By Takeru Kise / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterFuji Optical Co., the laureate of the 24th Yomiuri International Cooperation Prize, does a unique form of aid work: delivering glasses directly to refugees and internally displaced people overseas who are desperate for help. The company hopes that good glasses will help the refugees find the hope to live as well as a new future. Fuji Optical’s sincere desire to have people experience “the joy of sight” has inspired the company to dedicate itself to this aid work for 35 years.
Six executives and employees of Fuji Optical arrived in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku in July. Including a change of plane, their journey from Hokkaido’s New Chitose Airport to Baku had taken them 28 hours. From the capital, the team traveled even further by bus. They rode 300 kilometers westward to the town of Mingachevir, which hosts refugees and internally displaced people.
Many of the refugees suffer from severe far-sightedness, myopia or astigmatism, but have no glasses — they either lack the money to buy them or lost them during their escape. The team from Fuji Optical has come to examine these people’s eyesight and make them glasses, for free. This is the team’s 13th visit to Azerbaijan. They call themselves the Shientai (vision support corps) after Kaientai, a trading organization and private navy, formed by Sakamoto Ryoma near the end of the Edo period (1603-1867).
Hundreds of refugees have gathered at the venue in the hope of receiving glasses from Japan. Among them is an 80-year-old woman who said she lost three sons in the conflict with neighboring Armenia. “I want glasses to look at the faces of my sons in photos from when they were alive,” she added, weeping as she begged the team led by company chairman Akio Kanai, 75, to help her.
The sight in her right eye is already gone, and she now has trouble seeing up close with her remaining left eye. The team examines her eyesight. Then they search the about 4,000 pairs of glasses they brought from Japan for a pair that will fit the woman, and ask her to try them on.
“I can see well! Thank you!” The aged mother cried tears of joy. These are the moments that the vision support corps cherishes.
On busy days, they examined about 500 people. In the approximately two weeks until their return to Japan, they helped a total of about 3,000 people.
When they cannot find the right pair of glasses among the ones they brought with them, they take the data from the eye examination back to Japan and send newly made glasses by air. This year, the team directly distributed 2,790 pairs of glasses and sent over another 132 pairs that were made later in Japan.
As soon as the vision support corps sets foot in Japan again, preparations for next year’s trip begin. Depending on where the team is headed, there is sometimes a risk of cholera or malaria infection. It is heavy work for the company and the employees who volunteer for the program, but they firmly believe their efforts are worth the results.
Shohei Kikuchi, 32, who works in one of the Sapporo stores and joined the vision support corps for the first time last year, was astonished by the experience.
Kikuchi recalls how he felt as he stood in the presence of refugees who wept with joy, crying “I can see!” as they hugged and kissed the group’s members: “I was amazed to see people so ecstatic that they could see. All through my career, I’d never met anyone else who was this grateful for my help.” He plans to take correspondence courses on optometry and related subjects to hone his skills when he is back home, and join the vision support corps again next year.
A total of 183 employees have participated in the program so far. Experiencing “the joy of giving” as they travel away from their daily lives in Japan to far-flung locations to give others “the joy of sight” has inspired them to put efforts into even more diligent study.
The vision support corps has traveled to four countries in total, including Thailand and Nepal. Over the years, they have distributed a total of around 130,000 pairs of glasses. Including the pairs that Fuji Optical has donated to countries that its employees did not actually visit, like Kenya and Nigeria, the company has provided glasses to about 200,000 people in total.
Fuji Optical Co.
The company’s predecessor, Fuji Megane Shokai, was founded on Karafuto, now called Sakhalin, in 1939. After World War II, the company was displaced and moved to Hokkaido. It began operating in Sapporo in 1946.
Through its 56 stores in Hokkaido and 11 stores in the rest of Japan, including Tokyo and Kanagawa Prefecture, the company sells and repairs glasses. It has about 560 employees. Approximately half of them have obtained qualifications as certified eyeglass makers from the Japan Optometric Association. Its sales in fiscal 2016 were about ¥8.25 billion.Speech