Failure is not an Option

I love Tokyo in the winter!  Last week I was invited by the International Ladies Benevolent Society (Kokusai Fukushi Kyokai) to the Italian Embassy to talk about Room to Read.  The audience included 21 Ambassador’s wives and dignitaries all sharing a deep concern for global education. The maple trees in the garden were fire red, and the sun reflected off the pond.  I couldn’t help but think of the famous quote from Voltaire, “Paradise is where I am.”

That was a wonderful beginning of a 4-day trip to Tokyo where I met over 600 people.  Our Tokyo Chapter organized presentations at Academy Hills Library in Roppongi Hills, the Institute for Strategic Leadership and Matsuya Ginza.  I was also invited to speak to the alumni of my alma mater, Kellogg Business School, at a private Japanese home where I enjoyed sushi and Asahi beer!   Furthermore, I met various individuals and business donors and was interviewed by Fuji TV’s Christel Takigawa for her nightly show, News Japan.

Why so much interest in Room to Read here in Japan?  It’s clear that education is a huge priority.  With Japan having the wealthiest economy in Asia and a literacy rate of 99.9%, the Japanese value reading and understand the joy and opportunities it brings.   When I recently jogged in Yoyogi Park, I astonished that even a homeless person living in a blue tent was reading the Yomiuri Shimbun!

Secondly, the Japanese love to travel.  When they go to countries like India, Cambodia and Nepal, they experience real poverty and want to change it.  Together, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia are home to 74% of the world’s children not enrolled in primary school.  That’s 77 million kids who do not attend primary school.   Business leaders in Japan and elsewhere know that children who do not read or write will never be consumers of foreign products or services.  So it’s in their best business interest to ensure that these kids are educated.  According to UNESCO, for every year a girl goes to school her income potential increases 10%.   This will empower her, improve her health and break the cycle of poverty.

Aside from these statistics, I think the Japanese are simply caring people.  Many students and young business leaders asked me during this trip how they are able to make a difference.  Not everyone can afford to contribute a school in Sri-Lanka or Nepal, but a little goes a long way. As I told holiday shoppers at Matsuya Ginza, 500 yen buys five books or five days of a girl’s education.  If you donate your old books to Book Off, the company will give Room to Read an average of 40 yen per book.  20 books is the equivalent of eight days a girl goes to school.

My parents instilled in me the idea that “to whom much is given, much is expected”.  During the last four days, I found that the Japanese share this concept.  So many people offered creative ways to help.  One wanted to organize a marathon to raise money for our library program in Cambodia, and another plans to reach out to her network of 60,000 hairstylists to start, “Hair Cares.”  Our Tokyo Chapter soon plans to organize a Million Book Challenge to raise 100 million yen.  Imagine the possibilities!  We can all change the world.  Room to Read is not your traditional charity that only appeals to the rich and famous.  This is a global movement and we want to involve as many people as possible.  Failure is not an option.  That’s why every five hours in 2009, we are opening a new library somewhere on this small planet.

During this holiday season, all of us at Room to Read wish you a healthy and prosperous year.  Thank you for your support..

John Wood (Room to Read CEO)