Yuka Iwatsuki, President and Co-Founder, ACE (Action Against Child Exploitation)

My name is Yuka Iwatsuki and I lead ACE (Action Against Child Exploitation), a nongovernmental organization in Japan to end child labor around the world. We have projects in India and Ghana, and we raise awareness and advocate for the 168 million children worldwide who are deprived of their rights and their future.

“Our role is to unleash you,” wrote my mentor, Dr. Sachiko Kuno, in our exchange of emails prior to the Global Ambassadors Program in Tokyo. I was not sure of the meaning of the term “unleash” then, but after spending a truly inspiring week together, I now know what she meant.

Some people may wonder why Japan was chosen for GAP’s 11th trip. In terms of women’s empowerment, we are far behind. Japan ranked 104 out of 142 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2014 Global Gender Gap Index. We are ranked 1st in the female literacy rate category, and educational attainment is very high.

However, in our Diet, women represent only 9.5 percent of the seats, and are 11.5 percent of CEOs, but mainly as entrepreneurs or small and middle size companies. Very few are CEOs of big listed companies. My personal experience is in line with these statistics. Up until university, everything seems pretty much equal but when it comes to job hunting, things suddenly change; men are preferred.

But against all odds, women are rising. Not just because of our Prime Minister Abe’s slogan that we are “a society where women shine.” There are so many talented and aspiring women in Japan, and after meeting with my mentees and mentors, I became very confident that things will change.

There are so many things I learned from GAP. Useful take-away tips on social networks, public speaking and strategic planning from trainers are now like my business suit for success. Once you know it and practice it, it will help you get going where you want to go. It is a well thought through program, realized by the strong partnership between Vital Voices and Bank of America, and I am grateful to them that they have spent significant resources needed to make it happen.

But my greatest appreciation goes to my mentor. Most of the mentors had set aside their calendars to spend a week in Japan with us, and so did my mentor, Sachiko. And I am really glad she did.

Sachiko unleashed me. She asked me questions that no one ever asked. She guided me to “think big” and “think outside the box” and told me that I should take a view from the peak (the goal) of the mountain to find a path, not from where I am. She reminded me I should be focused on my goal and that is what the donors and supporters expect me to do as CEO, so I should not allow myself to get distracted. I realized I was totally in my comfort zone, but I needed to wake up and get out of it. She made me remember why I founded ACE 18 years ago.  

One of my expectations from this program was to know my leadership style. After hearing my stories, she assured me that as a leader, it is okay that I act on my instincts, with reasons to follow afterward. I am sometimes described the “ace of Japanese NGOs” and I never felt I lived up to it – but I am more confident in who I am and what I do and I am ready to take courageous steps toward the goal. I will start by redefining the mission of my organization.

My only worry was whether my board members would agree to my new ideas. It turned out that they were feeling the same need for change. Two days after GAP, we held a board meeting and I explained the new mission statement, core strategies and key actions. To my surprise, it was accepted cordially and the board members are now more eager to help. It’s as if they now have a clearer goal and their potential is unleashed! This tells me how important it is for the leader of an organization to have a clear and “big enough” goal so that people want to contribute.

The week in the program was a life-changing experience. If you are reading this blog to decide if you should apply for entry, you should, especially if you are at the pivotal point of your career, like I was. The impact of this program lasts for my life, and I am sure it will be paid forward to the women and children in the world in the course of pursuing my goal.


At the end of the GAP program, each of us announced actions for renewed goals, and one of mine was to invite Nobel laureate Mr. Kailash Satyarthi to Japan. He visited in May 2016 and it had a tremendous impact on raising awareness of child labour around the world. The trip was reported by more than 24 media outlets, including a cover story in a leading business magazine, “AERA.” We were able to approach politicians after his visit, and our stop!child labour network Japan was able to submit requests to two ministers, on labour and on education.

GAP Japan mentees reunite in 2016 with Dr. Sachiko Kuno

My wonderful mentor, Dr. Sachiko Kuno and I had stayed in touch on email and Skype, and I gained a lot of support from her. When she visited Japan in June, I had a chance to talk to her for two hours, updating her on how things went so well after GAP. We even had a night out with other GAP mentees in Ginza. This network is supporting me a lot, and we feel that we support each other without expecting anything in return.

I cannot thank GAP enough for coming here, and I want to encourage people to join this program.

Top: Global Ambassador Dr. Sachiko Kuno (left) and mentee Yuka Iwatsuki (right)