1992 Interview with Sadako Ogata: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Refugees: A Multilateral Response to Humanitarian Crises: Conversation with Sadako Ogata, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 4/1/92 by Harry Kreisler

Photo by Robert Holmgren

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Background

Please describe for us your graduate education.

I received my Ph.D. from UC Berkeley in 1963. I first came here in 1956. I wanted to pursue graduate studies in political science. Professor Robert Scalapino was looking for a research assistant, so I applied and enrolled as a graduate student. I worked the first year half-time, looking at Japanese "thought police" documents for his research.

Was most of your course work in political science?

Yes. The areas of specialization that I pursued were political theory, international relations, and East Asian affairs.

And whom did you work with in international relations?

Professor Ernie Haas, and I studied a lot of political theory with Professors Sheldon Wolin and Norman Jacobson. I had marvelous teachers here.

What was the topic of your Ph.D. dissertation?

Japanese Foreign Policy-Making, 1931-1932 ; but I did the research after I went back. I was here on campus for two years, took the prelims, and then went back to do the research.

What are your memories of Berkeley?

Berkeley was beautiful, sunny, a very exciting place. Whenever your intellectual curiosity grew into all sorts of directions, there were always very outstanding professors to deal with it. Intellectually, Berkeley was a very expanding experience. Berkeley was also a very liberal institution. I don't know how it is today, but this was just before the Free Speech Movement, and people were questioning a lot of values.

How did Berkeley affect what you finally became?

Berkeley gave me the basic disciplinary training that I needed, a training that I could expand in all directions as I continued my research and began to do public work.

pull-quote from interview With your degree you went back to your country and became a faculty member in international relations.

Eventually in political science. It took me quite a few years before I finally finished the dissertation. At one point I was not sure that I should finish the degree, but I think it was Professor Haas who said "It's a union card; you'd better get it done before you become involved." I am very glad that I finished the degree because it facilitated getting jobs and so forth later on.

The transition that you've made from academic to high commissioner must give you insight into the difference between the world of ideas on the one hand and the world of action on the other. What is the difference?

I had shifted between the world of thought and the world of public involvement twice already, because after about ten years of teaching and doing research I joined the Japanese foreign service, and I was in the Japanese mission to the United Nations in New York. I had lots of involvement with the United Nations, and then I went back to academic work for about ten years, and now I've moved again into the United Nations, so I've made this transition before. While they are different, I find that the basic attitude and the training that I received is valid in whatever capacity I am serving. The way of thinking and analyzing and evaluating is there whether you are teaching or whether you are involved more directly in public work.

In the world of action, do you have to put aside theories more than you would have expected?

No. The theories help me analyze situations a lot. It's second nature.

How did you become high commissioner?

I was professor of international relations until January of last year, and I was appointed and elected--the high commissioner is an office that is appointed by the secretary-general but elected by the General Assembly. I had the honor of being elected by the General Assembly to be the eighth United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. I started working in February last year [1991], not knowing that I would be facing the busiest time of the high commissioner's history, because refugee problems have expanded in many directions, not only in number, but in complexity. The mandate of the high commissioner is to protect and assist refugees; also, to solve their problems. I have approximately seventeen million refugees under my mandate. They are not only individuals who were victims of persecution. Today we see many instances of large-scale exodus of people. Especially, the end of the Cold War has had a direct impact on refugees, and as a political scientist I find it a fascinating time. I never thought this was an office that could feel the change of the world so directly.

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