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Top>Hakumon CHUO [2011 Autumn Issue]>[Topics] Gratitude for Taiwanese donations of aid money to disaster areas!

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[Topics] Gratitude for Taiwanese donations of aid money to disaster areas!

Gratitude for Taiwanese donations of aid money to disaster areas!

A 120 kilometer relay swim from Yonaguni Island to Taiwan
Chuo University swimmer selected as one of six swimmers who deepened friendship between Japan and Taiwan
Project realized through the effort of a Chuo University alumni who has visited Taiwan 140 times

Taiwan has donated more than 20 billion yen in aid money for areas devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake. In order to show Japan's gratitude to Taiwan, a project was organized for a relay swim by six swimmers to cross the approximately 120 kilometers between Suao, Taiwan and Yonaguni Island, Japan's westernmost island in Okinawa Prefecture. A member of the Chuo University Swimming Team is one of the swimmers who deepened friendship between Japan and Taiwan through the unprecedented achievement of swimming across the Kuroshio Current. Furthermore, the project was realized through the impassioned efforts of a Chuo University alumnus who has visited Taiwan 140 times and has worked hard to realize friendly relations between Japan and Taiwan.

Challenge by Kohei Yamada, member of the Chuo swimming team

This project, named the Japan-Taiwan Kuroshio Crossing Swim Challenge, was held for three days beginning from September 17th. Six Japanese swimmers took turns and successful completed a swim of approximately 120 kilometers between Yonaguni Island in Okinawa Prefecture and the city of Suao, located in Yilan County in northeast Taiwan. The swimmers delivered a message of gratitude to Taiwan from the three mayors of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures.

Kohei Yamada (3rd-year student in Faculty of Law; graduate of Tohoku High School), who was born in Soma City, Fukushima Prefecture, was one of the six swimmers selected to participate in the challenge. Kohei swims the 1500-meter freestyle event for the Chuo swim team and had experience in swimming in the ocean. During his 3rd year in high school, Kohei represented Japan in the Junior Pan Pacific Swimming Championships and placed third in the Open Water 10-Kilometer Swim, an event which is swam in the ocean.

Early this July, a swimming club instructor who had trained Kohei when he was an elementary student introduced the Japan-Taiwan Kuroshio Crossing Swim Challenge to Kohei and asked him to participate in the project.

When the earthquake struck on March 11th, Kohei was in his dormitory room at Chuo University. Although he was worried because he was temporarily unable to contact his family living in Soma City, Fukushima Prefecture, he learned afterwards that his family was safe. However, many of his friends and acquaintances were affected by the tsunami.

"It is not possible to practice swimming in Fukushima now. Some of my friends are thinking about quitting swimming. However, by swimming across the ocean to Taiwan, I hope that children in the disaster area will aspire to continue swimming, even if they can't currently practice," says Kohei when explaining his decision to participate in the project.

Kohei was the youngest of the six swimmers attempting the challenge. The six swimmers had almost no chance to practice together. Kohei prepared for the challenge by swimming 15 kilometers every day when practicing with the Chuo swimming team. "I was never worried and always looked forward to the swim," he says. However, such an unprecedented challenge possessed many dangerous elements.

Swimming through darkness at night

Mr. Kohei Yamada

In order to cross the ocean between Japan and Taiwan, swimmers had to face the fast Kuroshio Current. That area of ocean is inhabited by sharks and the needlefish, whose sting can cause severe injury or even death. For protection, a device which repels sharks by emitting electromagnetic waves was attached to the kayaks which accompanied the swimmers. However, since needlefish have the tendency to swim directly towards light, swimmers swam in total darkness at night.

The challenge started from 7am on September 17th, with swimmers departing from Nama Beach on Yonaguni Island. Due to Typhoon No. 15 the height of waves had already reached 2 meters and 50 centimeters. Swimmers had to deal with a fast ocean current that flowed in changing directions. Amidst such difficult conditions, the six swimmers took turns swimming in 30-minute intervals. "I was totally absorbed in swimming while I was in the water," recall Kohei. "I just wanted to swim as fast as possible and cover as much distance as I could. Actually, boat sickness was much worse for me than the challenge of swimming. I couldn't eat a single thing. Swimming was much more comfortable than riding on the boat!"

Stung by a giant jellyfish

However, Kohei had to deal with more than just boat sickness. While swimming through the pitch-black ocean at night, he suddenly felt a sharp sting followed by intense pain throughout his whole body. The pain was so great that he started to cry. Other members of the challenge noticed Kohei's plight and quickly got him in the boat. When they pulled him up, a giant jellyfish of two meters in length also came up with him.

The jellyfish was a species known as the Portuguese Man O' War, which possesses strong poison that can sometimes result in death. Kohei received immediately treatment for his wound and rested until his next turn. After only this brief rest, he then began to swim again.

The typhoon created high waves which were more than four meters tall. At one point, the six swimmers were forced to seek shelter in the boat which had stopped in one location. However, the team finished their swim on schedule, arriving at Suao, Taiwan at 10:00am on the 19th. Waiting on the beach were the county mayor and a crowd of locals who gave a hearty welcome to the six swimmers who had crossed 120 kilometers.

At a thank-you party which was held that night, Kohei represented the six swimmers and presented Taiwanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Timothy Chin-Tien Yang with a message of thanks from the mayors of three prefectures in Tohoku. The message read as follows: "We would like to offer our sincere thanks to the people of Taiwan for the generous donations made to support Japan after the Great East Japan Earthquake."

Participating in the project was a special experience for Kohei and gave him stronger belief in his own potential. "I want to fulfill my dream of becoming a firefighter and help the people of Fukushima prefecture," he states with conviction.

Chuo alumnus Ayahiko Matsumoto put great effort to organize the project

Chuo University alumnus Ayahiko Matsumoto (1963 Graduate from Faculty of Law) played a central role in realizing the project. Mr. Matsumoto served as a chairperson of the Japan-Taiwan Kuroshio Crossing Swim Challenge Committee. From the planning stage until the actual swim, he led the project to success by working tirelessly to gain the understanding and cooperation from officials in both Japan and Taiwan.

Mr. Matsumoto currently serves as Chairperson of the Association to Promote Japanese-Taiwanese Sports & Culture. The predecessor to the current association was the Japan-China Youth Friendship Association which Mr. Matsumoto established together with Keizo Obuchi, a former member of the Liberal Democratic Party who served as a House of Representatives Member. This friendship association was established in 1967, when Mr. Matsumoto first began his exchange with Japan. During the 45 years since then, he has visited Taiwan 140 times while contributing to the promotion of political, youth, sports and academic exchange between Japan and Taiwan.

In March of this year, in recognition of his achievements, Mr. Matsumoto was presented with a special diplomacy award from the Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In the past, he also served as secretary to Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu. Mr. Matsumoto worked to realize Prime Minister Kaifu's attendance in the commemorative cherry blossom planting ceremony which was held on March 11th at National Central University, an institution which has conducted an exchange agreement with Chuo University.

Gathering messages from the mayors of prefectures struck by the earthquake

On March18th, Mr. Matsumoto was contacted by Kazuya Suzuki, a company worker who was the creator of the swimming project and an alumnus of the Meiji University Swimming Team. Mr. Suzuki described how he wanted a group of athletes to swim from Japan to Taiwan in order to give a message of gratitude to Taiwan. At first, Mr. Matsumoto thought it was a very unusual idea. Upon listening to the idea further, Mr. Matsumoto thought that simply swimming between the two countries was not enough. He then proposed gathering and delivery messages of gratitude from the mayors of three prefectures which were particularly affected by the disaster.

There were worries if it was truly possible to swim across the strong Kuroshio Current. Mr. Suzuki arranged a test swim which was held in May. After testing everyone's resolved during the test swim, a full-scale committee was organized in June with renewed dedication.

Further preparations proved very difficult. Firstly, it was unusual to leave Japan from Yonaguni Island. Although an immigrations office is located on Ishigaki Island, the absence of such an island on Yonaguni Island makes it impossible to perform procedures for leaving the country. The director of the Ishigaki Island immigration office provided an answer to Mr. Matsumoto's worries. "I am actually an alumnus of Chuo University, just like Mr. Matsumoto," says the director. While emphasizing that the current case was a special exception, the director stamped the passports of all 22 crew members and completed procedures for leaving Japan. "I really felt the bond of the Chuo University family," reflects Mr. Matsumoto.

Similarly, entry into Taiwan is not normally possible from Suao. However, support was received from Taiwanese officials who had a strong interest in the project. It was also difficult to gather funds for the project due to the absence of sponsors. "We also faced financial problems when trying to charter a ship," says Mr. Matsumoto.

Realizing the challenge through personal connections and passion

Once the plan had been somewhat finalized, Mr. Matsumoto noticed that all the swimmer who would be crossing between Japan and Taiwan were alumni of Meiji University. "Chuo University has the strongest swimming team among all universities in Japan. There are many strong swimmers on the team," he said to Mr. Suzuki in a request to add Chuo students as members. Acting upon this request, project officials searched and found Kohei, a Chuo swimming team member who was born in the region struck by the earthquake.

"Crossing the Kuroshio Current was an unprecedented challenge," says Mr. Matsumoto. "The project was widely covered in newspapers and on television, and I think that the project helped Japanese people to notice the friendly relations between Japan and Taiwan." The project never could have been realized without the personal connections and passion stemming from Mr. Matsumoto's deep friendship with Taiwan.

(Student Reporter: Azusa Hashimoto, 4th year student, Faculty of Law)