• Chugoku Shimbun

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Boasting more than 40,000 followers on Twitter, Teimuraz Lezhava, charge d’affaires of the Embassy of Georgia to Japan, deftly uses his Japanese skills to pull off a unique public relations campaign for his home country.

The diplomat, 32, proudly calls himself “Hiroshiman,” having first come to Japan with his family in 1992 — immediately after Georgia declared independence from the Soviet Union — and spent the subsequent four years in the eastern part of Hiroshima Prefecture.

At the heart of his unusual connection with Japan is one local doctor in Hiroshima whom he feels forever indebted to. The doctor once told him his story of the atomic bombing in 1945 of Hiroshima and, more than 75 years on, Lezhava is hoping to attend the annual Peace Memorial Ceremony this summer.

Sandwiched between Europe and Asia, Georgia is abundant in nature and has a rich culinary culture, which has made it a popular tourist destination.

Ever since he was appointed to his current position in August 2019, Lezhava has been actively tweeting about Georgia to promote his home country in Japan.

His internet popularity surged in December 2019 when he uploaded what later became a viral picture of himself and his embassy colleagues munching on a new gyūdon beef bowl that a franchise chain said was inspired by a traditional Georgian dish known as shkmeruli.

Lezhava is originally from Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, and briefly migrated to Hiroshima when he was 4 years old. He has spent a combined 20 or so years in Japan, which has contributed to his proficiency in Japanese. His humorous Twitter postings, including those quoting from the traditional rakugo style of storytelling, have resonated a lot with his Japanese followers, making him the most popular foreign ambassador to Japan in terms of the number of followers.

As a Hiroshiman, Lezhava proclaims his support for Hiroshima Carp and Sanfrecce Hiroshima, professional baseball and J. League soccer teams, respectively, based in the prefecture.

In 1992, Lezhava — along with his family — came to Japan to live in Hiroshima, when his father, Alexander, who was majoring in genetics, started studying at Hiroshima University. Lezhava spent his childhood there until he turned eight.

“I’ve lived in other places, too, but I feel most at home in Hiroshima,” Lezhava says. That’s because, he explains, “it’s by a stroke of luck, almost a miracle,” that he was able to come to the prefecture in the first place.

Georgia was in disarray soon after its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The atmosphere that pervaded the nation in the 1990s was “dark and depressing,” as Lezhava puts it.

But there was one Japanese man who, despite the unfolding chaos in Georgia, helped Alexander’s study program in Japan materialize.

Enter Tetsuji Kadotani, 88, who was operating an obstetrics clinic in Hiroshima city. To this day, Lezhava calls Kadotani the “savior of my family.”

Just like Alexander, Kadotani happened to be studying genetics. In 1978, when he attended a scholarly convention in the Soviet Union, he struck up a friendship with Alexander’s father who was at the time teaching as a professor at a university in Tbilisi.

When Kadotani was invited to lecture in the Tbilisi university in 1984, he was reunited with the professor who invited the Japanese doctor to his home and asked him to help arrange the exchange program for his son, Alexander.

“He welcomed me with such warmth that there was no doubt in my mind that I would help him,” Kadotani recalls.

But once he returned to Japan, Kadotani realized to his dismay that, with Japan having no formal diplomatic ties with Georgia yet, there was no way he could telephone or mail people in the country. He was unable to get started on any of the paperwork necessary for Alexander’s exchange program.

“I was completely at a loss,” Kadotani recalls.

But a miracle happened in September 1985, the following year, when Kadotani was aboard a plane on his way to an academic conference to be held in the now-defunct East Germany. On that day, Kadotani changed his intended flight at the last minute after it had been fully booked. And once on board, he swapped a seat with a man who insisted on being seated next to his fiance.

The series of coincidences ultimately led to Kadotani getting seated next to a Hiroshima University professor who happened to be heading to Tbilisi. Leaping at the opportunity, Kadotani explained his situation, gave the stranger his contact information and begged him to visit Alexander’s father.

This eventually helped open up the application process for Alexander’s exchange program, paving the way for him to come to study at Hiroshima University after his graduation from a Tbilisi university.

Soon after their relocation to Japan, the Lezhava family, barely able to speak Japanese, found their life largely dependent on the support provided by Kadotani and his wife Yasue, 88. The couple not only regularly dined with the family, but even helped deliver Lezhava’s younger brother at their own obstetrics clinic.

“They even bought us randoseru (school bag), which was quite expensive for us. They gave us more support than a family can hope for,” Lezhava says.

Later in his life, Lezhava would relocate to the city of Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, and the U.S. state of Ohio before graduating from Waseda University in Tokyo. After his stint working for Japanese food manufacturer Kikkoman, he returned home to Georgia in 2015.

Shortly before his departure, he visited Kadotani, who unexpectedly told him about his experience on Aug. 6, 1945.

On that fateful day of the atomic bombing, Kadotani, then a second-year student in one of Hiroshima’s local junior high schools under the former educational system, was supposed to be out on duty as part of the student mobilization.

But, as luck would have it, he was granted a day off instead and was at home when the city was bombed. He narrowly escaped death. Had he been mobilized, he would’ve been walking near the epicenter of the blast at around 8:15 a.m. when the bomb hit.

A total of 369 students from his school, including first-years deployed to demolish buildings to create evacuation space, perished.

A week after the atomic bombing, Kadotani braved his way through the carnage to go where his school used to be. Memories of what he encountered along the way — the stench of death shrouding Hiroshima Station, scattered corpses and lingering traces of fire on logs — still remain etched deep into his brain.

Kadotani’s account not only shocked Lezhava but also gave him a perspective.

“It was thanks to a series of coincidences that I was able to come to Japan. How lucky I was,” he recalled himself thinking. “Then it hit me that I, too, have responsibility to make sure peace will be passed down.”

In Lezhava’s mind, Hiroshima’s tragedy drew a parallel to Georgia, which was historically prone to conflicts and had been repeatedly subjugated to domination by other ethnic groups.

The most recent war took place in 2008 in the form of a military conflict with Russia over South Ossetia. Lezhava, then a university student vacationing at Tbilisi in summer, felt chills running down his spine as he saw, first-hand, tanks driven across his town.

Based on his own experience, Lezhava strongly believes that “it is during peacetime that we have to work hard — really, really hard” to ensure sustained peace.

“The tragic events of Hiroshima happened just 76 years ago. We have to always stay on our toes and try to learn about the war and history of conflicts,” he says with determination.

Today, the diplomat says he wants to attend this year’s annual peace memorial service as a representative of Georgia and visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. He wants to pay homage there and reunite with Kadotani.

“As ambassador, I haven’t been able to see him in person yet. Mr. Kadotani is my grandpa in Japan. I want to introduce my wife and children to him,” Lezhava said.

This monthly feature focuses on topics and issues covered by the Chugoku Shimbun, the largest newspaper in the Chugoku region. The original article was published March 6.

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