TOKYO — Sadako Ogata, the first woman to be named the United Nations high commissioner for refugees and the first Japanese national to hold that position, died on Oct. 22 in Tokyo. She was 92.
Her death was confirmed by the Japan International Cooperation Agency, a government-funded aid organization of which Ms. Ogata was president for nine years before her retirement in 2012.
Ms. Ogata was appointed to lead the refugees commission at the age of 63 in 1991 as the Cold War was coming to an end. As high commissioner, she oversaw refugee operations during a time of ravaging conflict in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, East Timor and other regions, as well as the return of refugees to their homes after wars in Cambodia and Ethiopia.
Her petite stature (she was less than five feet tall) and mild manner masked a formidable moral vision. She earned the sobriquet “diminutive giant” after one of her signature achievements: In 1991, in response to the displacement of more than a million Iraqi Kurds during the Gulf War, she pushed the commission to change its rules to provide aid not only to refugees escaping from their countries but also to those fleeing conflict within their countries. She engaged in tough negotiations with Iraqi officials that allowed the agency to set up refugee camps on the northern Iraqi border with Turkey.
And in 1993 she clashed publicly with United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali after she made the audacious decision to suspend all relief to Bosnia at a time when both the Bosnian government and Serbian nationalists were obstructing deliveries of food and blankets to victims of the Serbian siege of Srebrenica.
“She was not afraid to tell the world as to what needs to be done and how she proposed to do it,” said Yasushi Akashi, a diplomat who was once the secretary general’s special representative in the former Yugoslavia.
Her move so angered Mr. Boutros-Ghali that he immediately countermanded it, but within five days the Bosnian government allowed the refugees commission to resume sending relief.
“Mrs. Ogata was a visionary leader who steered U.N.H.C.R. through one of the most momentous decades in its history,” Filippo Grandi, the current high commissioner, said in a statement, “transforming the lives of millions of refugees and others devastated by war, ethnic cleansing and genocide, and helping redefine humanitarian action in a fast evolving geopolitical landscape.”
Sadako Nakamura was born on Sept. 16, 1927, in Tokyo, the eldest daughter of Toyoichi Nakamura, a diplomat in the foreign ministry, and Tsuneko Yoshizawa, a granddaughter of Tsuyoshi Inukai, a prime minister who was assassinated in 1932. (An accomplished tennis player later in life, she occasionally played matches with Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko.)
As a child, Sadako lived in San Francisco and Portland, Ore., as well as in Guangdong, China, and Hong Kong. While the family lived in China, her father hired a Japanese-American tutor to ensure that she kept up her English.
She moved back to Tokyo and was attending a Roman Catholic school, Sacred Heart, when American forces firebombed the city in World War II. She graduated from the school’s affiliated university with a bachelor’s degree in English literature.
A Rotary Foundation fellowship took her to the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Washington, where she pursued a master’s degree. While there, she worked as a translator for Michiko Fujiwara, a visiting Japanese politician, who introduced her to Eleanor Roosevelt.
Ms. Ogata earned her doctorate in political science from the University of California, Berkeley. She met and married Shijiro Ogata while conducting research for her dissertation in Tokyo. Survivors include her son, Atsushi, and her daughter, Akiko.
Ms. Ogata initially pursued a career in academia because she thought it would be almost impossible to enlist in the foreign service and keep up with the demands of being a mother.
But with her strong scholarship in international relations and her fluency in English, she was appointed to a Japanese delegation to the United Nations General Assembly in 1968. She subsequently took on roles as a minister in Japan’s mission to the United Nations and as chairwoman of the executive board of the United Nations Children’s Fund.
She first worked with refugees as a special emissary to the border between Thailand and Cambodia, and then as Japan’s first representative to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, a job that led to a stint in Myanmar as a special rapporteur.
She was there when Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar recommended her to fill the post of high commissioner.
“Women were not expected to serve in such high-ranking positions in international agencies,” said Kuniko Inoguchi, a member of Japan’s upper house of Parliament and a friend of Ms. Ogata’s. Ms. Ogata’s appointment was particularly surprising given that she came from an “Asiatic paternalistic culture,” Ms. Inoguchi added.
Ms. Ogata told an interviewer in 2015, “I didn’t have any consciousness that I was a Japanese” but rather “happened to be Japanese.”
In 1995, in accepting the Prize for Freedom by Liberal International, a global coalition of liberal political parties, Ms. Ogata expressed her concerns about racism and xenophobia against refugees and asylum seekers in Europe. “If we do not show courage and political leadership in resisting these dangerous trends,” she said, “the victims will not just be the refugees but also the democratic values of our society.
“The answer,” she continued, “lies not in building barriers to stop people moving — but in reducing, removing or resolving the factors which force people to move.”
Ms. Ogata became president of the Japan International Cooperation Agency, directing aid to developing countries, after stepping down as high commissioner at 73. In 2002 she turned down an offer from the prime minister at the time, Junichiro Koizumi, to become foreign minister.
She was unafraid to criticize her own country’s poor record on accepting refugees.
Last year, 10,493 people applied for refugee status in Japan but only 42 were accepted; 40 more were allowed to stay on humanitarian grounds.
“It’s very unfortunate Japan has little sympathy to those who are suffering,” Ms. Ogata told the daily newspaper The Mainichi Shimbun in 2016. Speaking specifically about people escaping civil war in Syria, she lamented that Japan had “become a closed nation.”
“I am not saying Japan should accept all of them,” she added. “But if Japan doesn’t open a door for people with particular reasons and needs, it’s against human rights.”
Makiko Inoue and Hisako Ueno contributed reporting.
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