Akita man funds scholarships for impoverished Russian students

by Osamu Hirabayashi

Kyodo

An Akita native who has personally funded scholarships for over 10 years to Russian students learning Japanese at a Vladivostok university says that he hopes the recipients will become a bridge to promote bilateral friendship.

Koichi Muto, 68, launched the scholarship program as well as grants for instructors at the Japanese-language department of the Far Eastern Federal University in October 2001, after learning that many of them were in financial hardship.

To date, the former restaurant owner has provided more than ¥7 million to help more than 200 students and instructors at the university, which is famous for an outstanding Japanese-language program that dates back to 1899.

All of the funds came from his personal savings.

“I’ve never heard of such a wonderful scholarship program at any other Russian university,” said professor Aleksandr Shnyrko, who heads the Japanese department. “Our professors and students are all grateful to him from the bottom of their hearts.”

Last November, the university sent Muto a formal letter of appreciation for his dedicated support to students and educators.

Muto explained that his actions were inspired by a desire to repay the kindness shown by a Russian woman to his father while he was imprisoned in a labor camp in the Russian Far East after the end of World War II.

His late father, Shigetaro Muto, was a soldier in the Imperial Japanese Army stationed in Manchuria when the war ended in 1945. Following Japan’s surrender, he was soon sent to a labor camp on the outskirts of Khabarovsk, around 800 km north of Vladivostok, and wasn’t released until the middle of 1947.

Muto’s father would often recount the hard labor he was forced to do at the frigid camp, and the little or no food the inmates received.

However, Muto said his father, who died in 1997 at age 81, also expressed deep gratitude to an elderly Russian woman who would go out of her way to provide him with food and other support during his internment.

In 1998, Muto set up a scholarship for Japanese high school students in his native city of Akita to commemorate his father. He has since, every year, awarded ¥720,000 each to four students in financial difficulties to support them throughout their three years of high school.

The idea of establishing a scholarship for Russian students began to form after he traveled to Vladivostok in 2000 as a delegation member from the Akita Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

During the visit, Muto learned that many students in the city were from financially strapped families and saw firsthand how little Russian educators are paid.

After returning home, he decided to begin offering financial assistance to talented students and instructors in the Far Eastern Federal University’s Japanese department.

“I want those who study the Japanese language to deepen (Russia’s) friendship with Japan through their work and research,” Muto said.

At the end of February, he granted ¥55,000 to each of six students and three instructors at the department.

Among this year’s recipients is Ekaterina Nazarenko, a 22-year-old senior.

“I was so surprised when I found out that there is someone like Mr. Muto. I will only use the money to buy Japanese-language books,” she said.