By Takeru Kise / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer“This is a great honor. I would be pleased if [this prize] provides an opportunity for people to learn about the importance of vision correction,” said Akio Kanai, 75, chairman of Fuji Optical Co.
Kanai is delighted to have been awarded the Yomiuri International Cooperation Prize for his efforts in spearheading initiatives to provide vision-related aid to refugees abroad.
He first became motivated to do this aid work after he experienced volunteering while studying at a university in the United States in the early 1970s. He was there to become an optometrist with expertise in cutting-edge vision care so that he could succeed his father, the founder of Fuji Optical. On a Native American reservation in the state of Arizona, Kanai examined people’s eyesight and gave them secondhand glasses that he and his friends had collected.
It was a time in which most Japanese people were still unfamiliar with the concept of volunteerism. When he saw the happy faces of the people who received glasses, Kanai was amazed to realize what an impact one single pair of glasses can have. He became determined to continue the work after he returned to Japan.
The turning point came in 1981, when he had become managing director of Fuji Optical. A group that provided aid to refugees in the Indochina region contacted him and said that they wanted to provide eyesight correction services to refugees. Kanai immediately sent 600 pairs of glasses to a refugee camp in Thailand. However, he was not satisfied. “Just sending ready-made glasses isn’t enough,” he thought.
In 1983, he elevated vision-related aid as a project to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the company’s founding. He packed retinoscopes and 500 pairs of glasses and flew to Thailand. The trip did not go off without a hitch, though. For example, some of the glasses were seized as they went through customs. However, all those problems flew out of his mind the moment he gave the refugees their new glasses after examining their eyesight. The people wept and cried: “I can see! I can see!”
On the plane home, he became absolutely determined that he wanted to see those smiles again. That determination would fuel another 35 years of giving “the joy of sight” to refugees. The response from the refugees was so overwhelming that the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) gave its full cooperation to the scheme the next year, in 1984. The UNHCR made it much easier for Kanai to carry out the program, for example by making sure that the glasses could clear customs duty-free.
Kanai’s own life experience mirrors that of the refugees. He was born in Karafuto (now Sakhalin) but left after the end of World War II. His birth certificate was lost in the chaos, and he is now registered as having been born in Hokkaido. In 2006, he became the first Japanese winner of the Nansen Refugee Award, regarded as the Nobel Prize for aid to refugees. He recalls someone being surprised when he told his life story and pointed out that he was a refugee himself.
Education is essential to help refugees become independent. When someone’s vision is weak, they cannot read textbooks and books. That puts limits on what they can learn. Kanai is adamant: “Glasses help you take in correct information. They have the power to determine how your life goes. I want to continue my aid work in the future.” Beyond the line of sight that glasses provide lies a world of infinite possibilities.
Yukio Sato, YICP selection committee chairman
For 35 years, Fuji Optical has steadfastly continued its work to improve people’s vision, providing refugees and internally displaced people overseas with free eyeglasses.
They directly meet with people who have lost all hope for the future, who cannot get an education or vocational training because of their weak eyesight, and give every individual “the joy of sight” by gifting them with a pair of glasses that fits them perfectly. This earnest and unique aid work is considered a proud, valuable contribution to the world.
From a corporate social responsibility perspective, too, Fuji Optical’s program, in which everyone from Chairman Akio Kanai down dedicates themselves to aid work, can serve as a model for other companies.
Yomiuri International Cooperation Prize
The Yomiuri International Cooperation Prize was established in 1994 to commemorate the 120th anniversary of the launch of The Yomiuri Shimbun. The prize is awarded to individuals or groups recognized for their outstanding achievements in the field of international cooperation.
YICP selection committee members:
Yukio Sato — Vice chairman of the Japan Institute of International Affairs
Ritsuko Nagao — Honorary president of the Japan National Council of Social Welfare
Kenzo Oshima — Former Japanese ambassador to the United Nations
Ken Sato — President of the Institute for International Policy Studies
Shoichi Oikawa — Executive adviser and senior deputy editor-in-chief of The Yomiuri Shimbun Holdings