TOKYO >> Akio Kanai, chairman of Fuji Optical Co., is delighted to have been awarded the Yomiuri International Cooperation Prize for spearheading initiatives to provide vision-related aid to refugees abroad.
The award, established in 1994, is given to individuals or groups recognized for their outstanding achievements in the field of international cooperation.
Education is essential to help refugees become independent, said the 75-year-old Kanai.
When someone has impaired vision, they cannot read textbooks and books, he said. That puts limits on what they can learn.
“Glasses help you take in correct information,” he said. “They have the power to determine how your life goes.”
He discovered his passion for helping others when he did some volunteer work in the 1970s. It was a time in which most Japanese people were unfamiliar with the concept of volunteerism.
He was studying optometry at a university in the United States with plans of succeeding his father, who founded Fuji Optical.
Kanai went to a Native American reservation in Arizona, where he provided eye examinations and handed out secondhand glasses that he and his friends had collected.
When he saw the happy faces of the people who had received glasses, Kanai was amazed to realize the significance a single pair of glasses can have.
Another opportunity followed.
In 1981, when he became managing director of Fuji Optical, a group that provided aid to refugees in the Indochina region contacted him seeking eyesight correction services.
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 adopted vision- related aid as a project to commemorate the 45th anniversary of Fuji Optical’s founding.
He packed retinoscopes and 500 pairs of glasses and flew to Thailand.
The trip did not go off without a hitch, though, as some of the glasses were seized by customs.
However, the problems were all but forgotten the moment he examined refugees’ eyesight and gave them their new glasses.
The people wept and cried, “I can see! I can see!” he said.
The response from the refugees was so overwhelming that the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees gave its full cooperation to Kanai’s plan in 1984.
What followed was more than 30 years of giving “the joy of sight” to refugees.
Kanai references his own past as a refugee as his inspiration. He was born in Karafuto 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.