September 18, 2008 — Japan Program Director
In a career spanning three continents and covering the fields of agricultural science, journalism, and international development, an overheard subway conversation turned out to be a highlight. Keiko Tamai, The Asia Foundation’s Japan Program Director, heard two women talk on the subway about the fact that human trafficking is an issue in Japan, and it confirmed that all of her work was achieving real results.
“Listening to them talk, I was almost in tears,” Tamai says. “I was so happy that our efforts in increasing awareness were actually making a bit of difference in ordinary life in Japan.”
Tamai joined The Asia Foundation staff in 2002. Despite an educational background in agricultural science, she was drawn to journalism, eventually working for the Tokyo Bureau of the New York Times. She sees a strong connection between scientific research and reporting, in which curiosity is the first step, followed by investigation and conclusion.
She first learned of The Asia Foundation while at the New York Times, and quickly targeted trafficking in persons (TIP) as a vital issue in Japan. From her work in the Philippines in the late 1990’s, Tamai was familiar with the linkage between migrant workers and TIP.
She worked to raise the visibility of the issue in Japan, meeting with individual journalists, and creating partnerships with stakeholders including police, lawmakers, and other NGOs. As a result, she organized the first cross-sector symposium about TIP within Japan. Building on these accomplishments, Tamai and The Asia Foundation are now focused on seeking Japanese support to prevent trafficking, provide options for potential victims, and offer support services in source countries in developing parts of Asia.
In addition to her work in Asia, Tamai lived on a South Dakota Indian Reservation, reporting about life there while working as a journalist in the early 1990s. She also spent a year in England.
“It is truly a fulfilling moment when you see the actual outcomes of the impact you’ve made on society with the projects you’ve designed and managed,” says Tamai.