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Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2009

HRW chief working to change diplomacy

Staff writer

Kanae Doi, a 34-year-old lawyer, has always wanted to be on the side of the weak. As a director of the Tokyo bureau of Human Rights Watch, a position she has held since 2008, she is trying to change Japanese politics to protect human rights.

News photo
Rights advocate: Kanae Doi, director of the Tokyo bureau of Human Rights Watch, talks about her work at her office in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on Dec. 14. SATOKO KAWSAKI PHOTO

A strong sense of justice comes naturally to her, she said. "I cannot really explain why." She said she naturally sympathizes with the weak rather than the powerful.

Doi's passion for helping the weak was fueled in high school, when she read the book "Ningen no Daichi" ("Earth of People") by Michiko Inukai, a granddaughter of former Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai.

The book is a report on refugee camps Inukai visited in Africa and Asia. Since then, Doi developed an interest in going to Africa to help refugees.

"(The book) was shocking," she said.

Doi, who became interested in foreign affairs after spending a few weeks on a home stay in Edinburgh when she was 15, first dreamed of becoming a diplomat. "But after encountering the book, I realized there are other occupations in the field of international affairs," she said.

But growing up in a strict family, she was not allowed to pursue studies on international affairs at university.

"My mother strongly believed my life would be over if I weren't a lawyer or a doctor," Doi said. So she had no choice but to enter the University of Tokyo's law department.

Being reluctant to study law, she began spending more time at a horse riding club. But again, her mother became worried she was not studying enough and told her to quit the club and start studying for the bar exam.

Although the study was stressful, Doi became the youngest person to pass the exam at that time. "But I could not take the stress anymore. I moved out and never returned home," she said.

During her final year of university in 1997, she decided to go overseas to make her dream come true by visiting refugee camps. She asked a member of the nongovernmental group Peace Boat for advice, who suggested she go to Eritrea in northeast Africa so she could use her knowledge of the law.

To her surprise, Eritrea, which declared independence in 1993, accepted her as a volunteer researcher at its Ministry of Law and she helped establish the penal code.

A one-year stay in Eritrea and the encounter with lawyers who were trying to make the country better changed her impression of the profession. "I thought they were wonderful. There were many lawyers who were fighting for the weak, and I thought I wanted to be one of them," Doi said.

After her return from Africa, she became a lawyer and worked mostly for Afghan refugees residing in Japan.

In October 2001, nine Afghan men in Tokyo and Chiba Prefecture who were applying for refugee status were sent to the Immigration Bureau. It was also found out in December that year that some 20 Afghan refugees were sent to the East Japan Immigration Center in Ibaraki Prefecture after being refused entry at Narita airport.

"After Sept. 11, many Afghan refugees were arrested in the world. It was the same in Japan. They aren't terrorists, but immigration officers caught them randomly to get information," she said.

Doi worked for five years as a lawyer, and moved to New York to deepen her knowledge of human rights protection law.

Studying at New York University, she got to know about Human Rights Watch, or HRW. "Its documents were used in class, and many of my classmates wanted to work there," she said.

Doi also wanted to work at the organization, but she said it was too competitive, even for a spot for a one-year fellowship.

"I didn't think I could win the competition as the applicants had connections and experience of internships. So I thought it might become easier to get in if I could get a fellowship somewhere else," she said, adding about 300 people usually apply for a single opening at Human Rights Watch.

Then, in 2006, she got a fellowship from the Japan Foundation, an organization working for cultural exchanges, and worked at the Human Rights Watch head office in New York for a year.

She said she always wished there were a bureau in Tokyo, so she took the opportunity to open one when she was asked by the head office. "I felt responsible, and wasn't sure if I could open the bureau. But I said yes," she said.

The first step was to collect donations to run the office, but Doi said she had no idea where to start. "HRW told me to find people who were likely to donate money. For example, people on the list of the World Economic Forum," she said.

"It was around the time the Clinton Global Initiative was held, so I looked at its attendance list, but there were only a few Japanese."

But she found one, Oki Matsumoto, CEO of Monex Group Inc. She contacted him through her friend Daisuke Iwase, cofounder of the Internet insurance company Lifenet Insurance Co.

With her passion and strategic approach, Doi opened the Tokyo bureau of HRW in August 2008.

The bureau's central activity is to change Japan's diplomatic policy, Doi said.

"Japan is a big supporter (of countries where conflicts and genocide occur). So we ask the government to put pressure on those countries in international politics."

But as politicians also tend to be influenced by rights and interests such as natural resources, she said it is important to let the public know what is happening in the world.

She said she feels that people are not much exposed to international news.

"HRW is also like a news wire. We want as many Japanese reporters to read our news so we do our best to translate it in Japanese," she said. "It is crucial to circulate more news reports on human rights."

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