]

Posing for a commemorative photo with 20 others selected as Persons of Cultural Merit at the Okura Tokyo hotel on November 5, 2019.  I am on the far right in the first row.

It has been truly an extraordinary honor for me to be selected as a Person of Cultural Merit by the Japanese government in the first year of the new imperial era of Reiwa. I was among 21 persons to have the award conferred on me by Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Koichi Hagiuda at a ceremony at the Okura Tokyo hotel on November 5.

The government said that I was given the honor for my contributions to society and promotion of culture through projects beyond the reach of the government, among them my commitment to fighting stigma and discrimination against those affected by leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, as WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination, as well as my efforts to achieve comprehensive peace in Myanmar as Special Envoy of the Government of Japan for National Reconciliation in Myanmar.

Later in the day, I was invited to a tea party hosted by Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako at the Imperial Palace in honor of those selected as Persons of Cultural Merit as well as six others who were conferred the Order of Culture.  

After arriving at the Imperial Palace at 2 p.m., we rested for a few minutes in the Kita-Damari (North Entrance Hall). Then we all stood in line in the Rensui-minami (the south section of the Dining Room) to wait for His Majesty, who formally proclaimed his ascension to the Chrysanthemum Throne in an elaborate traditional ceremony on October 22.

Escorted by the chamberlain, the emperor entered the room, followed by the empress, Crown Prince Akishino and Crown Princess Kiko and their daughters Princesses Mako and Kako. Smiling, they greeted each one of the award recipients, with the emperor saying he was genuinely pleased by outstanding contributions we had made through the years in academia, the arts, sports and other fields, and hoping that we all stay in good health and continue to do well in the future.


Receiving my award from Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Koichi Hagiuda at a ceremony at the Okura Tokyo on November 5.
Posted by Y.Sasakawa at 10:21 | ENRICHING CULTURE | URL | comment(0)
How About a Reunion of SMAP for 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games? [2019年10月07日(Mon)]

In a previous blog on August 14, I suggested that Japanese television stations invite three former members of the iconic boy band SMAP back on their shows so that they can fully engage in activities to promote the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games.

The three ex-SMAP members − Goro Inagaki, Tsuyoshi Kusanagi and Shingo Katori − left the powerful talent agency Johnny and Associates Inc. in September 2017 following the band’s breakup in December 2016. They have been noticeably absent from television since, for reasons I alluded to in my earlier post.

As The Nippon Foundation has been a long-time supporter of persons with disabilities, the sole intention of my suggestion was to help ensure that the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics is a great success.

The Nippon Foundation’s support for the Paralympics was not initiated in haste following the decision to award the 2020 Games to Tokyo. One of the main missions of the foundation for over half a century has been to work for an inclusive society in which people with disabilities can actively participate without discrimination. Through the 2020 Paralympics, we just want to send a clear message from Tokyo to the rest of the world how spirited and vibrant disabled athletes are.

The Japanese version of my previous blog drew a wide variety of opinions, both pro and con, but not a single person was against holding the Tokyo Paralympics.

Taking my suggestion a step further, may I humbly request that all five former SMAP members−the above-mentioned trio plus Masahiro Nakai and Takuya Kimura−set aside any differences they may have and reunite to perform for a limited period of time until the end of the Tokyo Paralympic Games next year?

The five SMAP members had been enthusiastic supporters of The Nippon Foundation Paralympic Support Center, which we opened in May 2015 to support para-sports leagues and help para-athletes prepare for the Tokyo 2020 Games.

Even after SMAP disbanded, three of the five − Inagaki, Kusanagi and Katori − continued to support the center. That is why the International Paralympic Committee appointed them as its special ambassadors in July 2018.

If the ex-SMAP members together with Arashi − another popular band whose members have announced they are going their separate ways at the end of 2020 − and other entertainers and TV stations can team up for the success of the Paralympics, I believe the games will be a great success. That is my dream.

My earlier blog from August 14 can be seen HERE.

Posted by Y.Sasakawa at 17:36 | ENRICHING CULTURE | URL | comment(0)
Please Don’t Block the TV Appearances of 3 ex-SMAP Members [2019年08月14日(Wed)]

I don’t watch television so often, so it might be a shame that I did not know much about the boy band SMAP. However, I came to realize how influential they are as an iconic idol group through their engagement in the activities to promote Tokyo Paralympic games in 2020.

In May 2015, The Nippon Foundation opened The Nippon Foundation Paralympic Support Center (the “Support Center”), which provides 10 billion yen through 2021 to support para sports leagues and help para-athletes prepare for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.

The SMAP members were earnestly supporting the Support Center’s activities. When the Support Center organized the Para-Ekiden relay race in November 2015 at Komazawa Olympic Park in Tokyo, each of the five SMAP members participated enthusiastically for the demonstration of wheelchair basketball and blind soccer, which stimulated the excitement and passion for Paralympics. During these several days, the event went so well that more than ten thousand of admission tickets were sold out.

At the end of 2016, however, SMAP was disbanded. Three of its five members--Goro Inagaki, Tsuyoshi Kusanagi and Shingo Katori−left the talent agency giant Johnny & Associates Inc. in September 2017. Nevertheless, the trio continued to be the special supporters for the Support Center as active as they used to be as SMAP members. That is the reason why they were appointed as the special ambassadors by International Paralympic Committee in July 2018. Thanks to their hard work, the Support Center and The Nippon Foundation received many encouraging letters from their fans. Without their contribution, the Paralympics would not have reached such a high level of recognition.

But something incomprehensible, something that I could not understand happened. These three members, who should be proud of their huge national popularity, have disappeared from the television programs.

After their contract with the Johnny & Associates finished in September 2017, their regular television appearances have been cut back to almost zero except for commercials. This has aroused the suspicions that the powerful Johnny and Associates pressured or even threatened Japanese commercial broadcasters not to have the trio appeared on their television programs, or else other artists will not appear on their shows.

Television stations usually advocates a golden rule of “freedom of press”. But I am disappointed with their intentions that they only care about how the dominant talent agency feels rather than the importance of a national event like Tokyo Paralympics. According to a press report, Japan Fair Trade Commission has warned Johnny & Associates that their practices could lead to violation of the Anti-monopoly Law regarding television appearances by three former SMAP members.

Mr. Koji Kato, the MC of Nippon TV’s morning show “Sukkiri,” dared to make a comment in the program on July 18. He said, “Not just Johnny & Associates, it is well known in the Japanese entertainment business. The audience might have noticed that some artists who became independent from major agencies have not appeared on television shows for several years.” He continued, “It seems natural in the entertainment world and the television history, but some people might think that this sounds ridiculous in the modern times. Hope this will trigger some changes.” (extracted from Sankei Shimbun issued on July 19)

Television stations will do whatever possible to raise their viewership ratings even for 1%. It is abnormal that they do not invite the ultra-popular SMAP members on their shows for as long as two years. If Japan Fair Trade Commission confirms that there could be violation of the Anti-monopoly Law by the powerful agency, the television stations should humbly admit this fact. For the success of Tokyo Paralympic Games, I hope that television stations will let the three ex-SMAP members return and appear on their shows again.

Posted by Y.Sasakawa at 11:47 | ENRICHING CULTURE | URL | comment(0)
Kyoto temple offers overseas tourists a very special overnight stay [2019年03月27日(Wed)]

Ninna-ji Temple was founded in Kyoto in 888 during the Heian Period. Listed among UNESCO World Heritage sites, it is the leading temple among those known as “monzeki” temples where members of the Imperial Family, including abdicated emperors, served as head priests over many centuries.

About two years ago, The Nippon Foundation launched the “Iroha Nihon – Experience the Soul of Japan” project, under which tourists from overseas who are interested in Japanese culture can stay overnight at some of Kyoto’s greatest temples usually closed to the public.

Ninna-ji is one of the centerpieces of the project. It garnered international attention last summer when it announced that it will host groups of tourists for one million yen (about 9,100 U.S. dollars) per night.

Only a group of up to five persons can stay per night in its historic wooden residence called “Shorin-an” and enjoy a variety of experiences unique to the temple. One Japanese showed interest in viewing the moon exactly from where Emperor Uda, who completed the temple more than 1,100 years ago, did.

I was encouraged when the Rev. Taishuu Segawa, the head priest of Ninna-ji, told me recently that the temple had received inquiries from a person from one of the world’s wealthiest families and a member of a European royal family about staying overnight.

Under the “Iroha Nihon” project, The Nippon Foundation provided funds for renovating the buildings of the participating temples while 10 to 20 percent of the fees the guests pay will be used for preserving cultural properties across Japan.

I sincerely hope that other temples in Kyoto and Nara – and indeed all over Japan – will join the project so that we can contribute more to preserving and restoring the nation’s cultural properties.

shorin an.JPG
Ninna-ji’s renovated “Shorin-an” residence, for use as tourist accommodation
Posted by Y.Sasakawa at 13:30 | ENRICHING CULTURE | URL | comment(0)