“There were no wells and no electricity in the village,” and almost no children attended school past the elementary level, says Akio, now chairman and founder of the Education for Development Foundation International (EDF-International), which includes the Minsai Center in Tokyo.
Since 1987 the Bangkok-based charity has helped provide educational opportunities for nearly 400,000 disadvantaged children in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar (Burma), and Cambodia.
In the 1980s, a Thai student from that village had been studying in Japan, and he wanted Akio to see his homeland. They had come to know each other through a home-stay program that Akio had established on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.
During Akio’s stay in the Thai village, a mother came to meet with the Thai student, imploring him for help to send her daughter to junior high school. The child had excelled in her studies.
The student did what he could to help. Akio also wanted to do something: He collected 410,000 yen ($2,800 at that time) from 41 people (10,000 yen each) in Japan to enable 41 children in the Thai village to attend junior high school.
Some of the donors later contacted Akio to ask whether the money had truly been used for Thai children. So Akio decided to go back to the village to make sure of it. He learned that the donations had indeed been spent on the children’s education.
But when Akio met with some of the students who had received help, he recalls, they began pleading tearfully with him to help their friends who could not go to school and would have to go to a big city to work because they needed to support their families.
After returning to Japan, Akio stepped up his fundraising. This time he was able to gather enough money for 600 children to attend school. “I felt … a strong sense of responsibility” to raise a larger amount, recalls the soft-spoken man with a trimmed gray goatee.
Then Akio was confronted with something unexpected: Few children in that region of northeastern Thailand, called Isan, showed much interest in going to junior high school. Akio wondered why.