Nippon Foundation’s Sasakawa Yōhei Receives Seiron Taishō Award
Recognized as a Charity Worker and Columnist
Sasakawa Yōhei, chair of the Nippon Foundation and longtime activist in the global fight against Hansen’s disease, accepted the thirty-fifth Seiron Taishō at a ceremony at Tokyo’s Hotel New Ōtani on September 17, 2020. The annual award, presented by the Fujisankei Communications Group to academics, cultural figures, and opinion leaders contributing to the causes of freedom and democracy, went to Sasakawa for his decades of charity work, as well as his writing activities in the pages of the group’s Sankei Shimbun.
The newspaper’s “Seiron” column, which frequently features opinion pieces from conservative Japanese commentators, has printed more pieces by Sasakawa—126 at latest count—than any other writer, he noted proudly. One of his columns in particular gained him attention as a candidate to win this year’s award. “In baseball terms, it’s like I got 126 hits. It sounds like a great record, but I actually only ever had one home run,” he laughed. This home run was a January 3, 2019, column titled “Chūgoku koten ni torawarezu shin-gengō o” (Choose a New Era Name Without Being Bound to the Chinese Classics). In it he urged the scholars choosing Emperor Naruhito’s era name to move beyond the venerable Chinese texts that had provided all previous era names and look to Japan’s rich native literary tradition for inspiration. In the end it was indeed the eighth-century Japanese poetry collection Man’yōshū that provided the new name, Reiwa.
In his speech, Sasakawa delivered several messages to the sparse crowd on hand. (The ceremony had originally been scheduled for February and planned to welcome hundreds of guests, but the COVID-19 pandemic caused the organizers to postpone it until this month.)
Three Messages for Japan
He touched first on the need for Japan to alter its constitution to bring it more in line with its own identity as a sovereign state with a lengthy history. “Japan has been here for some two thousand years,” he noted, “but this document treated as sacred by many has been with us for only seventy-five of those. And it was crafted in a great rush—a week, perhaps ten days.” He spoke of the heiwa-boke, a pleasantly oblivious and shallow dedication to the cause of peace, that has taken hold in Japan, urging the country to become a truly independent state in charge of its own defense—with proper civilian controls in place, he stressed. “The words constitutional amendment spark an almost allergic reaction in people who hear it,” he admitted. “Perhaps we need to soften the tone of this message a bit. I suggest describing the needed course of action as ‘altering’ the document, rather than a weighty legal term like ‘amending’ it.”
Second, building on his extensive experience traveling the world and seeing what other countries have to offer in comparison, he gave praise to Japan for its cultural power. “I am not saying that we should be boastful about our country,” he said. “But we are a nation whose cultural merit and impact are rare to see in the world today.” As examples, he pointed to the nation’s many attractions that brought exploding numbers of visitors to its shores, until the coronavirus put global tourism on hold; the tens of thousands of companies that have been in business for more than a century, indicating a vigorous, sustainable economic base; and the Japanese tendency to take pride in work and focus on doing it well. “The problem,” he stressed, “is that the Japanese—particular the younger people—lack an understanding of all of this.”
Finally, he spoke of these young people and the future they envisioned for their country. Compared to countries like China, where 96% of young people have hope for their country’s future, or India with 76%, the world’s developed nations show much lower levels of confidence: 30% in the United States, 25% in Britain, and a meager 9.6% in Japan. This is counterbalanced, he noted, by the fact that fully 86% of young Japanese report being happy to have been born here, but it is clear that they have no bright vision of where this nationality will take them. “It is the responsibility of the generations in this room today to share knowledge of Japan’s excellence—its cultural power and potential—with the youth. This is the way for us to make our own contribution to the world, by helping our young people see the value of our land.”
A Missing Award-Winner
At the outset of his remarks, Sasakawa spoke of one of his fellow prize recipients, the late Lee Teng-hui, former president of Taiwan. Lee, a fluent Japanese speaker who had been educated in the Japanese system while Taiwan was a colony and later attended Kyoto Imperial University on a scholarship, was named to receive a special Seiron Taishō and had been scheduled to attend the award ceremony in February, but serious health issues and pandemic travel restrictions prevented his attendance. He passed away on July 30 at the age of 97. “When I learned of his passing, it hit me almost as hard as my own father’s death did,” Sasakawa noted. The ceremony began with a moment of silence in memory of Lee.
Sankei Shimbun President Iizuka Hirohiko presented Sasakawa with the prize trophy, a bronze statue titled Hishō (Flight) originally created by the sculptor Mishō Susumu. The award also includes a ¥1 million prize; Sasakawa announced that he would donate the money to the Akemi-chan Fund, a medical support program operated by Fujisankei.
A third recipient, the critic Ezaki Michio, received this year’s Seiron Shinpūshō, presented to energetic younger writers expected to lead Japanese discourse in years to come.
(Originally written in English. Banner photo: Sasakawa Yōhei, at right, receives the Seiron Taishō trophy from Sankei Shimbun President Iizuka Hirohiko. Courtesy of the Nippon Foundation PR Department.)