Sasakawa joined the Nippon Foundation as a trustee in 1981, served as president from 1989, and became chairman on July 1, 2005. The foundation’s overall objectives include assistance for humanitarian activities, both in Japan and overseas, and global maritime development. Its philanthropic ideals embrace social development and self-sufficiency, and it pursues these principles by working to improve public health and education, alleviate poverty, eliminate hunger, and help the disabled.
In the field of public health, Yohei Sasakawa has for over 30 years been dedicated to a global campaign to eliminate leprosy (the oldest disease known to humankind), working in close co-operation with the World Health Organization, governments, international organisations, and NGOs. One prime example of his work is the decision to fund between 1995 and 1999 free multi-drug therapy (MDT) for every leprosy-affected person in the world. Sixteen million people have been cured of the disease since MDT first became available in the 1980s.
Sasakawa has described the elimination of leprosy as his life’s work, and spends one-third of every year travelling around the world as WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination, a position he has held since 2001. As Goodwill Ambassador, he has initiated a campaign to end discrimination and other human rights violations faced by tens of millions of leprosy-affected people around the world and he has repeatedly approached to the UN human rights bodies to seek actions since 2003. In recognition of his work, Sasakawa was in 2007 appointed the Japanese Government Goodwill Ambassador for the Human Rights of Persons Affected by Leprosy. In response to his subsequent appeals, the Japanese government submitted a draft resolution for “Elimination of Discrimination against Persons Affected by Leprosy and their Family Members” to the newly formed UN Human Rights Council. The resolution was co-sponsored by 59 countries and unanimously adopted by the Council’s member states on June 18, 2008. Subsequently, the Council’s Advisory Committee worked with Sasakawa to draft “Principles and Guidelines” for eliminating discrimination, and in September 2010 at the UN Human Rights Council, and in December 2010, at the UN General Assembly, the resolution accompanied by the Principles and Guidelines were unanimously adopted.
Among the countries bearing the heaviest burden from leprosy, India had produced the largest number of patients. Sasakawa made 19 visits to India over a period of three consecutive years until India finally achieved the elimination goal in 2005. That same year, Sasakawa initiated the establishment of the National Forum of People Affected by Leprosy in India, a nationwide network of leprosy colonies in the country home to the world’s largest population of people affected by leprosy. Subsequently, in 2006, he established the Sasakawa-India Leprosy Foundation, which fosters the economic independence and social rehabilitation of leprosy-affected people in India.
Sasakawa’s personal involvement in this work has earned him international recognition, including the WHO Health for All Gold Medal, the International Leprosy Union’s Millennium Gandhi Award, the Yomiuri International Cooperation Prize, and the International Gandhi Award.
In Africa, the Nippon Foundation funds the Sasakawa-Global 2000 Program which, for over 20 years, has worked with the governments of sub-Saharan African countries to reduce poverty, increase food security, and protect the natural resource base through the adoption of agricultural technology. The program was initiated by the late Dr. Norman E. Borlaug, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and father of the “green revolution” in India and Pakistan. Policy advice for national leaders is provided by former US President Jimmy Carter and the Carter Center. The program focuses on small-scale farmers, who have demonstrated that the ability, given access to available technology, to dramatically increase their yields of staple food crops. Millions of farmers in 14 sub-Saharan countries have benefited from the program.
Leadership is another key area for the Nippon Foundation, resulting in the establishment of the Ryoichi Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship Fund. It targets future generations of leaders in the fields of social sciences and the humanities through a grant-in-aid program which has provided million-dollar endowments to 69 universities and consortia in 44 countries. Through this program, as many as 15,000 promising students have pursued graduate studies.
Since 2007, in cooperation with the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation, Sasakawa has been helping to create lecturer’s positions in contemporary Japanese studies at twelve major universities in the UK.
Relations between Japan and China have, for many years, been a priority for Sasakawa and the Nippon Foundation. The foundation assisted in the establishment of the school of international relations at Peking University by providing scholarships and teachers from Japan and other countries. Another China-related program, which has existed for more than 20 years, brings doctors and medical specialists to Japan to study the most recent developments in medical technology. Over 2,000 Chinese medical practitioners have now studied under this initiative.
Since its formation, the Nippon Foundation has concerned itself with maritime safety. One particular focus has been the safety of the Straits of Malacca and Singapore, a shipping route that is of vital importance to Japan and the countries of East Asia. Since 1968, Yohei Sasakawa has led the initiatives to enhance the safety of this waterway, working with the littoral states and the International Maritime Organisation (IMO). One of the major accomplishments has been a significant reduction in piracy in the Straits.
For maritime development, Yohei Sasakawa anticipated that the twenty-first century would become the “century of oceans” and established numerous fellowships and scholarships to nurture future leaders in maritime affairs globally. At the same time, through the Nippon Foundation and the Ocean Research Foundation, he has assisted various research projects on such subjects as marine environment, maritime resources, and the prevention of piracy.