9th Building A Better Asia Retreat Program

Nara, Japan

Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, Prof. Dorodjatun Kuntjoro-Jakti, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:

I would like to begin today by expressing my sincere thanks to the many kind people around the world who have offered their concern, sympathy, and even assistance for the victims of the recent disaster in Japan.

Following the earthquake, support flowed in from around the world, particularly from Asia. We really felt that people were reaching out to support a friend in need.

So many countries extended helping hands and even set up disaster relief funds. An astonishing number of citizens made donations large and small. We are truly grateful for these kind gestures. The Japanese people were deeply touched by the warm support of our neighbors.


Though Japan is a country that routinely experiences earthquakes, the deadly disaster last month took us very much by surprise. It was the biggest quake in Japan in recorded history, and the country’s first tsunami of this scale in over one thousand years.

Had the earthquake been the only disaster to strike the country, we would have been able to handle it to an extent. However, nobody was ready for the giant tsunami that laid waste to our northeastern coast, claiming thousands of lives in under an hour.

One month later, the death toll has risen to 13,000. More than 15,000 are missing. Over 150,000 people have been relocated to 2,000 shelters.

During the horrific calamity, countless unnamed individuals became heroes through their bravery and self-sacrifice. We have all heard of acts of the utmost bravery:
A policeman who kept helping people to evacuate until the tsunami engulfed him;
A young female official who sacrificed her life to warn others of the approaching tsunami;
A fishery company executive who helped Chinese trainees to escape but lost his own life;
An Indonesian nurse who rushed to help people, despite being ordered to evacuate.
I am a firm believer in the potential of humankind. Tragedy and difficulties only make people stronger. The events of March 11 have left an indelible mark in the annals of world history. Yet, I hope that we will remember that day, not only for its tragedy, but also for the many tremendous displays of courage that it engendered.

The Nippon Foundation has created a disaster relief fund, using donations received from both inside Japan and around the world. With this fund, we have launched a large-scale support program to help reconstruct the devastated regions. Our relief efforts are built on the experience and know-how that we have developed over many long years.

Earlier this month, I personally visited some of the devastated towns of Tohoku. I was overwhelmed. Everything had been literally washed away. The wreckage caused by the massive tsunami was far beyond anything I had imagined. Once again, we have been reminded of the fragility of our existence on this planet.

The first phase of the disaster, when only the self-defense forces, fire brigade and police can help out, is almost over. It is now time for civil society to take a hand. Unfortunately, the role of government in modern society is increasing, and public work tends to be exclusively carried out by government bodies. I believe that civil society must also actively participate in the public sector.

While working in the disaster area, I was deeply impressed with the efforts of young citizens and NGO workers. An amazing number of concerned citizens and student groups are working along side the various NGOs and volunteer groups. Their assistance has greatly complimented the efforts of the central and local governments.

I always believe that young people can play a very important role in times of change. The Nippon Foundation has great faith in the power and capabilities of the young, and has supported such individuals for many years. To date, my foundation, in cooperation with the Tokyo Foundation, Sasakawa Peace Foundation and other affiliates, has given over 30,000 young people the educational opportunities needed to better themselves and society.

When I was in the earthquake-damaged region in Miyagi Prefecture I had the chance to speak with the commander of the self-defense forces helping with the relief work. It turned out that he had taken part in our military personnel exchange program with China. Other recipients of The Nippon Foundation’s support have gone on to do a variety of work for the public good in many countries.

Past beneficiaries of The Nippon Foundation’s programs have little time to meet each other. They work in different countries, and take part in our programs at different times. Hence it is understandable that they do not meet in the course of everyday life. However, I believe that when people with shared goals come together and share their experiences, the total effect far exceeds the sum of its parts. In other words, networks of like-minded individuals can go a long way to achieving common goals.

I think that one goal we all share is the creation of a better Asia.

An Asia that shares the enthusiasm to solve not only regional, but also global issues.
An Asia made of people that are well informed about both the region, and about individual Asian countries.
An Asia where countries interact with each other while maintaining their own individual character.

As a means to realizing this better Asia, I thought of organizing workshops for past participants and beneficiaries of our different programs and scholarships in the region.
This was the origin of the BABA retreat program.


To date, 163 young individuals from 20 countries have participated in BABA workshops. All participants in the BABA program are outstanding in their respective fields. Through interaction at these events they learn a great deal and gain much inspiration from each other. Furthermore, since the seminars began, Dr. Surin and many other wonderful leaders and experts have been kind enough to give lectures and take part in the discussions. Thanks to their great contributions, the dialogue between the young participants has become even more deeply meaningful.

This BABA session is the last of the first phase of five years. To mark this special occasion, we decided to hold this session in Japan. To our pleasant surprise, there were 73 applicants. In other words, almost half of the total of all past participants. I think this clearly shows the extent of your appreciation for BABA.

For this 9th session, we are lucky to have the generous support of Governor Arai, who has invited us here, to Nara, one of the most beautiful cities in Japan. Nara was the ancient capital of Japan before Kyoto, and celebrated its 1300th anniversary last year. As you will find during the course of the retreat, Nara is rich with Japanese culture and tradition.

The most popular Buddhist site in Nara is Horyuji Temple. It is believed to be the oldest wooden building in the world. It was built in six oh seven by Prince Shotoku, who was regent to the Empress Suiko, Japan’s first empress. The Prince, who brought Buddhism and the cultures of India, China, and other countries to Japan, is well known for his contribution to Japanese culture.

In the year six oh four, the Prince set out a constitution regarding ethics for aristocrats and bureaucrats. The first article of his constitution states: “Harmony is to be valued, and the avoidance of wanton opposition to be honored.”

I think that the thoughts and deeds of Prince Shotoku symbolize Asian wisdom. It is a wisdom that values harmony and the tolerance of diversity.

Asia is one of the richest areas in the world in terms of diversity. It is home to many religions and political systems, and each country has its own culture and traditions. Yet, in spite of these differences and our varying levels of income, there are remarkably few international conflicts.

This may be because Asian culture has always been open to variety in tradition. Asia should be proud that it values and seeks to understand different traditions and histories. With the march of science and technology, tradition and history are often ignored as things of the past. But they have much that is relevant and valuable in this day and age.

In several Asian countries, The Nippon Foundation conducts projects in which traditional medicine is used in primary healthcare. In the past, traditional medicine has been viewed as unscientific, based on superstitions, and even dangerous. But today, it is drawing much attention as a very valuable resource. The Nippon Foundation is conducting several projects to distribute traditional medicine in countries like Mongolia, Myanmar and Thailand, with the cooperation of the respective governments. In these projects, medical kits are distributed using an ancient Japanese system used since the samurai era. In the future, we hope to work with the WHO and ASEAN to expand this project to other countries in the region.

Dear fellows of BABA 9, you are soon to begin an enjoyable four-day workshop in Nara. As you may know, we have had to limit this retreat to just 32 people to ensure a smooth exchange of ideas and opinions. It was not an easy task. So you are the lucky ones. This is a wonderful opportunity for you to meet the other fellows once again, and to interact with the many talented and inspired mentors who have been kind enough to attend.

I would like to extend a warm welcome to five new members that most of you have not met in previous BABA workshops. They too are beneficiaries of The Nippon Foundation’s programs.

For about twenty years, my foundation has been conducting programs to support persons with visual, hearing, and physical disabilities.

Though progress has been made, people with disability still face many barriers in society. I strongly believe that these barriers are a social fabrication and that if they are dismantled, those with disability will be able to display their unique skills. There are so many disabled people out there just waiting for such an opportunity. They are truly valuable members of society. I am sure that the participation of these five new people will make the discussions this year infinitely more rich and significant.

The theme of the Nara retreat is Human Security, which is quite timely and appropriate. The world poses many challenges in this regard. Through an exchange of views and ideas among the participants, and through contact with the mentors gathered here, I believe you will be greatly inspired. However you react, one thing is clear. You cannot disregard the need for regional collaboration. By networking, you can strengthen your ability to cope with the challenges inherent in achieving human security. Please take this valuable opportunity, not only to talk to your fellow participants, but to further strengthen your networks so you can effect positive change.

On a final note, I would like to offer my sincere thanks to Mr. Rajaretnam of IRC for organizing the BABA seminars. Without your leadership and organizing ability, BABA could not have developed to this level. Last but not least, I would like to offer my heartfelt gratitude to Mr. Shogo Arai, the Governor of Nara Prefecture, for his kindness in hosting this important event.

Thank you.