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Japanese man donates 135 running shoe pairs to athletes in Tanzania who can't afford them

Yuichi Imai looks at photos of the handover ceremony he received from the Japan International Cooperation Agency, in Minamiuonuma, Niigata Prefecture, on April 23, 2021. In the foreground of a photo, the word "Asante" can be seen written with shoes. (Yukio Itahana)

MINAMIUONUMA, Niigata -- On April 16, a handover ceremony to give 135 pairs of shoes to young athletes in Tanzania who can't afford running footwear was completed in Dar es Salaam, in what marked the culmination of the charitable efforts of an athletics association vice president in this central Japan city.

    Yuichi Imai, 67, a resident of Minamiuonuma in Niigata Prefecture, had been working to send running shoes to junior track and field athletes in Tanzania. In 1994, he met Juma Ikangaa, a Tanzanian athlete who was a guest runner at a marathon held in the then town of Muikamachi, now part of Minamiuonuma.

    Their friendship deepened over the years, and Imai heard an earnest plea from Ikangaa, who told him about athletes in Tanzania who run barefoot because they cannot afford running shoes. He also told him how they get injured during practice and therefore can't do their best in competitions. Starting in 2020, Imai began calling for donations of used shoes and other items.

    He began receiving shoes from all over Japan. But he was hindered by the high customs charges to send the collected shoes to Tanzania. To solve it, he applied for and was selected to be part of the Japan International Cooperation Agency's "Smile for All in the World" program; the shoes were sent out in February and arrived safely in a delivery via the National Sports Council of Tanzania.

    At the April 16 handover ceremony in Dar es Salaam, the athletes who received the shoes expressed their gratitude to Imai by arranging the footwear to make the word "Asante," meaning thank you in Swahili.

    Imai received a joyful phone call from Ikangaa, who thanked him for the many shoes that came mainly from Minamiuonuma and also across Japan. Ikangaa told him they had helped remove obstacles, and given those young athletes a means to live with confidence, courage and hope.

    Receiving the good news, Imai said, "The shoes have finally reached the young Tanzanian athletes and that they no longer have to run barefoot. I want to thank all the people who helped (this program)."

    (Japanese original by Yukio Itahana)

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