Spreading wishes for peace with sunflower, the national flower of Ukraine
The latest OIST column in the Asahi Shimbun GLOBE+ is out now! OIST Media Relations Section Manager, Tomomi Okubo, spoke to Ayumi Nagai, OIST staff, about her volunteer work "Sunflowers for Peace". The article is in Japanese, but the English translation can be read below.
Column Series "Scientists Without Borders in Churashima"
At the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST), which has surpassed the University of Tokyo in the percentage of high-quality papers ranking 9th in the world, exceptional scientists gather from around the world. This series of column "Scientists Without Borders in Churashima" will be published on an occasional basis to feature those scientists.
Spreading wishes for peace with sunflower, the national flower of Ukraine – One person's idea moves a community
In the morning of June 15, 2022, Okinawa had its first clear skies after a long rainy season with heavy, daily rainfalls.
Ayumi Nagai, who works at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST), dropped her child off at daycare and made her way up a steep hill towards the jungle to check on something important.
There, under the blue sky, sunflowers were starting to bloom.
This sunflower field is located on the periphery of the campus of OIST, a research and educational institution of basic science. One might assume that Ms. Nagai is a sunflower researcher.
But that’s not the case.
Ms. Nagai is an administrative staff member at OIST. With experience in human resource development and recruitment, she is now supporting the career development of researchers, staff, and students at OIST and developing educational courses that will strengthen the inclusive culture of the university.
The sunflowers were taken care of by a volunteer group formed by Ms. Nagai. Because of the continuous rain, the group had a break from watering them, and Ms. Nagai found the flowers blooming for the first time that day.
This initiative started with the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
At work, Ms. Nagai sits next to a Ukrainian colleague called Oksana Burduzhan.
“With the situation in Ukraine becoming worse by the day, I saw how Oksana was worried about her family back home, but instead of just being pessimistic, she was trying to reach out to see if there was anything she could do to help,” Ms. Nagai said. This made her want to do something as well.
Ms. Oksana responded to an interview by the local media to appeal for peace. Seeing the courage of her colleague, Ms. Nagai said she felt compelled to make a donation. “But I felt guilty that I couldn't do more to help.”
A child of an OIST staff member saw the interview in the newspaper and drew a picture of a sunflower to send to Oksana with the message, "I hope the war ends soon."
When Oksana saw this, she cried with happiness. She said to Ms. Nagai, "I want to spread the importance of everyone supporting each other like this, instead of focusing on the sadness."
It was then that Ms. Nagai learned that the sunflower is the national flower of Ukraine.
Several days later, on March 5, 2022 (Coral Day), Ms. Nagai participated in a tree-planting event in Onna Village, where OIST is located. This tree-planting initiative is to help protect coral from red soil runoff in the ocean. There sunflower seeds were handed out to the participants as souvenirs.
This was when Ms. Nagai came up with an idea.
She thought, "Why not plant these sunflower seeds on the OIST campus to show our support for Oksana and her family?"
She mentioned this idea to one of her colleagues who told her that there are several other Ukrainian staff members working at OIST.
Ms. Nagai's ideas started to evolve from there.
"We decided to start an initiative that involved everyone in the community, including OIST staff and students, to bring peace and healing to those who have been hurt. We wanted to send a peaceful message that could be expanded to include Onna Village, Okinawa Prefecture, and Japan as a whole."
Ms. Nagai named the project "Sunflowers for Peace." While recruiting volunteers to work with her, she explained the purpose of the project to the campus facility management staff and asked to see if the volunteers could grow sunflowers on campus. From there, the unused flower beds were secured.
She approached the representative of the OIST Gardening Club, a group working on a vegetable garden as a hobby, for guidance on how to grow sunflowers.
Ms. Nagai also asked the staff in charge of public relations for their cooperation and the nursery school on campus to create a signboard for the flower bed.
EF Polymer, a startup from OIST that makes a water absorbent organic polymer as a substitute for fertilizer agreed to donate their products to this initiative.
Ms. Nagai also talked to the people at the Onna Village Office who gave her the sunflower seeds and she gained more supporters in the local community.
The sunflower seeds were planted on April 6, 2022.
About 50 people from various countries and cultural backgrounds in the OIST community participated in the event.
The local media was also invited with the hope that "the sunflower, a symbol of mutual caring, would spread throughout Okinawa."
A reader of the article commented, “I did not know that sunflower is the national flower of Ukraine. It is my favorite flower, too. I planted sunflowers in my garden. （omitted） I wish for return of peace in Ukraine as soon as possible.“
June 23, 2022 is Memorial Day of Okinawa—a very important day for the people of this Prefecture to remember the lives that were lost during the Battle of Okinawa.
The volunteers used the sunflowers that they had planted to make flower arrangements on the OIST campus.
Oksana also took part in this flower arrangement as a volunteer of the Sunflowers for Peace.
Oksana expressed her gratitude to her colleagues for coming together to show their support when she was feeling heartbroken for her family and country while being so far away in Okinawa.
"I am grateful to Ms. Nagai for starting this initiative. When I am watering the sunflowers with the other members, I feel warm and relaxed as if I was working in the garden at my parents' house back in Ukraine," said Oksana.
Looking back on her initiative, Ms. Nagai said, "Everyone has special abilities and potential, but there are many things we cannot achieve alone. Working at OIST has made me think of events happening around the world as my own, and with the help of the goodwill of many people, I was able to make these activities a reality. I hope that the members of OIST, a school with rich internationality, can draw on their diverse backgrounds and experiences to work together to foster a brighter future for everyone, including local residents, from here in Okinawa."
The money raised will be donated to the "Ukraine Scholar and Student Support Fund" established by OIST and the OIST Foundation and will be used to host scientists (researchers and students) from Ukraine at OIST on an humanitarian basis.
Professional & Culture Development Specialist at OIST
Born in Kyoto, Japan, Ms. Nagai has a B.A. from Kansai Gaidai University and Gustavus Adolphus College, Minnesota, USA. After working as a career consultant for a recruiting firm, she worked in Tokyo and Singapore as a human resources specialist for European and US investment banks and investment advisors. She has also worked in recruitment and development of human resources, from junior employees to senior management, as well as organizational strategy. She joined OIST in 2019 and is currently involved in the launch of the Center for Professional Development and Inclusive Excellence.
Written by Tomomi Okubo, Manager, OIST Media Relations Section