Briton relies on samurai spirit as he sets out on 126-km walk for charity

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

Like many before him, Trevor Skingle became fascinated with samurai ethics while learning a martial art. But for this Briton, the samurai respect for the arts in traditional Japan resonated with his own life choices.

That happened when he was a physical education trainer with the British military vying in army judo competitions at the age of 19. He had come from a background that had made him equally comfortable on stage as a child soprano for the Royal Opera House in London.

To Skingle, Japan made sense for his split world: “Judo was the linchpin, but from what I could gather about Japanese culture and the samurai ethos, art and military often went hand in hand, and it matched up with my own character. When I found the combination of the artistic and combative side in Japan, it really sang to me.”

“Samurai” originally meant “one who serves,” and Skingle’s life work has taken him on a similar path. As an IT technician working in humanitarian relief efforts for the past 10 years, he has found many opportunities to combine his love of Japan with service to others.

This week, Skingle embarked on a “Nakasendo challenge,” a 126-km walk following part of the inland Nakasendo route from Kyoto to Tokyo. His efforts serve several purposes: raising money for the humanitarian organization RedR, where Skingle has worked for the last six years; stepping into the richly historical past of samurai Japan by passing the site of the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600; and celebrating 400 years of British and Japanese trade relations.

“I was inspired for the walk after reading ‘Before the Dawn’ by Toson Shimazaki (whose story is set in the Kiso mountainous region along Nakasendo) and had completely planned the trip six years ago as a solo walk,” he explains. “But two days before I was due to leave, the charity I was working for on contract went bust, and I had to cancel the trip. I always keep an eye out for things related to Japan, however, and when I found the Japan400 website early this year and discovered so many celebrations going on across Britain for the anniversary, I decided to celebrate myself by finally undertaking the walk. It made sense to use the walk to raise money for humanitarian efforts.”

Skingle opened a “money giving” page from Virgin Corp.’s philanthropic arm and made his travel plans through Walk Japan, a company specializing in walking tours across the nation. The Nakasendo way was first established in the eighth century to link surrounding provinces to the ancient capital of Nara. During the Tokugawa Shogunate, the road was further developed to link western Japan and Edo. From Kyoto, the inland route passes along Lake Biwa and over the mountainous areas of today’s Gifu, Nagano and Gunma prefectures before heading down to the Kanto Plain. He plans to celebrate his physical success at the end of the walk in a typically Skingle way: with a night of taking in kabuki in Tokyo.

Alternating physical challenges and the artistic with Japan at the center has been Skingle’s pattern for the past 20 years. After training in judo for the military, in the early 1980s Skingle became a judo official and ran a judo club. At that time, he first started humanitarian work as well, as his background gave him the chance to volunteer with street children, teaching sports.

Skingle also pursued his interests in Japan, focusing in particular on Japanese arts, teaching himself hiragana and katakana to study original texts about Japanese art and theater. Also a telecommunications engineer in the army, Skingle retrained in management studies at the age of 30 when he left the army reserves in 1985.

His dual training and experience allowed him to work as an IT engineer in the humanitarian sector around London, and he started on a contract, part-time basis, before landing full time work with RedR (Register of Engineers for Disaster Relief), a disaster relief charity that trains aid workers for disaster relief. Skingle helps set up the technological and telecommunication aspects of the operation.

He was able to use this IT expertise to help Japan in the aftermath of the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami. When the disasters occurred, Skingle had been working full time for RedR for three years. “Part of my work was to help set up and support RedR’s IT infrastructure in their offices abroad, like in Pakistan or South Sudan. Because I had been on a few logistic courses, I was aware of the online community portals within the area of disaster relief.

“I quickly found the portal that was feeding into the search and rescue operations that were happening in the aftermath of March 11, and I volunteered to translate SMS texts that trapped Japanese were sending in, translating them into English to assist the non-Japanese speaking rescue teams.”

Skingle admits it was hard to separate himself, emotionally, from what was happening in Japan. “It is important to detach yourself, in whatever way you can, when you work in the humanitarian sector, to just focus on your particular function in the rescue process. But I’ve always wondered about some of the texts I translated — if the people were rescued or escaped — but I know I will never know. It’s just part and parcel of what you must accept when you feed information into relief efforts.”

The Nakasendo Challenge is Skingle’s first humanitarian effort physically in Japan and the British Japan400 site has officially recognized the project as a celebration of the 1613 opening of formal relationship between the two countries.

Since his first visit to Japan more than 15 years ago, Skingle makes it a point to visit Japan as much as possible. Most of his prior trips to Japan have been purely for pleasure, and were planned around the December kaomise (face-showing) ceremony at Kyoto’s Minami-za Theater. Skingle believes kabuki is the Japanese equivalent of Shakespeare, “and since Japanese history interests me greatly, kabuki is like a window on the past.”

Skingle is currently translating “Talks on Meiji Era Theater: Under the Lamp” by Kido Okamoto for the online digital library ScribeD. He also frequently writes about Japan for the online magazine Diverse Japan, covering historical topics like the Black Ships period in Yokohama or reviewing theater, like the recent play “Anjin: The Shogun and the English Samurai” when it made its debut at Sadler Wells Theater in London.

When he finishes the trip toward the end of the month, Skingle already has another trip to Japan booked, three weeks of intensive language study in Kyoto at the end of the year, perfectly timed to catch the opening of the kabuki season.

His life currently at a crossroads, Skingle looks forward to working on his Japanese conversation skills and preparing for a new path in life. “I’ve been working in the humanitarian sector full time now for six years, and it’s quite intense. I will focus on Japan between now and the end of the year, finish the walk and the trip to Kyoto, but then I’ll take some time off. I’m thinking of training in software engineering, to complement my IT skills.”

Whatever Skingle does and wherever he goes, he believes that Japan will be a part of him. “Though I will continue to live in London my passion for Japan will continue and I will keep returning to visit as long as I am able to. In London we say that a visitor sees more of London in two weeks than a Londoner does in a lifetime. Likewise when I come to Japan and afterwards chat with Japanese people many say the same; that I have been to places in Japan that they have never been, and sometimes never heard of, and that they don’t know anything about and have never seen kabuki.”

For more information on Skingle’s fundraising walk for RedR, see uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fundraiser-web/fundraiser/showFundraiserProfilePage.action?userUrl=TrevorSkingle .