Dr. Ogata was born Sadako Nakamura in Tokyo on Sept. 16, 1927. She was the great-granddaughter of former prime minister Tsuyoshi Inukai, who was assassinated by navy officers in 1932 as he tried to stop Japan’s military aggression in China, and the granddaughter of former foreign minister Kenkichi Yoshizawa. Her father, Toyoichi Nakamura, was a Japanese ambassador to Finland.
She graduated from the University of the Sacred Heart in Tokyo and received a master’s degree in international relations at Georgetown University and a doctorate in political science from the University of California at Berkeley in 1963.
She chose to become an academic and diplomat instead of following her family into politics. After teaching at Tokyo’s Sophia University, Dr. Ogata in 1979 became the first Japanese woman to represent her country at the United Nations. She served on the U.N. Human Rights Commission from 1982 to 1985 and then as U.N. high commissioner for refugees from 1991 to 2000.
She visited more than 40 countries as high commissioner, often clad in a bulletproof jacket and helmet, to personally witness people’s plight. She made numerous visits to refugee camps for Kurdish people who fled Iraq after the Gulf War.
“I have to be on the ground and see how people flee or how those displaced suffer even after returning home,” Dr. Ogata said in a 1989 interview with Japanese public broadcaster NHK. “Without seeing the situation, I cannot give instructions to my staff.”
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U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said in a statement: “Mrs. Ogata was a visionary leader who steered UNHCR through one of the most momentous decades in its history, transforming the lives of millions of refugees and others devastated by war, ethnic cleansing and genocide, and helping redefine humanitarian action in a fast-evolving geopolitical landscape. She was a committed internationalist and a friend to the United Nations throughout her life.”
Dr. Ogata wrote books addressing refugee issues. She served as president of the Japan International Cooperation Agency from 2003 to 2012.
Dr. Ogata married a Japanese central banker, Shijuro Ogata, and had two children.