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In lycra and online, foreigners are doing their bit for Tohoku

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Four years on from the catastrophic events of March 2011, Japan’s foreign community is continuing to show its support for Tohoku in myriad ways. This week Lifelines introduces two examples of how foreign nationals are pitching in and having fun in the process.

Lovers of classic rock will probably be familiar with the Moody Blues’ atmospheric hit from 1967, “Nights in White Satin,” but they may not be aware of the Knights in White Lycra (KIWL), riding to the rescue on their bicycles!

The Tokyo-based charity group came together over a festive meal in December 2012, when a group of British friends decided to combine their love of cycling with raising money for a good cause.

“The specific aim of KIWL is to leave a legacy to this country that some of its members may only temporarily call home, and raise money for sustainable community-based projects,” explains member Robert Williams. “Clearly, the 3/11 tragedy was very specific to this goal, and this is where our support has gone so far.”

The group’s main activity is an annual sponsored long-distance bike ride. In April 2013, a group rode 320 km from Tokyo to Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, over three days, raising ¥2.7 million for the Save Minamisoma Project, which was helping to supply the town with fresh food and water.

“The first blizzard for 40 years forced us to abandon our final day, but we returned in June to complete the ride,” says Williams.

Last year’s test of endurance took place in May, with KIWL covering 500 km over four days from Tokyo to Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture. Their efforts resulted in a ¥5 million donation to the Japan-based NPO group OGA for Aid, helping to fund the construction of a small vegetable processing factory.

“This factory is now a sustainable business, selling produce and creating livelihoods for its employees,” notes Williams. Impressed with OGA’s efforts to help agricultural recovery, KIWL have chosen to support them again with their 2015 ride.

“After much consideration we chose OGA’s Place to Grow project,” says Williams. “The emphasis of Place to Grow is on agricultural education of the region’s children, providing a physical place for them to go after school and learn from the area’s older generation about the farming process.”

It is hoped this project will help foster future careers in the agriculture sector, as well as providing a haven for young people still dealing with the stress of daily life in cramped temporary housing.

On May 20, a multinational team of some 30 riders, including several women, will once again embark on the journey up to Minamisanriku. Although the team for this year’s endurance ride is already in place, anyone interested in getting involved in future events is urged to get in touch.

“We are hoping to stage our first ever one-day fund-raising cycle ride later in the year, which will be a gentle 50 km ride along one of Tokyo’s rivers, where all-comers can participate,” says Williams. In addition, the group hosts regular fundraising events throughout the year, such as pub quizzes and wine tastings.

KIWL is also keen to hear from companies and individuals who might be interested in sponsoring the May 2015 endurance ride. Details can be found on the group’s website.

Just in case anyone has the idea that KIWL are all elite athletes, Williams is keen to set the record straight.

“Our members range from beginners to very experienced cyclists. A large number have long said goodbye to their youth! The members are simply doing what they love and simultaneously raising charity funds, knowing they are improving people’s lives.”


Maryam Britton, a video director with a Turkish and Iranian background, has made her home in the Tohoku region since 2010. After graduating with a master’s degree from Tohoku University of Arts and Design last year, she started working for a Sendai-based media company.

“It started at the initiation of Sendai city, and then AriTV, an Internet broadcast television station and media company, took charge of the project,” Britton explains. “We introduce one subject a day, either with photos or video, accompanied by text. It is directed at a foreign audience as much as Japanese citizens, and so from the very beginning it had both Japanese and English versions.”

The aim of the Revival Calendar is to simultaneously bring awareness of recovery efforts and promote tourism in the region.

“One of the greatest contributions we can bring in terms of revival of the tsunami-affected areas is to help the local businesses grow and flourish,” says Britton. “We want to show the great aspects of Tohoku. For example, I made a series of videos to introduce local crafts from the Akiu area of Miyagi Prefecture. There are also videos of local gourmet food, sightseeing spots, tourism events and festivals.”

While Britton is the only foreign national employed at the company, she says that many foreign students in the Tohoku area have been involved as project volunteers from the outset, helping to give them a voice.

“We also have a sister project called Fantasia Tohoku, in which foreign nationals write about Tohoku culture in nine different languages on nine different Facebook pages. This is also to promote Tohoku’s tourism for recovery purposes, and it is run by Tohoku University foreign students.”

Britton points out that the Revival Calendar project has become a bridge to link foreigners in the community with the revival efforts, both helping to make them aware of what is going on and encouraging them to get involved.

“Most of the information online is only in Japanese, and even though most foreigners can speak sufficient Japanese, it is not the same when it comes to reading and writing,” says Britton. “We try to transcend that barrier with the Revival Calendar’s English website. I appear in my own videos to make them relatable to a foreign audience and make them feel like they are indeed a part of the community.”

Knights in White Lycra: www.kiwl.net. OGA for Aid: www.ogaforaid.org. Revival Calendar (English): en.re-tohoku.jp. Fantasia Tohoku: www.ari-tv.jp/fantasia. Do you know about a citizens’ group or of any other helpful resources? Comments and questions: lifelines@japantimes.co.jp