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On mission of gratitude, Japanese swimmers make it to Taiwan

2011/09/19 18:46:19

Taipei, Sept. 19 (CNA) Six Japanese swimmers completed a 150-kilometer relay across the West Pacific Monday and shared their country's gratitude for Taiwan's aid to victims of the massive earthquake and tsunami that crippled Japan on March 11.

The six swimmers started off from Japan's Yonaguni Island, directly east of Taiwan's northeastern coast, Saturday morning, and reached Tofu Cape near Nanfangao in Yilan County at 9:50 a.m. Monday.

They received a warm reception, with the Yilan County government firing ancient cannons, and elementary school students performing dances to welcome them.

The group, led by former competitive swimmer Kazuya Suzuki, brought with it letters of thanks from the governors of the three prefectures -- Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima -- most affected by the twin disasters.

During the 52-hour journey, the group had to overcome the peripheral effects of two typhoons near Okinawa, high waves, and potentially irritating marine creatures.

Suzuki said the swimmers suffered jellyfish bites and ran into whales, tortoises and what they thought were sharks before realizing they were dolphins.

The swimmers rotated every 30 minutes and did not stop at night, and some members of the group said they almost succumbed to a lack of sleep but made it to the end on sheer willpower.

Suzuki said he was at first unclear about why Taiwan did so much to help Japan, donating 20 billion yen (US$260 million) in disaster assistance, the most of any individual country, with even President Ma Ying-jeou and hundreds of celebrities helping raise money.

But after learning more about the history of relations between Taiwan and Japan, Suzuki said he decided to initiate the swim to show his gratitude and sow the seeds of long-lasting exchanges.

The youngest of the six swimmers, 21-year-old Kouhei Yamada, whose native Minamisoma was directly affected by the disaster, was the center of attention among Japanese media.

Apart from showing his gratitude to Taiwan, Yamada hoped the crossing could serve as an encouragement to his fellow Japanese to rise up against the tragedy.

Another of the swimmers, Masaya Shimizu, said that while the swim could not narrow the physical distance between Taiwan and Japan, he hoped it could shorten the psychological one.

(By Worthy Shen, Tsao Heng and Scully Hsaio)