Tony Cetera is 79 years of age and has bad legs, but that doesn’t stop him helping the homeless whenever he can.
His philosophy and process are simple and unstructured, but if everyone followed his example, there’s no denying it would make a difference.
“Just try to do good,” he says. “Even if you just give one can of oil sardines to the guy on the train who hasn’t bathed for a week, your mission for the day is done.”
Cetera, who is originally from Philadelphia, first came to Japan in 1962 to work as a life insurance and mutual fund salesman, but soon got drawn into the much more exciting and exotic world of movies and martial arts after meeting Omer Yusuf, aka Yusef Turko (“Yusuf the Turk”), an actor and well-known figure in the pro-wrestling world at that time.
It was through Yusef that he got his first film job and was introduced to Rikidozan, one of the most famous pro-wrestlers ever and the father of the sport in Japan.
Cetera says he became friends with Rikidozan and briefly worked for him as a PA until his untimely death in 1963, when he was murdered by a member of the yakuza at the age of 39 in a Tokyo night club.
Although he was active as an actor in films, TV dramas and commercials for many decades, Cetera’s peak period was in the ’70s, when he appeared in a number of high-profile movies, such as the infamous cult sci-fi film “Prophecies of Nostradamus” (1974), which was withdrawn due to its gruesome depictions of nuclear attack survivors.
He also acted as a foreign gangster alongside legendary actor Bunta Sugawara in the yakuza classic “Yokohama Underworld: The Machine-Gun Dragon” (1978), in which Sonny Chiba also made a cameo appearance.
Strangely, it was through working as an actor that Cetera first became inspired to help the homeless.
“It was about 35 years ago and I was working on a film set in Ueno and the production company ordered all these bento boxes for us to eat for lunch,” Cetera recalls. “There were way too many for the actors and crew to eat and they were just going to throw them away. It seemed such a waste.
“Nearby in the park I saw some homeless people who looked like they hadn’t eaten for days. So I just took the leftover bentos and walked over to the homeless and started handing them out. I don’t really know what motivated me to do it, it just felt like the right thing to do,” he says. “That is how it started.”
Since then Cetera hasn’t looked back and has been doing work with the homeless ever since, but in his own ad hoc, eccentric style — he wears a white crash helmet, even when being interviewed in a cafe, with the word “volunteer” hand-written in katakana across the front above an image of the Japanese flag.
“The Japanese are very good people and have always been very kind to me over the long time I have lived in this country,” he says. “I want to repay that kindness by helping homeless Japanese.”
Despite his ripe old age, Cetera likes to keep active and works as an English teacher and sometimes as a wedding celebrant. He is also married with four children.
He says he always keeps a couple of cans of sardines in oil in his briefcase, because you never know when you may come across a person who lives on the streets.
“Always, if you look around, you will find at least one homeless a day, but most people don’t want to see them and the Japanese homeless don’t advertise it,” he says. “You just get the feeling that this person is in need.”
Cetera says that over the 35 or so years he has been working with the homeless with his Help the Poor Mission Tokyo, he has seen a lot of volunteers come and go, and he believes that to have staying power, a volunteer needs to love what they are doing.
“If you don’t have love in your heart it doesn’t work, you won’t be back,” he explains. “Just as you love your grandchildren, your kids, your wife, you love the homeless.”
He adds that his wife, Kayoi, has been a constant source of support assisting him with his charitable works, and that he couldn’t do it without her.
“You could say I am the Lone Ranger of the homeless, accompanied by my Indian friend, who is my wife, Tonto,” he jokes.
Tony Cetera’s Help the Poor Mission: 080-5383-6266
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