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Kid brothers who made charity bike trip across Japan call for Kobe quake to be remembered

Masamichi Yazaki, right, and his brother Naomichi, center, are pictured in Otaru, Hokkaido, during their fundraising bicycle trip across Japan in this Aug. 15, 1997 photo provided by their mother, Yumiko Yazaki.
The bicycle that Masamichi Yazaki rode in the fundraising bicycle trip is seen on display at the Disaster Reduction and Human Renovation Institution in Kobe's Chuo Ward on Jan. 8, 2020. (Mainichi/Yusuke Komatsu)

KOBE -- As the 25th anniversary of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake approaches, two brothers who cycled across Japan as young children to raise funds for supporting quake victims spoke of their hope that the bicycles from the 1997 tour will help to preserve memories of the disaster.

Masamichi Yazaki, 33, and Naomichi Yazaki, 30, survived the disastrous quake that left 6,400 people dead, and later went on the fundraising cycling trip when they were still just 10 and 8 years old, respectively. Their journey took place over July and August 1997, spanning some 3,300 kilometers in 44 days. It was heavily covered by the media, helping them raise 3.3 million yen in donations.

When the magnitude-7.3 quake struck Kobe and its surrounding areas in western Japan early on Jan. 17, 1995, the two brothers were asleep in their bunk bed on the 10th floor of a public housing complex in Ashiya, Hyogo Prefecture. The tremors destroyed household items, and their mother Yumiko was temporarily trapped under a chest of drawers. Naomichi vomited repeatedly in what appeared to be a reaction to the devastating shaking he had just experienced.

While the family was largely unscathed, some of their friends and acquaintances died. The Hanshin Expressway and other structures toppled, transforming the cityscape. With their housing complex designated as partially destroyed, the family was forced to spend about three months at an evacuation center.

One day the following year, an elderly man living in one of the temporary housing units set up in the brothers' elementary school playground told Naomichi, "We've stolen your playground from you. I don't have money, maybe all I can do is die here."

Naomichi responded, "I'll collect money for you." Then he brought it up with Masamichi. After the brothers thought over what they could do, they decided to call for donations by cycling around Japan. A TV charity show they saw inspired the plan for their journey.

Initially their parents and other adults around them opposed the idea. But the brothers were undaunted. They trained by doing exercises including pedaling over the course of a year before finally setting off from Ashiya during their summer break on July 19, 1997.

Masamichi Yazaki (Photo courtesy of his mother Yumiko Yazaki)
Naomichi Yazaki (Photo courtesy of his mother Yumiko Yazaki)

Their journey, however, was not without difficulties. When a typhoon hit their route, they were blown over with their bikes, and at least one of the boys came down with a fever along the way. Nevertheless, they managed to visit various spots, including Mount Unzen-Fugen in Nagasaki Prefecture in southwestern Japan, where pyroclastic flows had left 43 people dead or missing in a 1991 eruption, and Okushiri Island in the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido, which was hit by a deadly tsunami following a 1993 earthquake. Their trek spanned some 3,300 kilometers in total, and wrapped up on Aug. 31, 1997.

Their adventure was highly publicized by newspapers and on the internet, bringing them 3.3 million yen in donations from across the country. The brothers gave the whole amount to the Hyogo Prefectural Government and the Ashiya Municipal Government.

Recalling his feelings at the time, Naomichi said, "I achieved something I hadn't even imagined, and became confident in myself." His mother Yumiko, 67, who encouraged her sons as she accompanied them on the trip by car said, "The journey made me realize the potential my children had."

The bicycles the brothers rode for the trip are on display at the Disaster Reduction and Human Renovation Institution in Kobe and at the Bicycle Museum Cycle Center in the Osaka Prefecture city of Sakai, as part of items passed down in memory of the 1995 disaster.

Now, Masamichi works at the Japan office of a foreign company, while Naomichi is employed by a major IT firm in the United States. Both of them worry about the memory of the Great Hanshin Earthquake fading from people's minds.

"Jan. 17 is a day when people can take the importance of life and the preciousness of being able to lead a normal life to their hearts. I want everyone to pass on the lessons learned from the Great Hanshin Earthquake, without thinking of it as just an event in the past," Masamichi said.

(Japanese original by Daisuke Okazaki, Osaka City News Department)

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