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Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2002

NORIKA FUJIWARA'S PHOTO EXHIBIT

Celebrity spotlights Afghan hardships


Staff writer

One doesn't often see young Japanese celebrities taking action based on their social conscience, what with their reluctance to invite controversy or ridicule.

News photo
Norika Fujiwara discusses her humanitarian pursuits during a recent interview in Tokyo.

But popular actress Norika Fujiwara hasn't let such concerns stand in her way. "When you are working at one corner of the media and there's something you feel strongly about, I believe it's your duty to act on it," said the 31-year-old who is one of today's top celebrities, showing up in advertisements, magazines and on TV.

Last summer, Fujiwara's strong concern about the lives of ordinary Afghans took her to that war-ravaged country. Photos she took there will be on display from Dec. 10 to 19 at Tokyo International Forum to raise funds to help Afghan children.

"I knew it was a country that was off-limits to most outsiders. But I thought that if I used my position in a positive way, and go there and report on what's happening, I could make more people aware," Fujiwara said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.

A native of Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, Fujiwara, who is also the Japanese ambassador of friendship to South Korea this year, experienced the aftermath of the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995.

She recalls how grateful and moved she was by the donations and acts of charity that came from all over Japan, and the world, in support of the people there. "It was also an experience that taught me the preciousness of life," she said.

A frequent flier to New York, Fujiwara said she was saddened by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, and the war on terrorism that followed.

On her Web site, Fujiwara has repeatedly lashed out against terrorism but at the same time said she feels retaliation will only continue a vicious circle of hatred, costing more innocent lives. "The pain of losing a loved one is universal. We shouldn't let it happen again," she said.

Earlier this year, Fujiwara donated part of the profits from an accessory brand she produces to the Twin Towers Fund in the U.S., which supports families affected by the attack. Money also went to the Japan International Friendship and Welfare Foundation, a nongovernmental organization that provides medical support in Afghanistan.

But her charity didn't end there. Feeling that media reports lacked information about ordinary Afghans, she decided to go see the situation for herself. Fujiwara's sincere but risky proposal surprised many around her, and some insisted it was out of the question. But her enthusiasm moved the Nippon TV producer with whom she currently works.

Obtaining passports as journalists, Fujiwara and 10 TV crew members entered Afghanistan in mid-July. Their documentary was aired in September.

During her 10-day stay, Fujiwara went to Kabul and Bamiyan, where she visited International Red Cross-run rehabilitation centers for those victimized by land mines, and schools supported by the nongovernmental organization Save the Children Japan.

News photo
This picture of Afghan siblings on the streets of Kabul will be displayed later this month at Tokyo International Forum in a major photo exhibition by Norika Fujiwara PHOTO COURTESY OF NORIKA FUJIWARA

"I realized that I had been lulled into complacency by the peaceful conditions in Japan," she said. "I felt like I was hit hard in the head by whatever I saw or heard in Afghanistan."

Fujiwara was shocked that people were living in the proximity of land mines, which were planted during the years of civil war as well as during the Soviet occupation. She saw the sad irony that some had been planted by locals trying to protect their land from enemies.

"Sometimes the places where land mines are buried have chocolates or stuffed toys to lure children. I was outraged," she said. "How could people do such a thing when we are all humans? It was terrifying."

Fujiwara saw schoolchildren learning about the danger of land mines and how to avoid them. Some walk to school for two hours on roads alongside possible minefields.

Despite such conditions, the children Fujiwara met said they were happy to be in school and wanted to study hard and someday work for the good of Afghanistan.

"I really understood the importance of education," Fujiwara said. "If you teach them how to read and write, or simple things like sharing something together, it can make a difference."

For the photo exhibition, some 150 of the more than 1,000 photos she took during her journey will be on display. A book will also be published, all the profits from which will be donated to Save the Children Japan to construct schools for the children in Afghanistan.

Of all the people she hopes will show interest in the exhibition, Fujiwara said she especially wants kids to see the photos. "I want Japanese children to realize that things they take for granted, like having plenty of drinking water or taking a hot shower, are luxuries if you look at other parts of the world," she said.

Fujiwara hopes to hold the exhibition in other cities in Japan. "Now that I've seen the situation in Afghanistan, I have the responsibility to get this across to as many people as possible," she said.

Fujiwara intends to go back to Afghanistan to view the schools being constructed and to see children study.



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The Japan Times

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