‘Playground of Hope’ project builds communities, benefits affected kids

Tokyo resident Michael Anop creates play areas that bring together people of all ages

by Louise George Kittaka

Special To The Japan Times

Michael Anop, a longtime Tokyo resident and entrepreneur, says he is “very much a people’s person,” as demonstrated by a definite talent for connecting with the right individuals to make things happen.

As a teenager, he dreamed of a career working with young people in the counseling field. But after arriving in Japan just as the bubble era came to an end in the late 1980s, he was soon carving out a niche for himself in the business world.

Years later, the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami that devastated parts of the Tohoku region proved to be a turning point in his life.

While volunteering in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, he watched families resettle into temporary housing and realized he could make a difference in their lives through building playgrounds for the children. He moved quickly to bring his idea to fruition, resulting in the “Playground of Hope” project.

A father of two, Anop understands how important it is for kids to feel they have a safe place to call their own. “As an entrepreneur, you look for a void in the market and rush to fill it to make a profit. But in this case, I was rushing because kids are only kids for a short time and I knew the government had so many other things to fix first,” he says. “Building new parks was at least three or four years down the agenda and so I wanted to do something for those kids now.”

The Massachusetts native originally came to this country to try his hand at modeling, after hearing about opportunities while traveling round Europe in his student days. Arriving in 1989 in his mid-20s, he quickly found success, landing his first photo shoot within a month. However, as the modeling market became saturated with foreigners, Anop gradually shifted his attention to other endeavors.

“It was the end of the bubble era but money was still flowing. By 1991, I was running a nightclub in Roppongi. It was a fluke — I knew someone who had just closed a rock club, six months after opening it, and I talked him into letting me open an ‘after-hours nightclub’ where people could hang out after the other clubs had closed. This led to connections with all the ‘in crowd’ photographers, dancers, DJs — and morphed into chances to work on other projects.”

Over the ensuing years, Anop branched out into event planning and music video production, his crowning achievement being a video for the Japanese rock band L’Arc-en-Ciel. “It was a novelty to work with foreigners back then, so it was relatively easy to get a foot in the door,” he notes. “But I actually did make a good producer!”

Anop first met his Japanese wife-to-be during this period, while doing product promotions in a “pedestrian paradise” in Harajuku. “Part of Omotesando was closed to traffic on Sundays in those days, and it was where all the street bands and dancers hung out. She was the manager for one of the bands, and came up to me and starting chatting in English.” Although the pedestrian paradise in the area ended in the late 1990s, the couple’s friendship endured and they married in 2004.

These days, Anop’s main business is handling the Japanese franchise for the Z-CARD, a compact communications and marketing tool that is widely used at Japanese rock music festivals. He also runs a talent management and production agency, Eclipse Production.

Shortly after the 2011 mega-quake, he started volunteering in the tsunami-ravaged Tohoku communities.

“After the events in Tohoku, I found myself with time on my hands. I had people in place to take care of business here in Tokyo, so I was ready to give back by volunteering. This was the first time I’d seen people in profound shock. They were there, but they weren’t there,” he says somberly.

As volunteering efforts moved from rescue to recovery, Anop became involved in helping to coordinate the delivery and distribution of regular truckloads of water and produce to people in temporary housing units. “I started noticing things. I saw a small boy, around my daughter’s age, clinging to his mother’s legs. He didn’t want to leave her side. Clearly, the kid was stressed out and so was she.

“I also noticed that the people in the temporary units came out of their houses and interacted when we arrived with the food and water. These were people who had been thrown together by the disaster, people who had never met before and had no previous connections. They had to learn how to become a community again.”

Some months before, a friend of Anop’s in Italy, who sold playground equipment, had asked if he could be of any help. “At the time, my reaction was, ‘How?’ But thinking it over, I realized those kids had nothing. They were playing with stones and sticks. I began thinking about places we could put up a playground.”

Anop initially contacted Japanese manufacturers of playground equipment, but was “blown away” by the cost and the regulations. Being mostly made of metal, domestic play equipment is costly and complicated to set up. Through his Italian friend, he was put in contact with U.S.-based Rainbow Play Systems. Following negotiations, Anop agreed to become their Japan distributor and, in turn, the company offered their products at a special price for Tohoku. “Playground of Hope” was under way.

“I was flying by the seat of my pants at first,” he admits. “Rainbow’s equipment is wooden, so relatively cheap and simple to set up. I wasn’t even sure what the installation regulations for this type of playground were when we started.” Fortunately, subsequent enquiries to the Japan Park Facilities Association revealed that Anop and his team were doing everything right and meeting all safety specifications.

“Playground of Hope” was initially meant to be a short-term project, with Anop envisaging building between six and eight playgrounds. He launched the project under the umbrella of Side by Side International, an established Japanese NPO heavily involved with relief work in Tohoku.

“I tell people that if I had known back then what I know now, I probably would never have started!” he said, grinning. “It has become a major endeavor.” Once things were moving, however, he found it easy to get people involved and enthusiastic about “Playground of Hope.” Anop has adopted what he describes as a “fiscal sponsorship model,” whereby companies pledge the funds to purchase equipment and then send up employees to work as volunteers while bonding through the common goal of putting a playground together.

Although the main focus has been on helping the children in Tohoku, Anop made a wonderful discovery. “I quickly realized that we were in fact building multigenerational play spaces. The kids come out to play, and the parents come out with them and start interacting, as you do, standing around while your kids are playing. Then, since we put in flowers and benches, elderly people would also come out, to sit down or to water the flowers.”

Unlike many of the neighborhood playgrounds for children in this country, which cater to mostly preschoolers, “Playground of Hope’s” equipment can be enjoyed by children aged between 3 and 12, fostering interaction between a wide range of ages. Future playground installations will include basketball hoops and soccer goals for the benefit of older children, too.

Anop recalls one particularly heartfelt comment from a resident in a temporary housing community. “He told me, ‘I had forgotten what it was like to hear the sound of children playing.’ I had to fight back the tears when I heard that.”

Once the playground is set up, the onus is on the residents to care for it and complete the recommended yearly maintenance. On the first anniversary, Anop and his team revisit, bringing paint, sandpaper and the necessary equipment. “We show them what to do, and our visits are very successful, with lots of people turning out and getting involved.”

Seventeen successful installations down the track, Anop is looking ahead to ways to help keep his project growing. Along with Neil Rosenblatt, who has come on board as his partner, Anop is hoping that “Playground of Hope” can gain NPO status by the end of the year.

He has recently been inspired by a U.S.-based charity called KaBoom!, which partners with communities to help them build playgrounds. “They have a planning kit they make available, and I’d like to move forward to a time when we can offer something similar, with information on how to fund-raise and install the play equipment.”

Anop believes that the “Playground of Hope” model could be extended to other impoverished areas of Japan, where there aren’t enough young families. “If you can go in and set up a playground quite cheaply, the area becomes attractive for people with children, and it contributes to the community.”

When he comes home to his family in Tokyo, Anop is much like any other father on the weekends, accompanying his own children to their local park. He recently took his 7-year-old son to see one of the “Playground of Hope” installations and described it as a wonderful bonding experience. Meanwhile, his daughter, 5, is also developing an awareness of why her father leaves for several days at a time for “Playground of Hope.” “She told me, ‘You know, Daddy, when I grow up I want to work with you to help those kids,’ ” he says proudly.

For more about the project, visit www.playgroundofhope.org.

  • StuInTokyo

    Great article, Play Ground of Hope is really a good thing!

  • Leza Lowitz

    Wonderful article, wonderful person and effort. Thanks Playground of Hope! Keep up the great work!