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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Olympic bridges

Nobuyuki Iwai

Feb. 6, 2018

The Host Town Initiative is a program that connects communities across Japan with countries that will compete in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

Nearly 300 communities across Japan are participating in the Host Town Initiative. They will welcome athletes from 82 countries and territories, and build new connections with the world.

Tsurugashima in Saitama prefecture is participating in the program, and has been designated as host for Myanmar.

The city will introduce Myanmar cuisine on restaurant menus and host traditional Burmese festivals.

Children at an elementary school are getting an usual treat for lunch: Burmese chicken curry with lentil soup.

"I loved it!" says one girl.

In October, the city celebrated its designation as an Olympic host town for Myanmar. A woman from Myanmar greeted an auditorium full of children.

"Hello," she said in Burmese.

"Hello," the children responded in Burmese.

A delegation from Myanmar went to the city to inspect facilities and decide where athletes will train.

“The host town initiative means athletes from Myanmar will come here to practice," said a member of the Myanmar delegation. "And we hope Japan will also be sending coaches to Myanmar. In this way, the program will contribute to the development of sports in our country.”

“As a host town, we hope that beyond culture and sports, we'll also be able to forge economic bonds," said the Vice Mayor of Tsurugashima.

But Tsurugashima's designation goes far beyond the Host Town initiative. Behind it is one resident who has dedicated much of his life to building bridges with Myanmar. NHK World's Nobuyuki Iwai reports.

94-year-old Seiji Imaizumi's relationship with Burma, and then Myanmar, dates back more than 70 years.

At the age of 20, he fought at the Battle of Imphal, near the Burmese-Indian border, a severe defeat for The Imperial Japanese Army. Tens of thousands of soldiers lost their lives.

Imaizumi narrowly escaped death himself. He says he owes his survival to a Burmese civilian.

“British soldiers came and asked him: ‘are there any Japanese here?’ The Burmese man replied ‘no’ and kept me hidden. He made sure they were gone, and told me: ‘Hey soldier, the British soldiers have left. You’re okay now, you can come out.’ So I came out from under the bed, and I even received some food."

"I was able to come home thanks to the Burmese people," he says.

After the war, he settled in Tsurugashima. He started a new life as a dairy farmer.

As the years went by, he felt a growing urge to thank the people of Burma. He still cherishes a handkerchief a young woman gave him during the war.

In 1988, Imaizumi set up a scholarship fund for Burmese students, using his own money.

“The recipients of the scholarship who come to Japan are excellent people," he says. "My hope is that through this program, they come to see each other as classmates and that they end up developing strong connections.”

The fund has already supported about 180 students. Many of them connected with each other during their stay in Japan. Back in Myanmar, they're now working to make their country a better place.

It has led to the restoration of an elementary school in Myanmar and the distribution of stationery donated by people in Tsurugashima.

The city highlighted these activities in its host town application.

Among the recipients of Imaizumi's scholarship is the interpreter for the Myanmar delegation that visited Tsurugashima. After graduating, Thi Thi Lei decided to stay in Japan, and became a physics lecturer.

“I’m so happy that Tsurugashima was chosen as the host town for Myanmar, because the recipients of the scholarship owe so much to this city," she says.

“I'm so happy to witness the improvement of the situation in Myanmar, and the deepening of friendly ties between Myanmar and Japan," Imaizumi says.

From the ashes of war to a spirit of friendship and peace, Imaizumi's bridge-building endeavor continues.