The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Harumi Torii—as a mother, grandmother, wife, and social entrepreneur—has a life and career that defy simple classification.

She has established a number of businesses and organizations, but is perhaps best known as the brain behind the Kids Earth Fund (KEF). This international non-profit organization was established in 1988 to promote peace and environmental conservation on a platform of children’s art.

Speaking to The Journal, Torii explains the motivation behind KEF, and touches on her career as an international businesswoman and agent of positive change. She also talks about her plans for the future, which include an exciting departure from her current activities.

Why did you start KEF?
It all started with love. Some 27 years ago, I opened a small kindergarten in Tokyo. With a young son—but unable to find a suitable school for him—I decided to start one myself. Such was the love I had for him. The idea was to create a school where children could learn by being themselves, being creative, and helping others. The concept was “children helping children.”

Volunteering was a key part of the children’s education—from cleaning around the neighborhood, to creating artwork for other children in hospitals, or singing songs for people in retirement homes. Even the youngest of children can do some of this.

From there grew the idea of using children’s activities—especially their artwork—at the kindergarten to support and encourage other children around the world, not just in Japan. And that led to the creation of the Kids Earth Fund.

Painting by Harumi Torii’s son

Painting by Harumi Torii’s son

What are some of the activities supported by KEF?
As with the kindergarten, which I ran for 23 years, KEF works along the lines of helping children to express freely their feelings and creativity.

This allows them to come to terms with any situation in which they may find themselves—be it having trouble at home, living the life of an orphan, or having survived traumatic experiences as a result of civil war or man-made or natural disasters. The tsunami in Tohoku and the nuclear disasters in Fukushima and Chernobyl, are cases in point.

In my experience, I have found that art is a great way for children from all walks of life to express themselves. A child who has been traumatized by war, for example, may not be able to speak about it but, if given a blank canvass and some colored pencils, amazing things can happen.

Harumi Torii at an art workshop in Nepal

Harumi Torii at an art workshop in Nepal

The child can communicate their true feelings, which can help them come to terms with their particular situation. It is a kind of self-help therapy that they provide for themselves.

Where does KEF do its work?
We have worked with kids, teachers, and families from around the world, in some 60 countries and with over 10,000 children, and have created local chapters of KEF.

Among these are 12 KEF houses around the world, including in Tohoku, Japan, as well as in Cambodia, and Croatia. We also have a branch in the US city of New Jersey.

The KEF houses provide workshops where children can collaborate to create artworks. We have children in Nepal, whom I have just visited, who are working on a canvass 6 by 3 meters in size. I did 10 workshops with those children and, as you can see in this photograph, they are painting on a map of Japan created by physically challenged people.

What happens to completed artworks?
The finished works serve to add color to the children’s lives, building confidence in them, and raise funds in places where there is need.

For fund raising, we partner with businesses and other organizations to hold art exhibitions, and launch products based on the artworks. The more than 100 products made include calendars, shoes, labels for wine bottles, hats, T-shirts, and books.

We have held exhibitions around the world, in places such as the Pompidou Center in Paris, the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, the Mori Museum in Tokyo and, many years ago, even in Boston’s World Trade Center. Wherever we go, we send out messages of peace and environmental conservation from the children through their art.

How do people react to KEF projects?

KEF art exhibit in the United States

KEF art exhibit in the United States

Our exhibitions really touch people. Children’s art is not just innocent; it is often amazing, beautiful, and even surprising. Not only are children concerned about the Earth and peace, but also about war and their inner feelings.

In this painting, another child has drawn a gun but, instead of bullets, it fires flowers. Artistic representations such as this make people smile—and think.

Have you always had an entrepreneurial spirit?
Not at all. I once was an ordinary housewife. However, when I realized that my son’s first experience of school would be more important than his last, even as I was not able to find a suitable school for him, I decided that I would have to go it alone.

That was back in 1985. So the idea of KEF and the inspiration that led me to become an entrepreneur, grew naturally from a need that I, as a mother, felt on my son’s behalf for his education and welfare.

What are some of the challenges you have faced as an entrepreneur?
Since realizing that I cannot do everything by myself, one of the challenges has been finding like-minded partners—staff, as well as institutional and corporate partners.

But I know that, if I become sufficiently passionate, I can overcome such challenges and, because my career came to me naturally, I have found it to be easier than, perhaps, many people would have done.

What advice would you give budding entrepreneurs?
Just take action. People always tend to think too much, worrying about resources or failure. Even if you fail, you will learn something.

I failed so many times, but it was at those moments that I learned the most. They were my most important experiences. Had I had things easy, there would have been no challenge. That is precisely why being an entrepreneur is so much fun. To go from zero to creating something special, that is really wonderful; it really is a kind of beautiful art.

Is there something else you would like to add?
Just that, in December, I’ll turn 60—an important age in Japan. Having worked with KEF for all these years, during which time I have seen children create the most beautiful artworks, my next challenge, I’ve decided, is to become a professional painter.

On November 12, KEF will hold a black tie fundraising ball at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Tokyo, and an art exhibition by members of KEF Nepal. From the middle of November to December 25, the Takashimaya department store in Tamagawa in Tokyo will exhibit artworks by children from KEF houses around the world.
I have found that art is a great way for children to express themselves.