Samurai of the heart

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Nearly sixty Vietnamese orphans find a caring, doting father in Japanese singer and actor Sugi Ryotaro

Japanese singer and actor Sugi Ryotaro comforts his Vietnamese foster son Nguyen Van Tuan, who has been diagnosed with throat cancer. Tuan says his foster father's love "˜is his hope and encouragement.'

Nga, 30 years old, smiled shyly when her Japanese foster father asked her if she still "avoids" candy and cake like she did when he first met her 25 years ago in Hanoi.

"Do you still prefer keeping sweets in your hands whenever people give them to you?" Sugi Ryotaro asked her in Japanese during their reunion last month at the Birla Children's Village in the capital city.

His foster daughter just kept smiling.

She and three siblings had grown up in the village along with other orphans after their parents abandoned them; and their lives had taken a turn for the better after meeting with Ryotaro.

"My wife and I had brought many toys, cakes and candy for the children, and Nga did not look very excited with the gifts," the  popular Enka (Japanese music genre) singer and actor recalled.

It was not that the five-year-old girl did not like candy, but "I want to keep the sweets for my brothers," she told the Japanese visitor. When she added, "I need a family, not sweets," Ryotaro quickly walked out of the room to hide his tears from the little girl and his wife.

Nga's words moved the couple to become foster parents to many Vietnamese orphans like Nga.

So far, Ryotaro, despite his busy schedule, has adopted nearly 60 Vietnamese children. He remembers all their names and their singular characteristics.

He also never wastes any opportunity to see the kids, the eldest of whom is a 37-year-old Japanese teacher at the Vietnam Japan Cultural Association Foundation on Nui Truc Street in Hanoi. He sees them at least once a year when he visits the country to promote bilateral ties in his capacity as Japan's Goodwill Ambassador to Vietnam. 

"Children, in comparison with adults, have no power. Most of us, when we were children, were not able to do the things we wanted to do," said Ryotaro, who was born to a very poor, heavily indebted family in Kobe City, Japan. It was an experience that made him determined, since childhood, to earn as much as possible to repay the debt and support his family. It also opened his heart to others in difficult situations.

"Since orphans are the most unprivileged ones, I want to become their father to make them happier."

Daddy Sugi'

Chu Dinh Diep, director of Birla Children's Village, said Ryotaro provides each of his Vietnamese children with US$50 per month until they graduate from college.

In addition to the monthly allowance, he donates money and raises funds from the Japanese government and other organizations to improve the children's living conditions, for instance, to repair or build new kitchens and toilets.

Ryotaro has also brought from Japan toys and chalk-making machines to make high quality chalk for students to write with on black boards.

Diep said the Vietnamese children call him "Daddy Sugi" are very proud of him.

"They cannot stop telling people that Sugi is their father."
At the reunion this year, the 40th anniversary of Vietnam-Japan relations, Nguyen Ba Ly, a fresh graduate from FPT University with very high scores and has already found employment, gripped his foster father's shoulder tightly.

"I have lived in the Birla Children's Village since 7th grade and grew up with your support," said the young man, who has just got a job.

"Because of your love, I have always tried to do my best get the best scores. I will surely have a better life, but without you that would never have happened."

Nguyen Van Tuan graduated the same year as Ly, but has not been as lucky as his friend. He had just undergone his firstradiotherapy session after being diagnosed with throat cancer.

His face brightened up somewhat when Daddy Sugi beckoned and asked Tuan to sit next to him.

"Are you in a lot of pain?" Ryotaro asked the gaunt young man. "We worry about your health a lot, but don't worry, your mother and I will do anything to help you recover."

"It is very painful," Tuan replied. "But I think of how much you love me and I feel better. You are my great hope and encouragement."

Diep said Ryotaro helps to pay most of Tuan's hospital fees, but "It's not the money or materials, but Daddy Sugi's love that comforts the orphans the most."

"Even though he is busy in his home country, he always keeps himself updated about his children's lives, one by one, although they are many in number."

Expanding his reach
It is not only orphans who have received Ryotaro's love and affection. Many children with disabilities in Vietnam and other countries in the region, like Thailand and Cambodia, have benefited from his compassion.

He has invited blind children from the Nguyen Dinh Chieu School in Ho Chi Minh City to Japan to play for the Japanese Prince. When the Prince visited Vietnam, he met the children and listened to their music again.

Ryotaro began his charity work when he was 27, six years after making his debut as a singer, before which he had done several hard, menial jobs while pursuing his dream of becoming an artist. His charity work has since reached 20 countries in Asia and South America.

In all his work, Ryotaro has been inspired by his mother, who sacrificed herself for the family and taught him to help others.

"My mother is a woman of strong faith. She did not teach me through words, but through her actions and attitude."

"I also hope my children can learn from my actions and work, not to become great people, but happy, healthy people who know how to love one another."

Special love for Vietnam

Japan's Goodwill Ambassador says his connection with Vietnam began in 1983, when he got involved with some charity work in the US. At that time he was planning a charity event for US veterans of the Vietnam War. However, the atmosphere and feeling among the people in the US towards the Vietnam War didn't seem very favorable, so the event did not take place.

Then in 1986, when he was performing in China, the Japanese Ambassador to Vietnam invited him to hold a charity concert in Vietnam. Through that relationship, a group to study Vietnam was set up.

In 1989, he was able to hold a charity show in Hanoi, and meet the then Prime Minister of Vietnam, who supported his idea to establish the Japan-Vietnam Cultural Exchange Association. The association was set up two years later.

He said he had developed an extremely profound interest in Vietnam because "the country had suffered through many wars against foreign invaders. These wars resulted in a huge number of normal people becoming war victims. And in times of peace, many still suffer from a pretty hard life."

Ryotaro, who has acted in more than 1,400 films and is particularly famous for his samurai roles, was the first foreigner to receive the Friendship Medal, the highest Vietnamese decoration given to a foreign national, for his outstanding contributions to cultural exchange, solidarity and friendship between the two countries. Ryotaro, who has been Japan's Goodwill Ambassador to Vietnam since 2005, is also the founder and chairman of the Asian International Children's Film Festival.

What he wishes for Vietnam is: "I hope that no matter how developed the country will be in future, Vietnam and the people will never look down upon and lose their traditional, true values."

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