As a Christian pastor assigned to a disaster relief project twenty-five years ago, TOSHIHIRO TAKAMI witnessed the desperate survival struggle in Bangladesh that followed the murdering floods of 1970. Discerning a dearth of capable and committed local leaders, he determined to establish an institute dedicated to filling this need. In 1973, “in response to God’s calling,” he says, “we moved to found the Asian Rural Institute,” or ARI.
TAKAMI’s youth was marked by hardship and war. To educate him beyond grammar school, his impoverished parents apprenticed TAKAMI to a Zen monastery in Kyoto. At the age of eighteen, just months before the end of World War II, he enlisted in the Japanese navy and briefly attended radar school. Hard times followed as he fended for himself and his family in post-war Japan, mostly as a manual laborer. But in 1951, TAKAMI found work as a cook for a Christian missionary. He began studying Christianity. Soon he was baptized. A youth organization in the United States then sponsored him for college in Nebraska. By 1960 he had earned his bachelor’s degree, graduated from Yale Divinity School, and become an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.
Back in Japan, for ten years TAKAMI taught practical theology and directed a Christian Rural Leaders’ course at Rural Evangelical Seminary in Tokyo, work that led to his eye-opening field assignment in Bangladesh and the founding of the Asian Rural Institute.
TAKAMI designed the institute’s curriculum around intensive, small-scale, organic farming and animal husbandry linked to exercises in collective community life. All participants, including TAKAMI, engage daily in dirty-hands chores at the institute and on neighboring farms. And all take their turns preparing food for the group’s common meals. “Sharing food is sharing life,” he says. ARI participators also share in decision making. The difficult process of achieving consensus among a group of strong-minded, quick-to-action people, TAKAMI believes, helps ARI’s rural leaders become more effective change-makers in poor communities. Field tours in Thailand and the Philippines provide exposure to tropical farming conditions.
Christian in inspiration, ARI is ecumenical in practice. All faiths are welcome. Its first class included participants from Bangladesh, India, Thailand, Malaysia, Korea, and Japan. In subsequent years, as the institute’s six-hectare campus north of Tokyo burgeoned with new facilities, men and women from virtually every country in Asia, and eventually many in Africa, the Pacific, and the Americas, joined its unique nine-month rural leaders course. TAKAMI deliberately kept ARI small, accepting only thirty participants a year. Yet he cast the institute’s net so widely that today its nearly eight hundred graduates are spread across the entire developing world. Graduate study tours, refresher courses in Japan, and newsletters keep their ties with the institute fresh.
ARI applicants pledge to return to work in their local communities. Today, over 80 percent of the graduates do so—as rural extension workers, teachers, pastors, and church and social workers.
TAKAMI resigned as ARI director in 1990 but still contributes as a teacher and board member. In recent years, he worked to raise the effectiveness and status of nongovernmental organizations as chairperson of the Japan NGO Center for International Cooperation. TAKAMI believes that global economic trends do not bode well for the self-sufficiency and independence of rural people, nor for the conservation of the environment and natural resources. In this impending crisis, he says, “public welfare cannot be left to government.” Local communities must speak and act for themselves. “To me,” says TAKAMI, “the local level is the highest level.”
In electing TOSHIHIRO TAKAMI to receive the 1996 Ramon Magsaysay Award for International Understanding, the board of trustees recognizes his enlisting community leaders from fifty countries in the common cause of secure, sustainable, and equitable livelihoods for the world’s rural people.