In NYC, Geneva Lantern Demonstrations to Save the Boat People

New York, N.Y. In early summer of 1979 when I was walking along the coast of Long Island, New York  ,I thought : A topic of refugees escaping by boat from various parts of Asia has come up so much in the press recently and  articles are writtenin the newspaper every day, so why does not anyone do anything?? When I saw the horizon of the sea, and thought of it ,  I realized it like the lightening! was flashing. I guess that nobody helps because it is Asian. If this was a white man such as a Jew or a European, it should have been big relief activities long ago. A lot of people are dying, nobody does anything. Then I thought I had to do something as ASIAN person! I created  the “Save The Boat People”, the opportunity for the movement which spread around the world later.

Talk of Asian refugee support spread throughout the world

“Save The Boat People” NY and Geneva lantern Demonstrations for Asian refugees support

For Independence Day

First of all, I planned to do “Awareness Rally” (meeting for noticing) and organized an event on USA Independence Day 1979.

This activity was supported by many celebrities afterwards. I first made a press conference at a boat house in New York / Central Park. At this time I made a speech, “Each country should accept some refugees in ratio  to the area of the country, countries like Japan with small national land should do such assistance with fundings to such countries” , And I also proposed a specific proposal. Singer Judy Collin and actor Tony Randell also enthusiastically supported me that day.

Group formation soon

Volunteers gathered at my office soon, and in a matter of a couple of days, an organization called “Save The Boat People” was created. When I went to talk to the chairman of the magazine “TIME”, he designed a big poster and placed  it out to each station of Long Island . Also he printed thousands of flier.for us. I knew him because he was one of the participants when I went to China in 1972. Campaign started, I slept only about 3 hours a day. it was painful and extremely tiring. but there were lots of people who joined me and cheered for me, so everyone worked hard in  my office every night.

Candles flow in the sea

At Night of Independence Day, it is time to flourish!  We Prepared one boat at the port in New York, got a lot of round plates from McDonalds, put a flat candle on it,light the candle and paced them to the sea under the Statue of Liberty. When the big fireworks lighted the sky of New York Harbor, Bang Bang fireworks and everyone was watching,  we were floating a ship with only candle light, a lot of people came to see it as it was just beautiful. ABC news came to see “What are you doing?” So it came out on TV too. “The light of one candle symbolizes the soul of 1000 dead people on the ocean.”

Lanterns in Geneva

After that, since I learned the United Nations refugee emergency meeting was held Geneva, I went to Geneva alone. This time I went to appeal to the world. Even at Lake Geneva, I have planned the same visual demonstration as New York that candles are flowing on the Lake Geneva similar to what we did in New York. After arriving at the site, I borrowed a boat,  cut out the letter “Save The Boat People” with a white typewriter paper with scissors, pasted it on a red cloth about 3 meters long and attached it to the side of the boat . In front of the UN office of Geneva, a lot of high-ranking personnel such as the king sat in there from Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and so on there, were making demonstrations, raising flags, made a large noises sound, shouted, and was doing demo. I solicited those people,to get on board the boat with me.  We fasted and we lanterned candles. Lanterns are common customs in Asian countries, so everyone quickly understood. In the headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, I handed out the press release, leaflets to the people of the press. This act was not easy without help of NHK, Japan’s National Broadcasting. I was indebted to the NHK people.

After the three days on the boat of demonstration, We all assembled and joined hands  and marched to the United Nations together. A lot of photographs at that time appeared in the newspaper about us, and a lot of interviews from the TV stations in various countries came. To the television station that came to interview, I had refrained from giving my real name, but my brother in Italy (Akira Tatsumura)  was watching TV in Milan “Japanese are doing this” Then.There was a phone later.from Akira, “When I thought that it looked like Kazuko, It was really You, My Sister! Kazuko!” 

I think that this exercise was a huge success. At that time at the United Nations refugee conference, each country presented the number of people to accept to the United Nations and accepted a large number of refugees. And the word “Save The Boat People” became worldwide known..


New York’s local newspaper “Newsday” posted on July 8, 1979

“NEW YORK Biz” published on March 3

Originally published as Vol. 15 in Weekly Biz, February 3, 2018; translated by Jim Luce.

See: Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura Column in Japan’s Weekly Biz



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About Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura

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Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura
Dr. Kazuko was born into a distinguished old family in Kyoto, Japan, and graduated from Toho conservatory of Music in Tokyo. In 1961 she came to U.S. as a pianist sponsored by the Boston Symphony. She studied at Boston University, New York University, and received her Ph.D. in Oriental Medicine from New York State University and the International Academy of Education in Tokyo. From 1968 to 1992, she promoted cultural exchanges from East to West and vice versa, and became a world famous impresario, producing 2,000 events each year all over the world encompassing over 140 countries. In this connection, in 1972, she went to Dharamsala to find the lost Tibetan Folk Opera, and met His Holiness the Dalai Lama, with whom she remains a lifelong friend. In 1973 and 1991 she arranged and funded personally the tours of the Folk Opera of Tibet to the West. She has received many medals and honors from different countries. Her tireless life long work in Philanthropic field is vast and well known ranging from Save the Beacon Theater, Save the Boat People, Help the Homeless, natural disasters of earthquakes and tsunamis, as well as relief to AIDS and HIV positive children in Africa. She has been a dedicated Board Member to both the J. Luce Foundation and Orphans International for years. Her work focuses on the Tibetan people; Tibetan children remain especially strong in her heart. She raised fund for the new academic building for Manjushree Orphanage in Tawang, India and supported many aspects of the school. See HuffPo pieces entitled Japanese Holistic Healer in NYC to Build School for Tibetan Orphans in India, A Japanese Dinner with Raul Castro’s Daughter, and NYC Gala in Support of Tibetan Orphans Set for January.

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