Making people smile wherever he goes, a long-distance running legend from Ethiopia lives and works in a rural Japanese town!
Rich with nature, Kasama is a rural city about a two-hour drive from Tokyo. As Japan’s largest producer of chestnuts, it abounds with typical heartwarming Japanese landscapes unchanged since olden days, such as the approach leading up to the well-known Kasama Inari Shrine. The city is also famous for its style of porcelain known as Kasama-ware. About forty years ago, an Ethiopian potter fascinated with the style of pottery moved to the region, which led the long-term connection with the country that has lasted many years.
After Kasama had been named as the Host Towns for Ethiopian team for the Tokyo 2020 Games, President Derartu Tulu of the Ethiopian Athletics Federation, made a visit there in March 2019, also with the purpose of coaching students of an athletics class. It was Tulu who advised Mekonnen to work there as an SEA. “She told me that she had been very warmly received by the people of Kasama, which made me think that I’d really like to go there myself,” he recalls. Thus, he ended up coming to Kasama in that role. “The natural countryside is beautiful, and the people are warm and friendly. I could relax easily, and soon fell in love with Kasama.”
Ministers and Olympic medalists from Ethiopia shown while visiting Japan for the Kasama Togeinosato Half Marathon held in 2019. Running together with Mekonnen, they established good relationships with the people of Kasama.
Mekonnen’s role has been to draw the two countries closer together by acting as an intermediary between Ethiopia and Kasama City. His duties also include giving advice and making training plans for junior high school athletic clubs. His daily training plans set out target times down to the very second, leaving colleagues amazed at how precise they are.
“In Ethiopia, it’s normal to walk 5km or 6km to school. I encourage students here in Kasama to go to school on foot, and to take walks on the weekend to build basic physical strength. Currently because of the novel coronavirus, I cannot do the programs I originally prepared, but I’m hoping to give as much advice as possible to students through individual online lessons.”
Among Mekonnen’s students, some had the opportunity to join the training in Ethiopia. “Even when making the same movements, we only use a part of our bodies, whereas Ethiopian athletes use their whole bodies in a more dynamic manner. We finally came to understand what Mekonnen-sensei means by saying that it’s important to train with the whole body,” one of them says.
Having spent less than a year in Japan, Mekonnen still finds it hard to communicate in Japanese, but he says, “I can get by with gestures and laughing. I can talk with Japanese people through the heart. As well as taking part in the town’s marathon, Mekonnen participated in the Ibaraki Ekiden (long-distance road relay race) held in December 2019, representing Kasama City as a runner and coach. He is a popular person, who fits in well with the people of the city.
The day after the Ekiden race, an elementary school in the city included Ethiopian food in their school lunch menu to help students become more familiar with Ethiopian culture. Mekonnen, having been invited to the lunch, was so touched that he was brought to tears.
This summer, after finishing his contract as an SEA, Mekonnen will return to Ethiopia. “After going back home, I’ll continue to train Ethiopia’s next generation, and I also want to be the link that helps build an even stronger relationship between Kasama and Ethiopia.” This strong, kind Ethiopian hero is bringing the two countries closer together, both through his heart and through sports.
Kasama is Japan’s largest producer of chestnuts.
Each piece of Kasama-ware is characterized by the artist’s individuality. They create pieces that are free from tradition and formalities.
Kasama Inari Shrine, a symbol of the city, is included along the route of the annual Kasama Togeinosato Half Marathon.
Born in Ethiopia in 1964. Former long-distance and marathon runner, he competed in many World Championships, as well as twice in the Olympics. Three-time winner of the Tokyo International Marathon. Technical director of the Addis Ababa Sport Commission in the capital of Ethiopia.