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Yohei Sasakawa
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The Nippon Foundation Surpasses 2 Million Mark in Free COVID-19 PCR Testing for Caregivers in Tokyo Area [2021年10月29日(Fri)]
The Nippon Foundation has undertaken a project to offer caregivers and other essential workers at elderly nursing homes in Tokyo and the three nearby prefectures free and regular polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests for the novel coronavirus. This was part of our campaign to help the nation combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

As of October 16, the number of PCR tests administered on these caregivers reached 2,073,737, surpassing the 2 million mark for the first time since the project was launched in late February. Of the total, 374 persons tested positive.

The foundation’s PCR testing program was aimed 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 who are more vulnerable to becoming severely ill or dying if they become infected.

The Nippon Foundation has also built a makeshift facility with 150 beds in Odaiba on Tokyo Bay to accommodate coronavirus patients with moderate or no symptoms, including those with pets.

The number of patients who stayed at the facility peaked at 52 on August 31 and has since fallen to three as of October 16. This was in step with the downward trend in new cases reported by the Tokyo metropolitan government, with the total falling dramatically from a daily record of 5,773 for the capital on August 13 to well under 100 since early October.

The Japanese media seems to have focused on the number of total COVID-19 cases and the strain on hospitals. But the importance of PCR tests has taken a backseat in their coverage even though I believe testing is considered to be one of the most effective ways to avoid transmission of the disease along with the inoculation campaign.

In contrast to the government’s vaccination drive, under which people get their shots for free, a PCR test can sometimes cost as much as 15,000 yen (about $132) a time.

Getting people to understand the importance of PCR tests would help ease their anxiety about the pandemic as well as encourage them to stay home when cases surge. I am a layman as far as medicine is concerned, but I do believe PCR testing should be administered for nothing.

Besides, the local authorities should also reveal the number of PCR tests conducted in addition to the number of those who test positive. This would give us a clearer picture of the overall COVID-19 infection rate and more time to prepare for the worst.

It is fortunate, however, that thanks to the strenuous efforts by the central and local governments, medical professionals and others, we are making progress in mitigating the effects of the coronavirus. The government has lifted COVID-19 state of emergency restrictions in all prefectures for the first time in six months.

On October 26, the government reported that 70.1% of the country’s population of 125 million has received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, ranking third among the Group of Seven nations after an initially slow vaccine rollout.

But danger past, God forgotten. There are still so many unknowns about the disease. Some experts predict that Japan might be hit by a sixth wave of COVID-19 infections with or without new highly transmissible variants of coronavirus.

The Nippon Foundation, working from the motto of “providing is preventing,” will continue to undertake various initiatives to help the nation battle the virus. I sincerely hope the government, medical professionals and other stakeholders as well as ordinary citizens will deal with the pandemic in the same spirit, basing their response on scientific evidence and a thorough analysis of the situation.
Posted by Y.Sasakawa at 10:12 | ENHANCING COMMUNITIES | URL | comment(0)
The Nippon Foundation Launches World’s First Online Sign Language Learning Game SignTown (2) [2021年10月25日(Mon)]
SignTown was developed as an easy and enjoyable way for both deaf and hearing people to learn and experience sign language. We hope people will be encouraged to work on their sign language and use it in their daily lives. In addition to being able to act as interpreters in social and work situations, this could encourage more people such as doctors, teachers and store employees to communicate with their patients, students and customers who are deaf using sign language.

I believe the launch of SignTown is a great step in the direction of a more inclusive society as it will lay a solid foundation for the further development of a sign language recognition model while, at the same time, raising public awareness about sign language and promoting the social inclusion of the deaf community.

Players are supposed to make signs in front of a camera to complete every task required in relation to daily activities, such as packing their bags for a trip, finding a hotel to stay in, or ordering food at a café.

In response, the AI-powered recognition model will give immediate feedback on their signing accuracy. Cute hand-shaped characters scattered throughout the game will also explain to users the concepts of sign language and deaf culture.  

In this way, both hearing and deaf people can learn sign culture and deaf culture, and sign languages in Japan and Hong Kong, in a fun and relaxing manner.

Previous models of sign language recognition have not yielded a satisfactory accuracy rate because linguistic analysis of sign language has not yet been fully utilized in analyzing the visual-gestural language data.

In sign language, apart from hand movements, other gestural information such as body movements, facial expressions, head positions and movements, and mouth shapes play an equally important role in grammar. Exclusion of any of these parameters in a sign, a phrase or a clause could result in ungrammatical or uninterpretable messages.

While sign languages vary from one country to another, phonetic features like handshapes, orientations and movements are universal, and the number of possible combinations is finite, hence recognition models are possible.  

Our project team has successfully constructed the first machine-learning-based model that can recognize 3D sign language movements, and track and analyze hand and body movements as well as facial expressions using a standard camera.

The next move in the project is to generate a sign dictionary that not only incorporates a search function but also provides a virtual platform to facilitate sign language learning and documentation based on AI technology.

The Nippon Foundation’s ultimate goal is to develop an automatic translation model that can recognize natural conversations in sign language and convert them into spoken language using the cameras of commonly used computers and smartphones.

I am hopeful that people will play with SignTown and someday be able to use sign language in their daily lives, lowering barriers to employment for persons who are deaf and hard of hearing.

Now that the Tokyo Paralympics Games this summer have given added momentum to global efforts toward a more inclusive society, it would be wonderful if more deaf and hearing people to learn and experience sign language with SignTown.

To try “SignTown”, please go to:

The Nippon Foundation Launches World’s First Online Sign Language Learning Game SignTown (1) [2021年10月22日(Fri)]
The entry page of the world’s first multi-language online sign language learning game SignTown launched by The Nippon Foundation on September 22, 2021.

The Nippon Foundation has officially launched the world’s first multi-language online sign language learning game SignTown developed in collaboration with The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), Google and Kwansei Gakuin University.

The launch was announced at a press conference on September 22 which came on the eve of the International Day of Sign Languages on September 23, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December 2017, as a day to call for the recognition and importance of sign language.

With the support of artificial intelligence (AI)-based sign language recognition, SignTown is an online game in which players are placed in a fictional town where sign language is the official medium of communication.

Since the launch of the beta version in May this year, over 8,500 people in Japan and Hong Kong have used the site, leading to various improvements based upon their feedback, paving the way for the official launch.

In my opening remarks at the media event, I noted that Japan has ratified the 2006 U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which states that “governments are to recognize sign language as an official language in the Constitution and/or special legislation, ensure professional interpreter services, and guarantee education to deaf people in their sign language.”

But in reality, Japan has a long way to go to reach that stage.

“Making more people conversant in sign language would lower barriers to employment of persons who are deaf and hard of hearing,” I said.

I was followed by Ms. Ikumi Kawamata, a staff member of The Nippon Foundation, who is deaf. She played a central role in the foundation’s collaboration with CUHK, Google and Kwansei Gakuin University, which is based in Nishinomiya, western Japan, in initiating and developing the SignTown project.

In her presentation, she used sign language with spoken interpretation to provide background on sign language and an overview of the SignTown project. She explained that 5% of the world’s population has some degree of hearing loss and that 70 million people−close to 1% of the world’s population−use sign language.

Ms. Kawamata explained that, like a spoken language, sign language enables people to convey and understand emotions and nuances that are lost when communicating by written text alone. For these people, sign language is more than just a means of communication, it embraces culture and manners and is an integral part of their identity.

We were then joined by popular 19-year-old YouTuber Chloe of Yurima Girl, who is deaf and fluent in Japanese sign language, who demonstrated SignTown. After setting the camera to synchronize AI recognition, she chose the module for Hong Kong sign language and learned signs that would be useful for ordering in a café and checking into a hotel.

Ms. Chloe commented: “The site is enjoyable to use and the side-by-side replay function is particularly helpful. This is the first time I have seen sign language recognition and was impressed by the technology.” She is interested in traveling to other countries and hopes that SignTown will be expanded going forward to include more countries’ sign languages.

(To be continued)

Speaking at a press conference to release the world’s first multi-language online sign language learning game SignTown on September 22, 2021.

A screen shot of SignTown sign language recognition.

Ms. Ikumi Kawamata of The Nippon Foundation uses sign language with spoken interpretation to provide an overview of the SignTown project.

Popular YouTuber Chloe of Yurima Girl demonstrates SignTown.
More Japanese Youths Likely to Vote in Lower House Election: The Nippon Foundation Poll [2021年10月19日(Tue)]
Do you intend to vote in the upcoming lower house election?

Japan’s new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida dissolved the House of Representatives on October 14, setting the stage for a general election on October 31.

The former foreign minister was elected president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party on September 29. Then, thanks to the party’s comfortable majority in both chambers of the Diet (Parliament) he was appointed prime minister on October 4, succeeding Yoshihide Suga who did not seek re-election as party leader and head of the government after just one year in office.

Will young Japanese go to the polls at the general election and if so, what will determine their voting behavior? The Nippon Foundation conducted a survey from August 12 to 16 on the theme of a “National Election”, covering 916 Japanese who will have turned 18, the legal voting age, by October 31. The poll was based on the assumption that Japan will have a general election this fall after the four-year term of lower house members expires on October 21.

The online nationwide survey found that more than half of respondents (55.2%) said they will either vote or probably vote in the general election, a significantly higher figure than the 40.49% turnout for 18- and 19-year-olds in the previous lower house election in October 2017.

On the other hand, a little more than one in five (22.3%) said they will not vote or probably not vote with almost the same percentage (22.5%) saying they don’t know.

Of those who said they will or probably will vote (multiple answers accepted), more than half (55.5%) said they would do so because it is people’s right to vote, followed by 46.4% who said voting is a civic duty and 20.9% who said election results affect their lives.  

The top reason given by those who don’t intend to vote was that voting is burdensome (51.0%), followed by 22.5% who said they are busy, 16.2%  who said they do not know how to vote and 14.7% who said they are indifferent to politics.

When asked which social issues should be prioritized in the election campaign, the highest mark was given to health and hygiene (6.52 on a scale of 1 to 10), indicating Japanese youths’ keen interest in the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Other issues cited were economic growth and employment (6.30), child rearing and the declining birthrate (6.25), disaster response and rehabilitation (6.22), and child poverty (6.14).

By sex, females place more importance on the rights and protection of children and on LGBTQ rights than men did as campaign issues, while men consider disaster response and rehabilitation, and education and schools to be more important than women.

The respondents were asked about voter turnout among the young generation, which is said to be lower than for other generations in Japan (multiple answers accepted). Almost half (48.1%) said they agree with the view that turnout needs to be higher to make the opinions of young people reflected in politics, with nearly two in five (37.2%) supporting the view that wide differences in turnout among generations might make for policies that favor certain groups. One fourth (25.2%) are of the view that Japanese young people see few or no politicians as having great ambitions.

Queried about what would make them more interested in voting with a view to boosting turnout, being able to vote by smartphone or personal computer ranked highest at 64.1%, followed by receipt of a present or gift as incentives (50.2%), greater availability of easy-to-understand information about politics (49.5%), election issues more related to young people (47.5%), and more young candidates and elected officials (47.3%).

Regarding their sources of information about elections and politics, two in three (66.6%) chose television, more than twice as much as social networks (27.0%), internet news (24.9%), and newspapers (20.6%).

Japan lowered the voting age from 20 to 18 under the revised Public Officers Election Act that came into effect in 2016, which means the October 31 general election will be the second in which 18- and 19-year-olds can vote.

Low turnout among young people of voting age is a serious problem for any country. As stated earlier, the last lower house election in 2017 saw the turnout among 18- and 19-year-olds come to 40.49%. As for the House of Councilors elections, it stood at 46.78% in 2016, but fell substantially to 32.28% in 2019.

Analyzing the findings of the latest survey, I look forward to seeing how the COVID-19 pandemic and the new administration installed earlier this month will affect Japanese youths’ voting behavior in the imminent general election.

What would make you more interested in voting and likely to vote?
Posted by Y.Sasakawa at 11:44 | A FUTURE FOR YOUTH | URL | comment(0)
Taking Part in Webinar on “Hansen’s Disease as Human Rights Issue” (2) [2021年10月14日(Thu)]
The second part of the webinar was devoted to a Q&A session in which I took questions from participants. The first question was from Mr. Ardhy Eboe, Secretary of PerMaTa South Sulawesi, the largest provincial branch of PerMaTa National, an Indonesian organization of people affected by leprosy. He asked me what role the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities should play in supporting persons affected by Hansen’s disease.

I responded that the convention aims to protect the rights of persons with disabilities, including those affected by Hansen’s disease and that it is the governments that have to implement it.

But we cannot just wait for our governments to act, I said, adding that it is crucially important that we ourselves use the convention as a tool in our fight and communicate it to society.

To support persons affected by leprosy in these efforts, I said, the Sasakawa Health Foundation and The Nippon Foundation are helping them build up their organizational capacity, adding: “I would like to see a society in which everyone is active, able to express their opinions to the authorities with confidence, and their contribution is valued.”  

Ms. Florence Taaka, a partnership development officer of the Netherlands Leprosy Relief (NLR), asked me how WHO is dealing with stigma and discrimination against Hansen’s disease.

I noted that WHO used to deal with Hansen’s disease only as a medical issue, focusing on curing the disease. But as I found after The Nippon Foundation provided funding for WHO to distribute multidrug therapy (MDT) free of charge between 1995 and 1999, even though people were cured of leprosy, this did not mean that the stigma and discrimination they faced disappeared.

This, I said, is what prompted us to approach the United Nations to take up leprosy as a human rights issue and which culminated after seven years in the 2010 U.N. General Assembly resolution on elimination of discrimination against persons affected by leprosy and their family members, together with principles and guidelines. WHO has since been addressing Hansen’s disease not only as a medical but also as a human rights issue.

I told the webinar participants that the WHO now pays heed to my idea of seeing leprosy activities in terms of a motorcycle, namely that the front wheel represents curing the disease and the rear wheel symbolizes ending discrimination. Only when both wheels are turning at the same time will we make progress toward our destination of a leprosy-free world.

In addition to the series of six webinars, the 10-month “Don’t forget leprosy” campaign includes media briefings held online, TV and radio spots, videos featuring the WHO Goodwill Ambassador’s activities and messages, and the 17th Global Appeal to End Stigma and Discrimination against Persons Affected by Leprosy scheduled for the end of January 2022. 

I look forward to taking part in these events designed to send a powerful appeal to the world: “Don’t forget leprosy.” We must not allow Hansen’s disease to be left behind, even amid the pandemic.


With Mr. Ardhy Eboe (left),
secretary of PerMaTa South Sulawesi, an Indonesian organization of people affected by leprosy.

With Ms. Florence Taaka (right), a partnership development officer of the Netherlands Leprosy Relief (NLR).
Posted by Y.Sasakawa at 10:00 | LEPROSY | URL | comment(0)
Taking Part in Webinar on “Hansen’s Disease as Human Rights Issue” (1) [2021年10月13日(Wed)]
Joining the second webinar of the "Don’t forget leprosy” campaign marking the 20th anniversary of my appointment as a leprosy elimination ambassador. The webinar was held on September 29, 2021.

I was pleased to participate in a webinar on the theme of “Hansen’s Disease/Leprosy as a Human Rights Issue” in my capacity as WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination and chairman of The Nippon Foundation.

The event was the second in a series of six webinars as part of a 10-month awareness campaign called “Don’t forget leprosy” to help ensure that leprosy is not forgotten amid the coronavirus pandemic. The campaign marks the 20th anniversary of my appointment as a leprosy elimination ambassador.

The webinar series is organized by the Sasakawa Health Foundation (SHF) and for the second webinar SHF received the collaboration of the Movement for the Reintegration of People Affected by Hansen’s Disease (MORHAN) of Brazil.

The webinar started off with a talk session in which I had the great honor to speak with Ms. Julia Gama, Miss Universe Brazil 2020, and Ms. Caroline Teixeira, Miss World Brazil 2021.

Ms. Gama has worked as a volunteer at MORHAN for the last seven years, helping persons affected by Hansen’s disease and their families.

She said that through her activities she now considers Hansen’s disease not only a medical but also a human rights issue, citing examples of people who continue to face discrimination and whose marriages have ended in divorce or who have been ostracized by their families and communities because of the disease.

To try to overcome such problems, Ms. Gama is reaching out to as many people as possible by posting about her activities with MORHAN on Instagram. She accompanies these posts with short messages that Hansen’s disease is curable and that stigma and discrimination have no place.

Next up was Ms. Teixeira, who said: “It was a great honor to be chosen Miss World Brazil and thus become an ambassador of the fight against Hansen’s disease.”

She said she wants to serve as a bridge between persons affected by Hansen’s disease and ordinary people, expressing her intent to make full use of an intercollegiate social networking service in the country.

In the coming days, she will be part of a MORHAN delegation visiting several cities in the north of the country, including those deep in the Amazon, to sensitize local governments to act in defense of the rights of persons affected by Hansen’s disease. “We will certainly unite many voices so that Hansen’s disease is not forgotten,” Ms. Teixeira said.

In response, I expressed my deep appreciation to Julia and Caroline−two ladies who are beautiful, popular and socially influential−for taking up Hansen’s disease both as a human rights issue as well as a medical issue and said, “We’ve got wonderful partners in our fight.”

I also saluted them for their active use of smartphones and social media such as Twitter and Facebook to disseminate information on the disease, and asked them to encourage persons affected by Hansen’s disease to make their voices heard with a view to correcting misinformation about the disease.

(To be continued)

I had the great privilege to join a talk session with Miss Universe Brazil Julia Gama and Miss World Brazil Caroline Teixeira in a webinar that forms part of the "Don’t forget leprosy” campaign on September 29, 2021.

Ms. Julia Gama, Miss Universe Brazil 2020.

Ms. Caroline Teixeira, Miss World Brazil 2021.
Posted by Y.Sasakawa at 14:24 | LEPROSY | URL | comment(0)
The Nippon Foundation to Provide Osaka University with 23 Billion Yen to Assist its Project to Better Cope with Future Pandemics (2) [2021年10月06日(Wed)]
With President Shojiro Nishio (right) of Osaka University at a press conference on September 14, 2021, to announce The Nippon Foundation’s decision to provide 23 billion yen (about $209 million dollars) over the next 10 years for the university’s infectious disease research project.

The project has three main goals. First is to promote basic research into infectious diseases, look into the mechanism of the human immune system, antigens and microbes related to infectious diseases, and develop treatments against them.

Second, it will delve into social psychology and behavioral economics in addition to basic medicine. The partnership aims at delivering results that can reduce the impact of pandemics on economic and social activities. Moreover, the center will provide insights into the way the government handles public affairs activities with a view to ensuring that when there is an outbreak of an infectious disease, the public will be provided with timely, accurate and understandable information based on science.

Lastly, Osaka University will nurture over 10,000 health care professionals who will be available to combat infectious diseases so that the medical system won’t collapse due to staffing shortages.

Observing the efforts to deal with COVID-19 has made me keenly aware that an infectious disease outbreak is a “human security crisis,” posing a threat to the lives, livelihoods and dignity of people across the globe. The concept of human security has been debated for many years at the United Nations and other fora and was raised in connection with COVID-19 by then Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in his video address to the U.N. General Assembly in September 2020. I believe that a pandemic of a deadly infectious disease is a crucial issue that affects the safety of people and thus the security of the world.

Japan has tended to give priority to applied science, which can produce immediate profits, over basic science. But one cannot build a building without a firm foundation.

Just as human beings must do everything to avoid wars, we must do all we can to avert climate change and its consequences, including natural disasters and the spread of infectious diseases that some experts suggest may be linked to global climate change. This is what has prompted the foundation to support the Osaka University project, which places a primary emphasis on basic medicine and science.

The Nippon Foundation, working from the motto of “providing is preventing,” has undertaken various initiatives to help the nation combat COVID-19. These include a 3.7 billion yen (about $35.7 million) project to build a makeshift facility with 140 beds for patients with mild or no symptoms, 4.98 billion yen (about $48.1 million) in assistance to 128 emergency medical services hospitals across the country that take care of severely ill and high-risk patients, and providing free and regular polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests for essential workers at nursing homes in the metropolitan areas, to just mention a few.

By partnering with Osaka University, I envisage the creation of a world-class research hub that brings together topnotch researchers from universities and institutions across the globe and serves as a “global public good” that benefits all nations and peoples.

To prepare for a pandemic that might hit Japan and the rest of the world in the future, I believe it is vitally important to beef up the foundations of basic science and medicine from a long-term perspective and pave the way for applied science and medicine to effectively tackle outbreaks of infectious disease.

Posted by Y.Sasakawa at 10:00 | ENHANCING COMMUNITIES | URL | comment(0)
The Nippon Foundation to Provide Osaka University with 23 Billion Yen to Assist its Project to Better Cope with Future Pandemics (1) [2021年10月05日(Tue)]
Speaking at a press conference on September 14, 2021, with President Shojiro Nishio (center) and Executive Vice President Yasufumi Kaneda (left) of Osaka University to announce The Nippon Foundation’s 23 billion yen (about $209 million dollars) contribution to the university’s infectious disease research project.

The Nippon Foundation has announced that it will provide Osaka University based in the western Japanese city with 23 billion yen (about $209 million dollars) over the next 10 years to support its infectious disease research project to prepare for future pandemics.

I made the announcement at a press conference at The Nippon Foundation on September 14 alongside President Shojiro Nishio and Executive Vice President Yasufumi Kaneda of Osaka University.

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly strained Japan’s health care system while dealing a heavy blow to its economic activities. The project is aimed at preventing Japan and other countries taking a hit from future pandemics caused by as yet unknown infectious diseases by promoting open innovation between research institutions and business entities at home and abroad.

Speaking at the press conference, President Shojiro Nishio noted that Osaka University is “extraordinarily lucky” to receive such a large amount of money from The Nippon Foundation for the project, explaining that a research center the university set up last April solely to combat infectious diseases will be tasked with playing a leading role in undertaking the project. The center can accommodate up to 90 researchers from Japan and overseas.

The university, known for its advanced basic medicine, clinical application, social medicine, immunology and research into microbial diseases, will go all out to obtain tangible results in 10 years to contribute to conquering infectious diseases, he added.

Asked by reporters why The Nippon Foundation decided to support Osaka University out of hundreds of universities and institutions in and outside Japan, I pointed to its history of research into infectious diseases dating back to Koan Ogata (1810-1863), a notable medical doctor and educator who founded Tekijyuku, a “place of learning,” that evolved into Osaka University.

The university is a bit different from other Japanese national universities because of its flexibility and track record of working closely with industry, I said, noting that President Nishio and Executive Vice President Kaneda are committed to opening up the research center to talent from universities and research institutions around the world.

“Therefore, I believe that Osaka University is our best partner.”

(To be continued)

“Osaka University is our best partner,” I said at a press conference on September 14, 2021, to announce that The Nippon Foundation will inject 23 billion yen (about $209 million dollars) into the university’s infectious disease research project over the next 10 years.
Posted by Y.Sasakawa at 09:20 | ENHANCING COMMUNITIES | URL | comment(0)