Tokyo (AsiaNews/Agencies) - Kyoko Takayasu, a North Korean of Japanese ancestry who risked her life to escape her reclusive homeland, doesn't take her freedom for granted; she uses it to help the less fortunate in Nepal. Takayasu, a 29-year-old who now lives in Japan, has donated her savings to help build the Saraswati English School in Labe, Nepal. The village is a day's travel by both air and automobile from the Nepalese capital of Katmandu.
Takayasu managed to save the money for the project while juggling a job in a pachinko parlor during the day, while taking night courses at Toyo University in Tokyo. She came up with the idea for the school after watching a TV program in 2006 about Kazumasa Kakimi, a Japanese national who has been involved in aid programs since 1993 that assist isolated mountain villages in Nepal. Takayasu, then a third-year student at a night junior high school, was moved by Kakimi's efforts and managed to finally meet him the following year through an acquaintance.
When she told him about her desire to build a school in Nepal, Kakimi was taken aback. It appeared to be an unlikely undertaking, considering her own personal story of struggle. "She was young and was not from a rich family," Kakimi, 74, recalled. But he decided to work as a go-between with a prospective Nepalese village in need of help after listening to what she had to say. He was impressed by her determination to help others. The school, which gives classes in English, opened three years ago.
Since 2008, she has entrusted money with Kakimi for the school project during his annual summer return to Japan. So far, she has given about 1.5 million yen (about ,000), enough to cover most of the school's costs. Prices in rural Nepal are a fraction of those in Japan. A teacher's monthly salary, which is funded by the students' monthly fees, costs the equivalent of just several thousand yen. About 150 children, ranging in age from 2 and a half to 12 years, attend the school with its seven classrooms.
This year, the brick school building was reinforced and more blackboards and chairs were added. She plans to donate two personal computers next year. Takayasu grew up in north Hamgyong province, in northeastern North Korea, where she excelled in sports. She won the regional tournament for weightlifting while a junior high school student. She also excelled in tae kwon do.
Despite her sports prowess, it was impossible for Takayasu to climb higher in North Korean sporting circles because she was from the "wrong family." Her grandfather was a resident Korean living in Japan who returned to North Korea with his wife, a Japanese woman. At a young age, her parents divorced, making her life that much more difficult. So at the age of 19, she defected from North Korea to China, crossing a frozen river along their shared border. She hid in the house with a male relative in northeastern China for a year before finally making her way to Japan.
With no relatives to turn to in Japan, Takayasu worked very hard, learning to speak Japanese. She also needed to work to send money to her relatives back in North Korea. Despite the difficulties she initially faced, Takayasu adjusted to her new life in Japan. A born leader, she served as the president of the student council while she was attending junior high and high school classes at night. The 2006 TV program on Kakimi's work in Nepal couldn't have come at a more perfect time. She was by then comfortable with her life in Japan and was looking to expand her horizons.
"Watching Nepalese children on TV conjured up memories of my own childhood," she said. "I wanted them to have dreams as well." Takayasu visited the village for the first time in December 2010 to attend a ceremony to commemorate the opening of the children's school. When she exited the car after arriving at the village, she found herself surrounded by a crowd of smiling children who greeted her by chanting her name, "Kyoko, Kyoko."
She said she will never forget that moment and how much she was touched by their warm welcome. Takayasu plans to return to Nepal in spring to see how the children are doing. She hopes that her Japanese peers will realize how fortunate they are living in a country with so many opportunities.
"I wanted to live my life, so I left North Korea," she said. "If a person works very hard in this country, others notice it and it makes them happy. That will lead to new encounters. I find it wonderful and want Japanese youngsters to know that."
Takayasu obtained Japanese nationality last fall and just recently purchased a new condo in Tokyo. She took the last name of the person who first rented her an apartment after her arrival in Japan.