Toshizo Watanabe ’73 receives alumni achievement award

March 15, 2019

President Ron Liebowitz presented Toshizo “Tom” Watanabe ’73 with the Alumni Achievement Award this past weekend at the 60th anniversary celebration of the Wien International Scholarship Program (WISP).

Watanabe graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Brandeis, and in November 2018, donated $10 million to Brandeis to establish the Toshizo Watanabe International Scholarship Program (TWISP) that would give eligible graduate and undergraduate students in Japan the opportunity to study at Brandeis.

Liebowitz said in his speech “TWISP will not only further diversify campus but also add new perspectives to classroom discussions and encourage students to expand their knowledge of their world and of themselves.”

Following Watanabe’s acceptance of the award, he spoke about his own life story and the profound impact of WISP on shaping who he is today. He cited Wien and Kōnosuke Matsushita, founder of Panasonic, as the two individuals that had a profound impact on him. Matsushita also assisted Watanabe financially to help him come to the United States to study.

Watanabe was born in a small beach town southwest of Tokyo, Japan and lived with his mother and sister. His father died of tuberculosis when he was one, and even though his mother did not attend college, Watanabe’s mother knew the importance of education and made sure to provide him and his sister with a private education. On top of this, she also required him to work at their family-owned dairy store.

“My mother taught me the value of hard work,” Watanabe said in his speech. “She told me how to make money and become financially independent in order to one day have a good life.” He said that her teachings reminded him of the famous Chinese proverb: “You give a poor man a fish, and you feed him for a day. You teach him to fish, and you give him an occupation that will feed him for a lifetime.”

Watanabe decided when he was 15 that he wanted to study abroad. His hometown was surrounded by various U.S. military bases, so he had the opportunity to speak with many officers and was “attracted to the American way of life.” WISP ultimately granted Watanabe this opportunity to study in the U.S.

He remembered how difficult it was to find a job in Japan after graduating from Brandeis because an American university diploma did not have much significance in Japan, said Watanabe. After finding work, Watanabe became a successful businessman by his late thirties.

When Watanabe returned for the 30th anniversary celebration of WISP, Liebowitz stated that Watanabe was inspired by a speech given by Lawrence Wien, whom the scholarship is named after. “That is when the seed was planted for me. Since then, I have always wanted to repay the Wien family generosity by helping other students,” Liebowitz quoted Watanabe saying.

Liebowitz also said that Watanabe was determined to continue his education in the United States, but Brandeis was the only school that offered him the financial means to “make his dreams a reality.”

Watanabe also reflected on the emotional speech that Wien made about his life. “His greatest satisfaction came not from making money in his business,” said Watanabe about Wien. “But his scholarship program. He spoke from the bottom of his heart with tears in his eyes. His speech made an invaluable impact on me.”

This speech by Wien that “ignited a strong passion in me to pay forward and offer others opportunities for which I was chosen to receive and which I am forever grateful,” said Watanabe. Following his retirement from business, Watanabe made his dream a reality.

In 2008 during the 50th anniversary of WISP, Watanabe reconnected with his former roommate, Geir Hilmar Haarde, the former prime minister of Iceland. The two helped create an exchange program, the National Iceland Scholarship Exchange, that gives students in Iceland the opportunity to study in the United States.

Watanabe also created a scholarship program with the United States Japan Council in Washington D.C. with Daniel Inouye, a former U.S. senator. Watanabe also added that Inouye was the highest ranking Asian American political figure in United States history, third in the presidential line of succession.

Since the program’s inception, Watanabe has funded 275 scholarships. “The creation of the foundation enabled me to give the gift of education to others,” said Watanabe. “It fulfills my soul and is what makes me feel valuable.”

“Life itself is a teacher, and I hope that all of us as students of the many teachers in our lives take the wealth in education, knowledge and experiences out into the world and make a life that matters,” Watanabe said at the end of his speech. “My goal for the rest of my life is to support students who would not be able to receive a decent education without financial aid.”

The “Wien family” has almost 900 alumni from more than 100 countries who came to Brandeis to study thanks in part to WISP. Watanabe is the current president of the Toshizo Watanabe Foundation and the chair emeritus and former president and CEO of Nikken Global, which is an international home and wellness products company.

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