- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 28, 2004

TOKYO — Fumiko Murakami and four other mothers never imagined that having their children bullied at school would lead to advocacy work, shipping what they call “International Cooperation Rice” to needy families worldwide.

More than 20 years ago, when they learned that their children were being picked on and abused by schoolmates and were bullying other children, the five women were shocked and torn. Although some Japanese parents blamed such widespread abuse on teachers or the pressure-cooker climate of Japanese schools, these mothers reflected deeply on their child-rearing practices and concluded that they needed to change themselves to correct their children’s behavior.

They decided to teach by example, and threw themselves into volunteer work, helping newly arrived Vietnamese refugees get acclimated.

“We wanted to start a mothers’ revolution by ourselves,” Mrs. Murakami recalled.

The women didn’t stop there. They established a volunteer group, Motherland Academy International, to involve more mothers. Its activities went far beyond Japan, shipping rice, clothes and medical supplies to poverty-stricken regions.

Although the world’s news organizations remain focused on Iraq, “there are so many other regions where people desperately need help,” said Mrs. Murakami, the organization’s president, in its “office” — an old shipping container in a drab corner of Tokyo’s port district.

As more mothers rolled up their sleeves to join its volunteer activities, Motherland’s membership grew to 370. Some women, however, tried to conceal their volunteer work from their nagging mothers-in-law, because a wife in Japan is expected to devote most of her time to household chores.

“We still have to deal with such outdated aspects of Japanese society,” said one member.

Another, who is an executive at a small business, thinks of her volunteer work as “quite fulfilling,” she said. “I joined in this work because I wanted to return to society some of what I’ve gained.”

As Motherland’s activities became known, it received more support from corporations, people and rice farmers. When the group began planting rice to donate abroad in 1982, International Cooperation Rice was cultivated in paddies in only two areas. Now it is collected from 150 areas throughout Japan.

Motherland Academy, the only nongovernmental organization in Japan that ships regular ocean freight to Africa, sends rice and other relief supplies to that continent 14 or 15 times annually. Every year, the group sends 100 tons of rice and more than 1,000 tons of supplies, estimated to be worth $3 million. It has four branches in Africa.

Motherland also helped sink wells, plant trees and create farms and schools in sub-Saharan Mali. Not surprisingly, its activities in the Sahara Desert drew the attention of politicians and media in Africa. Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure met some Motherland members and expressed appreciation for their contribution. The group was featured prominently in a Malian newspaper.

Why Mali? The United Nations says Mali is a needy country, and its infant mortality rates are very high. The country also has little likelihood of conflict, and rice is its staple food.

Motherland also sends aid to Uganda, Tanzania, Niger, Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Countries such as Niger are forgotten even in Africa, Mrs. Murakami said.

When she headed to Niger for the first time, even some Africans asked why she was traveling there.

In 1995, when floods devastated North Korea’s agriculture, Motherland Academy invited ethnic Koreans living in Japan to come to rice paddies to reap grain for the communist country.

Motherland says it has no political or religious affiliations, but because its rice shipment went to North Korea, members were closely watched by the government, police and right-wing groups.

Mrs. Murakami wanted to remind the Japanese public, however, that their country — which has the world’s second-largest economy — also used to receive foreign aid. After the country’s 1945 defeat in World War II, relief supplies poured in from around the world.

Mrs. Murakami recalled that she often lined up all day to receive food aid. “I was often too hungry to stand up. I used to dream of steaming white rice,” she said.

In ruined and impoverished Japan a half-century ago, she read newspaper reports of death from starvation and group suicides almost every day. She remembers one article about a university professor who couldn’t afford black-market rice and died from hunger, leaving two slices of pickled radish.

“Helping people has no political, religious or racial boundaries,” Mrs. Murakami said. “At the scene of a huge fire, you wouldn’t ask someone which political party that person supported, would you?”

Much of the world is the scene of a “huge fire,” she said, providing statistics on global poverty.

A 2001 World Bank report said 21.1 percent of the world’s population lives on less than a dollar a day. In sub-Saharan Africa, where Motherland ships most of its relief supplies, the statistic is 46.9 percent.

This year, on the occasion of the U.N. International Year of Rice, Motherland hopes other countries will allocate some of their land for International Cooperation Rice. In Mali, Motherland and local residents together developed new rice fields for the staple grain.

Rice is grown from seed, and at an early stage, the sprouts are pulled gently from the mud and transplanted to new paddies in close, orderly rows to maximize the crop.

At Motherland Academy, as members devote themselves to caring for others, their children also are drawn in. Encouraging children to help transplant rice seedlings and harvest rice “makes them consider the world’s food problems,” Mrs. Murakami said.

Takeshi Sasaki, a farmer at Nakada in the Miyagi prefecture in northern Japan, has donated rice to Mali for nine years. The first children who volunteered to work in his rice fields are now 20 years old and still aware of the world’s food security issues, he said.

Nakada is known for its high-quality rice, some of which Motherland offers to the Imperial Household Agency, the government division that takes care of the imperial family.

Children who helped grow rice in Mr. Sasaki’s fields were delighted to receive thank-you letters from children in Mali, he said. “When children learn that the rice helps people in Mali, they feel good about themselves,” Mr. Sasaki added.

“I say to children in Mali and Japan: ‘Even if you are a child, there is always something you can do for others.’ I also tell them to think of those who are less fortunate before they eat,” Mrs. Murakami said. “In the long run, that kind of attitude can also help prevent terrorism.

“I believe the children will continue to be aware of problems of food and poverty, and, instead of fighting other humans, combat their own weakness and the inequalities created by human beings. You know, human lives are all equal.”

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