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
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 soas rural extension workers, teachers, pastors, and church and
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.