War and Peace are the biggest problems we face, Dr.Nassrine Azimi gives her insights on how to fix them.
I first met Dr.Nassrine Azimi when she was the founding director of the UNITAR office in Hiroshima, more than 10 years ago for an article on GetHiroshima in 2008, and again for the GetHiroshima magazine once she co-founded GreenLegacyHiroshima.
Nassrine is an inspiring mentor in conflict negotiation, collaboration and innovation as well as a hiking companion. Here we talk about her work since stepping down as UNITAR director and working on Green Legacy Hiroshima, and the Afghan Fellowship Legacy Project. We also talked briefly about two of her books, Last Boat to Yokohama, and the Cultural Heritage Preservation in Postwar Japan, which I hope we can revisit in more depth for a future talk.
Audio Podcast Version of the Talk
Transcript of the Talk
this transcript has been lightly edited for clarity
JJ Walsh 0:00
Good morning. This is JJ Walsh in Hiroshima and unusually and wonderfully we also have Nassrine Azimi in Hiroshima today. Thank you so much for joining today, Nassrine.
Nassrine Azimi 0:16
Thank you for inviting me.
[INTRO] JJ Walsh 0:21
My name is JJ Walsh. I’m based in Hiroshima, Japan. And this is seeking sustainability live, talk show focused on travel culture, artisanship, and all the things that make our lives worth living, in terms of trying to balance the needs of people with the needs of the planet, and making a profit. Want to learn more about the work that I do?
So you have had such an interesting background, and we’ve known each other over the years, I shared (on social media) some of my hike on Miyajima, that was thanks to you- getting to that beautiful island and on such a wonderful day!
I think we we share that love of nature and being in nature. And that is so connected to the many projects that you’re so passionate about, which we’ll be talking about today. It’s wonderful.
Nassrine Azimi 1:40
Thank you. Great. Look forward to it.
JJ Walsh 1:42
Yeah. So do you want to talk a little bit about your background? How did you get interested in nature as a part of healing, maybe that’s a big, big topic for a bit down the road. But a lot of your projects are really connected to using nature, in a way to add hope, and give people connection. I love that.
Well, thank you. I think one other thing that connects us is, and maybe just about everyone who listens to your podcasts, when it comes to talk here is this love of Japan- its nature. But I think it’s also that culture that has informed this nature. On Miyajima , we’ve felt it so strongly – it’s this fantastic nature, but [also] the touch of man and that particular Japanese touch. So I’ve been very sensitive to that.
But I have, I think been sensitive to nature all my life. Because in a way, I’ve always been a foreigner since the age of six. [Actually,] I’ve been a foreigner in different countries and and the nature has been what has helped me feel grounded or part of these new environments.
I was born in Iran in 1959. So I think I was born at the very beginning of a 20-year period of hope in Iran, where every indicator was moving in the right direction, [despite] lots of problems. But if one knows the history of Iran and the Middle East in general, of the last 100 years, one would realize that we were coming from very low place of occupation, tyranny, misgovernment and foreign interference.
So I was born in 1959, which started a 20 year period of what everyone now calls the Golden Age (of Iran). Just people were getting more and more prosperous, and things were becoming possible that had been impossible for my parents’ generation. And so I benefited a lot from that impulse, that vitality.
My family left for Pakistan when I was about six.
So that’s when I got exposed to English as this new universe of English. Then back and forth to Iran for a few years and then off to Turkey. And I was very influenced by the atmosphere, the nature and the culture of Turkey, then to Switzerland for school and university and then the revolution happened in Iran in 1979. AndI think that was a turning point for me and maybe a different idea (understanding) about nature in that as much as we damage ourselves or damage each other.
We also damage nature – and sort of that idea of how do you deal with that damage? And how do you in a way resurrect from that? And it’s maybe timely to have this conversation just after Easter. But I think the work I have done whether in Afghanistan or with Green Legacy Hiroshima, the survivor trees of Hiroshima is about not just aspiring to perfection, but how do we, with what we have, how do we get help from nature and help nature to resurrect despite the damage.
JJ Walsh 5:35
Fantastic. Just to mention, I think you’re in the UNITAR office in Hiroshima right now are you?
Yes I am at UNITAR. Okay, as we speak I am looking at this splendid masterpiece of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Kenzo Tange’s Memorial Museum and the Dome (A-Bomb Dome), which has just been refurbished, done every three years I think as you know, it’s being refurbished and it just removed this outer gown. And it’s a splendid day. So maybe at the end, I can show everyone.
Yeah, that’d be great. I remember visiting you at the office there many years ago to interview you for GetHiroshima, I believe. And you were talking about doing conflict resolution talks in that office looking out on the A-Bomb Dome has such a power on people in Asia who come over for the conflict resolution seminars, who are fighting and they look at the a bomb dome, and they have a stronger reason to work things out.
And there is a very real sense of what happens when you go into war. And when you can’t make resolutions. I was left with such a powerful feeling that that our position living here in Hiroshima as international people trying to do international things trying to connect with people abroad, it’s a really wonderful and powerful place to be.
Nassrine Azimi 7:17
It is, it is. And as proof I have not left for anywhere else! Actually my whole career was with UNITAR, and has been with UNITAR in different capacities. And in Geneva and New York, I was also doing training programs, and I love training programs.
These (programs) are for professionals. These are training programs on everything from financial management to World Heritage Site management to post conflict reconstruction or urban reconstruction. But nothing (in my experiences) matched what we did in Hiroshima. They were of course, you know, a whole set of conditions.
We had a lot of freedom, we had the full support of the Prefecture and the citizens of Hiroshima. You know just how much hospitality people can show here , we had all the Hibakusha (A-Bomb survivors) always willing to talk with our groups. And I would say it was (exceptional) and I would probably feel exactly the same if I had worked in Nagasaki.
I think these are just two universal cities, there is no other place and hopefully there never will be other cities like Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the danger of us living here is we forget what unique places these (two cities) are and the privilege of working with UNITAR setting up this office. You know, it was the first — it is still the first and only UN Office in Hiroshima.
So when I realized that there was no other, and had never been a UN presence, in Hiroshima, I was actually stunned. In my ignorance, I didn’t know that before we came — before UNITAR established its office here. And nothing has matched or will ever match that sentiment of gathering people here from any discipline or for any kind of training.
You know, we would start a program in the worst years of differences between Iran and the United States. And the first day the delegates would be sitting (apart) like this. And within a day or two, as every morning they would have to walk through the Peace Park to come to the office.
And something happens because our problems seem so small compared to what has happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And I think that was vital. And I can tell you, JJ that till now there are people who write to me and say that that one week in Hiroshima changed their lives. It was, it still is and will always be, I hope, a transformative experience to spend time in Hiroshima.
JJ Walsh 10:10
I found that as well people often ask me as an American, how do you feel living in Hiroshima. And it’s, it’s very humbling, and has an American, I’m very careful not to walk against the red lights, and to be my best person and to represent a new type of American but I think people are so gracious and welcoming to Americans and and everyone and it’s such a powerful experience. So connecting to locals and understanding where they came from, and their power of resent resilience as as a community. And it’s so inspiring.
I love green legacy Hiroshima, because that was something you did after you kind of left your director role at UNITAR, officially and started green legacy. And there and UNITAR is kind of very connected to green legacy, as well as the Afghan fellowship. Is that right?
Nassrine Azimi 11:16
That’s absolutely correct. I think that well, I had always had this problem that when the participants of UNITAR, our programs when they left, they would always ask me, Well, what can we do for Hiroshima? And you know, I would say something like, okay, you know, you can start an anti nuclear campaign or, but what do you really say, what can you give? What can you ask people to do and, and for a long time, I was struggling, because I knew about the trees, I loved the trees, but I sort of couldn’t see how they could bear an impact.
And once I decided to step down as director, I had more time, and especially I had more flexibility to work with grassroots groups. And I thought, well, you know, my experience is that of an International Civil Servant, it doesn’t help much. But maybe I can put that experience of having worked all over the world, to mobilize these people (former UNITAR trainees) who over the years have grown into positions of responsibility and authority in different places. And what is more common and universal than planting a tree, except that it could be a survivor tree of the first atomic bombing in human history. And so little by little that idea came together.
I think the idea was really simple in that just rather than deal with the trees or the seeds individually, which is what actually the city as you know, had been doing and we stood on the shoulders of many Hibakusha, who over the years had been spreading the seeds and saplings of these survivor trees, especially the Aogiri campaign by Numata-san, which, as you know, is quite famous in Hiroshima.
The one thing that hadn’t happened was that they (the trees) weren’t taken as an ensemble, as a whole. That’s one thing we did. And the other thing we did was to not just give out the seeds, but to request commitment from the receiving side. And that was transformative because it did convey the message. Look, you’re not just receiving any seed or any sapling. you’re receiving the offsprings of survivor trees that have seen an atomic bombing. And that sort of became the rallying call. I have to say that, you know, as most international civil servants, I had many ideas but complete incapacity to implement them.
So, I was very fortunate to, to go to my dear friend and partner in crime, Tomoko Watanabe, the executive director of the NGO ANT-Hiroshima. I think everyone who lives in Hiroshima knows Tomoko. If you want something to happen, you go to Tomoko. And so I went to Tomoko and I said, Look, I have this idea. What do you think? Is it doable? And once she signed on, we decided to cofound together Green Legacy Hiroshima. And one by one of course, the networks she had I could never have found. I had the networks abroad but she (Tomoko) found the Master Gardener, she found the Botanical Garden she basically found the grassroots people who made it reality. And very quickly, I think within a year we had a structure.
We committed from the beginning that it would be pro bono because I mean, you don’t sell the seeds of survivor trees of atomic bombs. And everybody stepped in. And I would say that it would not have been possible had it not been for UNITAR support for example hosting the website, the office space, I get, help with staff time, it has been fantastic. So sustainability woven in the sense that everybody chipped in where they could. And now Green Legacy will mark 10 years this year. And it’s just unstoppable. Because it’s such a simple idea, but it’s so universal, everyone gets it. And my dream is, and I think it’s coming together, to see Nagasaki do the same with its trees as well. That’s great. Hopefully, that’s going to happen soon.
JJ Walsh 15:43
So just to give a summary for someone who might not have heard of Green Legacy, Hiroshima, there were a lot of trees, which everyone assumed were destroyed after the atomic blast of 1945. And they regrew and it gave hope, to Hiroshima people. And so green legacy Hiroshima, like many other organizations, like you mentioned in Hiroshima, collect the seeds from these survivor trees, and send the seeds to people who apply from around the world who are trying to rebuild in some way after war, or some kind of devastation. Is that right?
Nassrine Azimi 16:26
Correct. Actually, the it has a lot to do so with Japanese characteristics of record keeping too, because today (when we started, there were about 170. Now there are about 163), 163 officially nominated A-Bomb survivor trees registered by the City of Hiroshima. They’re kept track of and have a special plaque.
And thanks to the Hiroshima Botanical Garden, we also started a campaign so now they have numbers, they’re monitored very, closely (by Hiroshima City and also GLH master gardener Horiguchi-san), it’s become quite scientifically precise. These trees survived. How do we know they survived? There were many buts and trunks and burnt out segments of different buildings and trees.
They were recalled by the survivors as having been there before the atomic bombing, whether through photos, archives, or testimonies, and they were not obviously all in the same place. Officially, only trees that are within a two- kilometer radius of the hypocenter are nominated by Hiroshima City as A-Bomb survivor trees. And there may be more but except that we didn’t have record of them. And the fact that, I would assume in the worst of conditions, people kept track, and said, ‘Well, I remember this gingko this Icho tree was here before, that amazes me even today.
I know in Iran, we wouldn’t do it. I know in my adopted Switzerland, we won’t do it. In the United States, we would definitely not keep track! And yet they did it which is extraordinary.
Now, in Nagasaki, this was not done with as much precision but it’s unfair to compare because by the nature of the topography, it (the Bomb’s impact on the trees) was easier to monitor in Hiroshima. Whereas because of the hilly nature of Nagasaki, and the fact that the Bomb fell slightly out of the center, that made it difficult to know which trees were there and which trees were not there (before the atomic bombing). Whatever the reasoning, it’s a miracle that we know for a fact today that these trees survived. Now, not all of them not all of the 163 are in the same location.
As you know, many had to be moved. Because Hiroshima reconstructed, roads were built, parks were built. But about 30 plus (trees) are still in the same location and they bow towards the hypocenter. Because of the effect of the bomb, and the heat, the trunk, the side of the trunk that was damaged was weaker for a number of years.
So these tree are slightly bent. And as Tomoko often mentions, they are bowing towards the hypocenter. So we took these group of trees as an ensemble, as an orchestra and we mobilize every year to do seed-picking and then Master Gardener Horiguchi-san takes care of preparing the seeds. Hiroshima Botanical Gardens then steps in and keeps the seeds and processes all the requirements for example, physiosanitary testing, getting the permits from the importing countries etc, which is quite complicated, and sending the seeds to our partners worldwide.
JJ Walsh 20:29
Really happy to see in the picture of Kathleen Burkinshaw, who was in the series, she wrote a beautiful book, she’s based in America. Her mother is a Japanese survivor of Hiroshima atomic bombing, she wrote a beautiful book called The Last Cherry Blossom. And she’s one of the recipients of the seeds. I hadn’t put that together. Amazing.
Nassrine Azimi 20:55
Yes, she is and you know, some people — Kathleen is one of them, they’re quite a few — are amazing We work mostly with universities, Botanical Gardens, or symbolic sites, for example, in Rwanda, or, you know, the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross, because we simply cannot send seeds everywhere, we are a very small, volunteer group, so that would be out of the question. And any way we sort of, we like the process of getting to know the partners, and knowing that it’s for the very long term, and some people like Kathleen just their passion, you know, they take the idea, they take the seeds and they run with it, they do more with it emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, collectively, than we would ever be able to do.
So really it’s been unbelievable. And I have to say, you know, I think two years ago, we actually started a partnership with a University in Morocco. And that for me was really, I was like, imagine, you know, Morocco, Switzerland, US, UK. They actually have a deep responsibility. And (some of these countries) they own most of them have (not Switzerland), but many of these countries actually have nuclear weapons. So it really make sense (for them to take responsibility)but that smaller countries also rally and generate passion and interest for what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I find really great.
JJ Walsh 22:33
That’s fantastic. I have a quote here from the website that you said through the A-Bombed trees, the world can better understand the threats of nuclear weapons and the power resilience and beauty of nature. I love that.
Nassrine Azimi 22:50
That’s true. It’s so true, because they are beautiful trees. And you maybe have seen the Gingko in Shukkeien Garden, I mean, the tree is almost horizontal because of the power of the blast, it literally went back and forth.
And it is just unbelievable, because every year it (this Gingko) gives thousands of seeds. 1000s I mean, just one tree, what one tree can do. And they are beautiful. And one time I was walking, walking with a South Sudanese (participant of a UNITAR training) — you know how the South Sudanese had emerged from all these years of war and they came to Hiroshima and they’re all so tall, and this tall, lanky, young man and I walked past one of the A-Bombed trees on Heiwa-Odori, on the Peace Avenue, and his comment really electrified me. I was showing him the damage on the trunk of the tree. And he said, ‘Oh, they’re also burned and damaged like us. But look how beautiful they are like us’. Absolutely!
They are beautiful trees.
So I think one of the treats is usually partners who come to Hiroshima who make it to Hiroshima and go to see the trees they expect to see really damaged trees. And they’re always surprised by just how beautiful every season these trees look. So that’s endless.
JJ Walsh 24:25
I’m often surprised too by the variety, the diversity of trees, right. Like in the Hiroshima Castle grounds. There’s a beautiful Eucalyptus tree, which is a survivor, which I believe years ago we took your group’s photo next to that amazing tree right. There’s a Camphor tree in another area, which is absolutely gorgeous, I think around the back of the castle near the school, right.
Nassrine Azimi 24:56
Right. And in Hiroshima Castle there is the Holly (Kurogane mochi) tree, beautiful Christmas tree. There is a Willow tree. In other sites there are Gingko, Pine, there is a beautiful Cherry tree now transplanted in front of the City Hall, which was actually in full bloom last week.
So they’re amazing trees and the largest grove is on Peace Avenue. Opposite ANA Hotel by the Shirakami Shrine, the White Papers Shrine. And in that grove, miraculously, there are about seven or eight species, many, many trees, we don’t quite know why so many trees survived thereThe Master Gardener thinks there must have been some obstacle between the blast and this particular grove. Anyway, it’s a magical grove. For those of your listeners who come to Hiroshima, I would say that’s the first place to go.
JJ Walsh 26:08
Let’s talk a little bit about the Afghan Fellowship Legacy Project (AFLP). And then we’ll talk about your Eden Project which is connected to that.
Nassrine Azimi 26:21
Well everything is the result of Hiroshima, I would say everything is Hiroshima’s fault! The (Afghan Fellowship was) one of the first projects we started at UNITAR (Hiroshima). When we moved to Hiroshima, when we set up the office in Hiroshima very soon there was an Afghan Fellowship. And it was very unique because typically International Programs are kind of- we send someone to the country for one week or two weeks, or we bring people for one week (of training)- and that’s it. In In 2002, right after the fall of the Taliban, I went to Afghanistan. I had lived or rather visited because I lived in Pakistan when I was a child and with my family, we had visited Afghanistan.
So I had this really beautiful recollection of Kabul — it is very high altitude, almost 2000 meters altitude, so it’s very dry. And it has these beautiful blue skies, and I recalled these tree filled avenues of the Kabul of my childhood. And when went back in 2002. And I well, Kabul was well, what 30 years of war could do to a city. I mean, it was dark, gray, all the greenery (the trees) had been cut for fuel. There were bullet marks on every corner. I mean, it was really so shockingly sad.
And I remember I was with the team which included an experienced old-hand American ambassador who had at one point been in charge of refugees for the US — Jonathan Moore, he is long past.
But Jonathan was fantastic. He just turned to us and said ‘I think you’d better drop all your previous plans of how this training is going to be. And let us just go listen to what people need’. And this was fantastic advice. You know, I had come with my own baggage. i.e. this is how we would do the training program. And that was very effective, dropping the baggage and listening to people we interviewed, I don’t know, it was about 30 groups, institutions, ministers, activists, young people, old people, internationals — and we came back and said, well, Afghanistan doesn’t need a one week training program, they cannot do anything with a one week training program. So let’s do this differently.
And so we set up what became the UNITAR Hiroshima Fellowship, which evolved over the years, a practically nine-month program, and ultimately, they (participants) would come to Hiroshima. So in other words we did,(in the pre-Zoom era!) we did a lot of work online, preparing these groups, civil servants, academics, private sector, some of them activists, usually a group of 25 to 30 people and we mobilized a network of resource persons pro bono around the world, who in different disciplines helped — be it engineering, finance, tax, services etc. And these groups would come to Hiroshima and this actually lasted beyond me. And beyond my two successors as well.
Mihoko Kumamoto, who is the current director of UNITAR Hiroshima office, oversaw the last five years of that program.
Its unheard of in the UN that you can actually keep a training program going for so long. And I have to say, again, you know, (Donors, Listen, don’t do short term projects!) the Hiroshima Prefecture was the main donor of that program and their wisdom was in basically allowing it the long timespan. And these groups kept coming back and growing, such that when we closed that program, when UNITAR decided that that was the end of the cycle in 2019 2018, end of 2018, there were some 500 people in this network.
Now, Afghanistan is not a paradise of peace still, today, I think I’m not naive to imagine that, but we’re also not accepting despair. And we have this treasure of people. And we decided to rally. And rather than just talk about sustainability, in an abstract sense, which is what you usually do if you’re an international organization, advising developing countries, we decided it had to be practical. And what brings together many of the aspects and necessities of devising sustainability projects, are there in a botanical garden.
Now 33 countries in the world don’t even have a single botanical garden.
Some other 40 countries in the world have maybe just one or two Botanical Gardens, even if they cover a territory with very different ecosystems, mountains and valleys and rivers and deserts. And this had been an obsession of mine for a very long time, I had always sought not just knowledge, but solace and information in Botanical Gardens, it just was not understandable that countries that needed it the most did not have their own botanical gardens, you cannot talk about adapting to climate change. You cannot talk about food security.
You cannot talk about collapse of ecosystems if you don’t know what your plant life is like, what is the trend? How are they being damaged by climate change? That knowledge in countries like Japan or the US or Europe, that knowledge can be spread out in different universities, ministries of agriculture, forestry, botany, etc but in developing countries, that knowledge is not as easily available.
And so we thought, okay, we have this fantastic network of people in Afghanistan, and there is this glaring need, that is not necessarily just funding-dependent, because it actually doesn’t take so much money to create a botanical garden. You just need to bring most of that knowledge together in one place. And so last year, in January, we launched the Botanical Garden campaign with this network of people who had come through Hiroshima or been to Hiroshima and now we are working with three universities.
Kabul University is the obvious one. Bamyan University you know, Bamyan has this fabulous connection with Japan because of the Silk Road. And because of the work that Hirayama Ikuo (Japanese painter) sensei has done there, and Paktia University because Paktia is the province where Dr. Nakamura Tetsu worked for a very long time. He’s a hero there and they were so committed to finding a way to honor his legacy. So these three universities have partnered and we are as we speak, preparing next week for a design workshop. They have already started establishing their collection policies, their plant policies, is really fantastic.
So I think the wise choice we made was to make them (the botanical gardens) university-based. Wars come and go unfortunately, we haven’t found a way to solve that.
But If you look across history, universities remain. Usually they are among institutions that remain and botanical gardens since the Middle Ages, actually, when they were created, botanical gardens that are nestled within universities have the best chance of survival. So we’re betting on that.
JJ Walsh 35:19
Wonderful. I was listening to one of the seminars that you did for Eden. So Eden is basically about seminars to promote what you’re trying to do with the Afghan fellowship in terms of getting Botanical Gardens in Afghanistan, is that right?
Nassrine Azimi 35:39
The Eden seminar is actually the latest creation or platform. The idea is not just to promote the botanical garden or of Afghan project but more broadly to promote projects that are a contribution to sustainability, but coming from developing countries.
So the idea came from Monte Cassim, who is a figure in Japan, he was the I think, one of the first non-Japanese university presidents in Japan, he was president of Ritsumeikan APU in Beppu. And he is now president of Shizenkan University and will soon be President of Akita International University. He’s originally Sri Lankan, but he is, well, both so Sri Lankan and so Japanese! And his idea was, how can we provide a platform that people in Japan or around the world not just Asia , but mostly Asia, where developing countries can come with ideas (a little bit like what you are doing!) To promote sustainability-related projects, but allowing mostly University-based graduates who have the ideas, but still not the confidence or the platforms, to talk about their ideas.
And so we have presented a number of projects. But the latest one, for example, we call these Eden Incubators, whereby two young graduates, one Indonesian and one Filipina, who have these fantastic ideas (about more eco-friendly mining and fashion industries), to make a difference, make more sustainable, environmentally-friendly, the areas and the disciplines in which they work. So The Eden Seminars is open to many people and I was fortunate to be able to present the Botanical Gardens campaign, through that platform.
JJ Walsh 37:52
Wonderful. I was listening to the talk by two botanists, maybe, about the Botanical Gardens, Peter Raven, and Stuart Pimm. And they were talking about how important it is to have Botanical Gardens in Afghanistan, as a way to give a gift from Western countries, to the Afghan people, and to help them appreciate their own biodiversity in their own country. And to kind of create a sense of pride in where they live. And, you know, especially after so many years of war, to have a place where you have local, beautiful plants to enjoy what that could really be a source of pride. And also it could appeal to tourists and visitors and residents to come in. So in that way, also helping the economy giving a sense of pride for local people, but also building it into the future. And I thought what a beautiful way, I’d never thought of Botanical Gardens as as that kind of asset, you know.
Nassrine Azimi 39:18
Absolutely. I think in a way we have come to see Botanical Gardens in wealthy countries as some sort of place for orchid-show!You know, where ladies go to enjoy different taints of pink of orchids . And it’s so different. You know, I actually sent a photo of a bag of organic apricots that I bought some months ago. And literally, I mean, it wasn’t 50 grams and it costs something like 500 yen turns to $5 and I sent it A photo of it because it said they were from Afghanistan (or Pakistan). And I sent a photo of it to all the chancellors and the teams at the universities in Afghanistan, saying, you know, if you knew that the dried fruits of Afghanistan could sell, if it’s organic, and the quality is guaranteed, that you could sell it for these prices, you would quickly contact the Ministry of Trade and Commerce to support you! Botanical Gardens have infinite number of absolutely untapped potential.
In Amsterdam, they have done a wonderful thing with their Botanical Garden in Amsterdam is that they have marked the source of all their plant collections where they came from and what economic benefit, it brought. The Netherlands at the time, mostly, whether it’s tea, or cotton, or ginger, or rice and just going through that list, you realize how much it has helped the economies of wealthy countries to be able to build a reliable food source. And we have a lot of work to do. But I would say they(botanical gardens) are just about the fastest route (to sustainability), because the knowledge is there. If you talk to our Afghan teams, they know what their endemic plants were, they know their history, it is just that it hasn’t come together in one place, the history has to come together, the pride in the culture, we are very keen about this.
Peter Raven, whom you mentioned, well Peter Raven, is a God of Botanical Gardens. He’s now in his 80s, he is so respected, he writes textbooks on the subject matter, and Peter Raven, from the beginning, has been reminding us, that it (the botanical garden) has to come from ‘within’. So the design of the botanical gardens too has to come from within. And for those of us with interest in architecture, you know, marvels can be done, remember the Moghul gardens of the past, remembering the architectural styles of the past. So I’m very hopeful. I’m realistic. It’s not as easy as Green Legacy. But I think just as important.
JJ Walsh 42:38
I think we have about 20 minutes left. So I’d love for you to introduce the two books that you’ve written. Because I think in many ways, you’re drawing on parallels from those books from that research. There’s so many connections to Japan, so many connections to culture, I’m really interested in just a short summary. And I would love to have you back sometime in the future and talk more in depth about it. But you did a research book on the United States and cultural heritage protection in Japan, from 1945 to 1952. Can you tell me a little bit about that book.
Nassrine Azimi 43:24
Yes, that was the last book. I have loved the idea of the Silk Road for a very, very long time. understandably so. I mean, the country I was born in, many of the countries I lived in or visited my childhood, were part of that Silk Road. Many of them are losers on the contemporary (political and economic) platforms of today. History has its ups and downs of course. But this is not a very great time for the countries of the greater Middle East. And the western end, I would say of the Silk Road. So I always had this obsession, and every year I have been going to the Shōsō-inshow (https://heritageofjapan.wordpress.com/6-nara-period-sees-the-nurturing-of-chinese-culture/tempyo-arts/treasures-of-the-shosoin-the-worlds-oldest-and-most-visited-museum/).
So in the two week presentation of the Shōsō-in Treasury for those who don’t know this is in Nara, Japan probably the oldest art collection in the world. It was started in the eighth century. It basically was the collection of beautiful objects of the Silk Road and of Japan. And it remained in the Imperial Household, I think till roughly before World War Two. And the Shōsō-in collections have many beautiful objects from Iran, from India, from China, from Korea etc. And I I kept going back to that. And it started with a question, how was this kept together during the war (WWII)? And how come because I knew that before the war, it was not open to the public, the Treasury only opened two or three weeks a year to be cleaned and checked. But it was never open to the to the public, except once or twice, during the Edo period, one or two exceptional moments.
And I found that a lot of the staff within GHQ had actually been involved in protecting, but also in pushing for the opening of the Shōsō-in publicly. From that question, if you then remember, you know, there was the Iraqi occupation by the Americans in 2003. And the looting of the National Museum (in Baghdad, in April 2003) that was really a shocking thing to watch, because I knew that the National Museum of Iraq was the one place where all the different tribes, and religions and cultures of Iraq came together, where there was a real pride — and that the strongest army in the world had not been able to protect even a museum was really the image remained in my mind (of that ill-conceived war).
And little by little, I started putting the story together as to (cultural policy under SCAP), you know, a lot has been written about the US occupation of Japan, but actually what was happening in the cultural sector, other than you know, that we know, there was censorship and all that. But what was happening with the collections and the museums and the policies and specially especially in the first few years after the end of the war. As you know, there were some of the worst years economically.
For two, three years, there was even threat of starvation in Japan, I mean, the level of poverty was huge. A lot of the treasures, cultural treasures of Japan, were sold for nothing so that families could survive. And what were the measures that were put in place to protect that stuff? So little by little, this became a story and I did my PhD on the topic, and then I decided that I would explore the possibility of a book and it became the book that you have seen. It (the subject matter) requires a far larger life commitment, because there were many stories that emerged, of friendships between cultural experts in Japan and the United States, of how they transcended not just the enmities of the war, but were united by this love of culture.
You know, there were figures like Langdon Warner. Langdon Warner is actually the character used for Indiana Jones (film)! But Langdon Warner was actually one of the most refined, charming curators of Japanese art. He had a love of Tempyō art, and the story of his coming, in reality his pushing his way back to GHQ (SCAP headquarters) in Tokyo, even though he was in his 60s, at the end of the war, and then the reception he got from the Japanese people and the love with which he went around, to make sure that the work of this small team (at GHQ) dedicated to protecting Japan’s cultural heritage would be done. It was a fantastic story and deserves, obviously, an entire movie.
But what really came across for me is that in this area (of cultural heritage protection) culture is like nature, universal, and to love it and want to protect it, you don’t need to have national nameplates (labels). They sort of worked at the heart, they worked for the same cause. So that was a very, very beautiful discovery to make.
JJ Walsh 49:51
It lsounds so interesting. I haven’t read it yet. But I hope to read it and then talk to you more in depth about other stories you must have in there. It sounds fascinating. Another book you did was the Last Boat to Yokohama. Can you introduce that?
Nassrine Azimi 50:10
‘The Last boat to Yokohama’ is a book I co-wrote with a French professor at Ritsumeikan in Kyoto Michel Wasserman. Michel is music, passionate about music, and especially, he is a specialist of many of the European musicians who took refuge in Japan in the 30s when the violence in Europe, especially Germany, was rising.
And the reason I went to Michel was very simple. I was honored to know Beate Sirota Gordon. as maybe you know, but for your listeners Beate Sirota Gordon was the young woman and one of the very few female members of the American occupation. And she was fluent in Japanese because she was raised in Japan, she had come to Japan with her parents when she was six years old. And she acted also as translator (at GHQ). But she was also an avid feminist. At a very young age, she had a very clear idea that Japanese woman had absolutely no rights at the time. And she was very instrumental in ensuring that the draft of the Constitution included the equals rights article, Japanese women’s equal rights article. Actually Beate was in this very room that I’m speaking from. The very first seminar we did in late 2003, was with Beate Sirota Gordon.
So this is really timely. She was sitting right here. Beate passed away in 2012. But (in the years before that) she had another story to tell. The story of the role she played in the drafting of the Japanese constitution was well known. What she did want to convey is that she felt there was another part of her life, which was untold, which is that when she went back to the United States, and for many years, almost 40 years, first, at the Japan Society. And then at the Asia Society, she was the pillar of bringing Asian art to audiences in the United States. And, you know, from Kabuki to Indonesian dance, she really played a very important educational role, so she was a little frustrated that people knew about the few months of her work in Japan and didn’t know anything about the 40 years that had come after. And also because she always felt that her father, who had been a Jewish pianist who came to Japan in the late 20s, had brought a lot to the country. He was a genius.
A very famous and gifted pianist and teacher. He brought love of Western music to Japan, and she felt that she had taken a lot of the love and understanding of Asian music and arts to the West. And so I promised her that we would do a book on this father and daughter story. I knew nothing about Western music in Japan. So I found Michel Wasserman. And he immediately agreed to co-write the book. He didn’t know much about Beate, her role as a feminist and as an activist and as an impresario. And so it was a match made in heaven! Michel wrote the parts about Beate’s Father, I wrote the parts about Beate’s life. We had Beate read the draft, give her last inputs, and then she passed away. So it was, you know, the timing of The Last Boat to Yokohama was really special.
JJ Walsh 54:38
Amazing, I definitely want to read that and talk more in depth about all the amazing stories that must be in there. What a fascinating woman. What a fascinating story.
Nassrine Azimi 54:53
She was, you know, when I met Beate, she was a grandmother and what really stunned me was that when she would come to Japan, in the late 90s and early 2000s, well she was like a rock star, treated like a rock star by Japanese woman, especially Japanese woman of postwar generation. She would speak to full houses of a 1000 people ¥ or more. It was really impressive. And I realized, I didn’t know it either, I realized how much as they usually say, you have to be the right person at the right moment. Beate was criticized, mostly by men, that she was not a constitutional lawyer, that she was young, that she was a woman. That she was not Japanese, she wasn’t even really American. She was European, she was born in Austria! And, and yet, no one could have brought the understanding, the empathy, the linguistic talents, the cultural talents and knowledge to make that happen. And I think had she not pushed through, and the story comes out both in her own memoirs , and in our book, had she not been there, equal rights may not have arrived as early as they did. It would have happened, obviously, just as cultural protection of Japan’s cultural treasures would have happened. But it is the timing that was so important. In 1945 or 1946, that was the time to make these moves, because otherwise, maybe 10 years would have passed and who knows what damage, whether to cultural heritage, or to women’s rights, would have been done in the process. So I think she was really a transformative person. And I’m so happy we made that book just on time. Before she left us.
JJ Walsh 57:06
Wonderful. We have a comment here from Donna Weeks. Donna, thanks for joining from Periscope. She says Beate’s story is a truly fascinating one. I always ensure my students know about her.
Nassrine Azimi 57:19
Yes, thank you.
JJ Walsh 57:20
And Elizabeth, Ann (?), and have both joined from Facebook, thank you so much for joining you in so many of your projects. And so many of your books have focused on equality and even in growing up in Iran, and moving to Pakistan, doing work with Afghanistan, women’s rights, gender equality, discrimination in general, for diverse communities, marginalized groups must come up over and over in all your work, has that been a constant theme of your career? Is that right?
Nassrine Azimi 58:00
It has never explicitly so, always implicitly. And I remember, I remember when you came to interview me all those years ago, we were talking about power. And I think at some point, we discussed the idea that it’s not necessarily always power we seek but influence — influence to make a difference. I really feel blessed my father, being from the Middle East — I don’t know, I honestly don’t know where he got this open mind and his open heart and his respect for a woman. But I can tell you that he completely treated my elder brother and myself and my younger sister in the same way. And I especially, you know, I was born in a Muslim family. And my father, when we went back to Iran, after a stint in Pakistan where I went to a Catholic school, when we went back to Iran, my brother and I attended the Jewish school.
And when people would ask my father, but why are you sending your children to a Jewish school and his response always was , why not?! And he would, you know, he would add on thatin fact, the Iranian Jews had been there before the Muslims because Iranian Jews had returned to Iran with Cyrus the Great 2500 years ago, so, so there! That was always his position. I always felt that I had been really privileged to have such a father. And maybe this feeling of empathy I have is not necessarily for any particular group or subgroup or gender. It’s really a question of fairness. And that’s why I’ve loved UNITAR because the whole purpose of providing training and research capacities to developing countries is to make it all a level playing field. It’s so not a level playing field.
When I was in Geneva, you would see you know, if there were for example negotiations on cotton at the WTO, the trade organization, you would have say the Canadian or American delegations come with 30 or 40 people, stay for two, three weeks. And then you know, say for Pakistani or any developing country delegation, two people would arrive that morning (of the negotiations), jet-lagged, with a few resources, it’s just not fair. And I think I would really say I’ve never really called myself a feminist. But I’m really very attached to the idea of universal human rights. I think that is what we should aim for, for everyone to have the same rights. And History just keeps repeating itself. If you’re looking at Myanmar (pro-democracy movement) today, and you would see images from Myanmar in the late 80s (the pro-democracy movement). You know, it’s the same. It’s not a trampling of just one group’s rights. It’s the trampling of human rights, universal human rights. And that is something that really steers my heart
JJ Walsh 1:01:32
And it reminds me of the talk that we had years ago about gender equality in Japan, and you were talking about, like, I think it was around Hillary Clinton was running for president and I said, Do you think they’ll be more gender equality if she gets into power as the first female president, and you were saying, it’s not just one person that’s going to change, it can just change one leader, and that we’ve seen, you know, that play out over time in many different situations. So representation is very important. I remember you saying, I said, Why should we have equality? And you said, because we’re here, 51% of the population, because we’re here, we deserve to be represented in leadership of all levels. I love that I often think back to that conversation. That’s true.
Thank you so much, Nassrine. That’s our hour gone way too fast. You have to join again, because I seriously am going to read those books, dive into them. And then I really want to talk about all those wonderful stories, especially about Beate. It sounds great.
Nassrine Azimi 1:02:48
Thank you. And please continue, because we need this platform, we need this voice, we need your voice. And we all need to make sustainability reality. I think it’s one of the things that always bothered me was that the way we presented Sustainability at the UN was so abstract, and little by little, it’s coming down to earth. And I think we need to do a lot more. And voices like yours really helps.
JJ Walsh 1:03:15
Wonderful. Well, thank you so much. And some of the things that I love about all of your projects is how integrated the idea of protection of nature and connection to nature, and protection of people and connections between people so connected in all of your projects. And that is sustainability. It’s not just about the environment. It’s not just about society. It’s so interwoven and interconnected. We need to think about it all. It’s daunting, but it’s important. It’s doable.
Tomorrow morning. 930. We’re talking to a woman in the US who has a popular Instagram page: Sunshower Kimono. She is crazy about Kimono. Thank you so much. Nassrine. Bye!
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