In NYC, Geneva Lantern Demonstrations to Save the Boat People

New York, N.Y. In early summer of 1979, as I walked along the North Shore of Long Island, I was thinking about the much-publicized refugees escaping by boat from various parts of Asia. I wondered, Why doesn’t anyone do anything about this calamity?

When I looked out over the sea and horizon, I realized like the a flash of lightning, perhaps nobody helps them because they are Asian. If these ‘boat people’ were European, for example, relief activities would have kicked into action.With so many dying, it seemed impossible nobody cared.

It struck me then that, as an Asian, I should do something! And thus, “Save The Boat People” was created – a movement that quickly spread around the world.

New York, Geneva Lantern Demonstrations to Support Asian Refugees

First, I planned an “Awareness Rally” organized for July 4, 1979 – American Independence Day. This event was supported by many celebrities. I held a press conference at the Central Park Boathouse.

There, I stated to the media, “Each country should accept refugees in ratio to the area of their nation. Small countries like Japan should do what they can, and larger countries even more. Singer Judy Collin and actor Tony Randall attended the event, enthusiastically supporting me and adding celebrity in support of Asia’s boat people.

Group Formation Soon

Volunteers then began to gather at my office and in a few days, an organization called “Save The Boat People” was created. When I went to speak with the chairman of Time magazine, he agreed to design a big poster for the cause and place it in every Long Island Railroad station. He also printed hundred of thousands of fliers for us.

I knew this gentleman because he was one of the participants of our 1972 China trip. Once the campaign started, I could only sleep about three hours a day. The task was painful and extremely tiring, but many people joined us, working hard in my office every night.

Candles Flow in the Sea

On the night of Independence Day, it was time for the main event! We prepared one boat at the port in New York, got a lot of round plates from McDonald’s, put a flat candle on each, lit the candles and placed them out to the sea under the Statue of Liberty.

When the big fireworks lite the New York Harbor sky — bang, bang — everyone was watching. We were afloat on a ship with only candle light and many people came to see, as it was just beautiful. ABC news filmed us so it came out on TV as well. “The light of one candle symbolizes the soul of 1,000 dead people on the ocean,” I was quoted.

Lanterns in Geneva

After that, since I learned of a U.N. refugee emergency meeting to be held in Geneva and off I went. This time, I appealed to the entire world. At Lake Geneva, I planned the same visual demonstration we had done in New York, with candles  flowing on the lake.

After arriving there, I borrowed a boat, cut out the letters “Save The Boat People” with white typewriter paper, pasted it on a ten foot long red cloth, and attached it to the side of the boat.

In front of the U.N. office of Geneva, many high-ranking individuals such as the kings of Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and so on, were making demonstrations, raising flags, making loud noises sound, and shouting.

I solicited these people to get on board the boat with me. We fasted and lit candles. Lanterns are a common custom in Asian countries, so everyone quickly understood.

At the U.N. Geneva headquarters, I handed out our press release to the journalists there. This act would not have been easy without the help of NHK, Japan’s National Broadcasting company. I was indebted to the NHK people.

After three days of boat demonstrations, we all assembled and joined hands, marching to the United Nations together. As a result, we were featured in many newspapers and had many TV interviews with stations all over the world.

Although I had refrained from giving my real name, my brother Akira Tatsumura was living in Italy. Watching TV in Milan, he thought to himself,  “Wow, Japanese are doing this!”  Then my phone rang. Akira was on the line, saying, “I thought that looked like you, Kazuko! It was really you, my Sister!” Small world!

I think this was all a huge success. At that United Nations Refugee Conference, each country agreed to accept a certain number of people as refugees. And the words “Save The Boat People” became worldwide known.

Originally published as Vol. 15 in Weekly Biz, March 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

View all posts by Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura
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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