Kawahara's microblog page. (Internet photo)
Japanese volunteer Keiichiro Kawahara, who started his round-the-world tour in China earlier this year, says he is shocked by the threats he has encountered in the southern province of Guizhou amid the country's current outpouring of anti-Japanese sentiment and demonstrations but also says he is determined to continue his trip to help the victims of the recent earthquake in Yunnan province.
Kawahara has already made news in China this year. When his bicycle was stolen in February in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province, he posted a picture of his bike on his microblog and local police and internet users helped him to find it within three days. Kawahara appreciated the help but the unusual efficiency of the local police was criticized by Chinese netizens who accused them of favoring foreigners over locals.
The number of fans following his microblog has since exceeded 10,000 but Kawahara sensibly did not update his microblog for five days after the Japanese government bought and nationalized three of the disputed Diaoyutai (Diaoyu or Senkaku) islands in the East China Sea last week, triggering anti-Japanese demonstrations across China. In contrast to the atmosphere which saw Kawahara get his bike back a few months ago, in the last week cars of Japanese brands have been torched in China without fear of retribution.
On Sunday evening, a telephone interview with a reporter was interrupted when Kawahara surrounded by a group of people yelling insults at him in Japanese. He managed to escape unharmed but distressed, returning to his hotel with the help of his Chinese friends.
Kawahara was in Guiyang, the provincial capital of Guizhou, to wait for a Japanese friend who wanted to join him to help in relief efforts after the Yunnan earthquake which occurred on Sept. 7 and caused at least 80 deaths and injured 730 people. He decided to help when he saw the disaster on television in Wuhan with friends from other countries. He left from Xi'an on Sept. 11 bound for Guiyang with 80 kilos of medicines, clothes and food donated by local volunteers, who helped him to bag and box the items at the train station.
Kawahara did no elaborate on his plans in Yunnan and said he wishes to remain low profile. "Many Chinese people helped Japan after the March 11 earthquake [last year]. It's our turn to help them," he said.
His family are reportedly concerned about his safety but have not asked him to return home. On the street in Guiyang, two men charged toward him wearing menacing expressions. He responded to their threats in English and a local resident came to his aid, telling him to leave quickly. He relayed his experience to his family, who despite being concerned also felt he has the ability and experience to take care of himself, since he has traveled to over 20 countries.
On the evening of Sept. 16, Kawahara was at a restaurant in Guiyang close to where a group of young men were playing billiards. When they discovered Kawahara was Japanese, they started to gather in front of the restaurant and jeer at him. One of his Chinese friends said some of them threatened to kill him.
As he left the restaurant in the company of the owner, around 20 men surrounded him and attempted to beat him. He thought they were local college students but his friends said they were hooligans. It was already dark but some of them appeared to be holding weapons, Kawahara said. His Chinese friends tried to help by shouting that he was Korean, but they were unable to get away. He finally made his escape after a friend's mother came to pick them up by motorcycle.
"They decided to hurt me even though they did not know what kind of person I am," Kawahara said after he returned to his hotel, yet he says the threats and intimidation will not deter him from his plan to travel to Yunnan. The 27-year-old man has volunteered at a number of orphanages, homes for senior citizens and animal protection agencies since his arrival in China. Bearing a sign on his bicycle that reads "Cheers to Japan and thank you to China," he hopes to be a volunteer providing medical service for areas with poor sanitation.
"I want to make friends with people around the world and show people my positive attitude and perseverance," Kawahara said. He says he has met many Chinese students who chat about Japanese manga with him excitedly, citing characters even he was not familiar with. Kawahara had studied nursing in Japan for three years before planning his round-the-world tour. He quit his job at a hospital at the start of this year.