THREE and a half years ago, a young man decided to go to Tokyo's Shinjuku district and pick up trash. His example launched what has since become a nationwide cleanup movement of over 100,000 people.
Yuji Arakawa, 24, is currently visiting middle and high schools around the country, encouraging students to be bold and live in a positive way.
"I picked up rubbish and dead rats. There was more trash than I'd expected," Arakawa told third-year students at Shimizu No. 4 Middle School in Shizuoka in June.
"But the toughest thing was the cold looks I got from others. Some people threw away cigarette butts in front of me, and someone even spat on me," he said.
A survey conducted before Arakawa's speech found that about 70 percent of the third-year students had concerns about the future course of their life. Eighty percent said they would like to change themselves.
Arakawa had once felt that way.
When he was a student at Tokyo's Sophia University, Arakawa--originally from Osaka--lived an affluent lifestyle thanks to the financial support of his parents.
However, he had no dreams for the future nor confidence in himself. He skipped classes and went bar-hopping. Even in his third year of study, he did not want to start looking for a job.
Fearing grave consequences if his malaise continued, he resolved to somehow change himself.
He came up with one idea--cleaning up the dirtiest place in the country.
In November 2006, Arakawa started picking up trash outside the east exit of JR Shinjuku Station every day from 6 a.m.
At first, he was harassed by some people and received cold looks from others. On his way home, he cried openly.
However, as time passed, other people gradually began helping Arakawa.
First, a homeless man joined him in picking up trash.
After one month, a man who had abused Arakawa when he first started his daily cleanups said to him, "Thank you for making this place clean."
After three months, 50 people were joining Arakawa on his daily litter patrol.
In 2007, Arakawa rallied for people across the nation to make a special effort to pick up trash on May 3, choosing that date as in Japanese it can be pronounced "gomi," which also means trash.
He put out a call on the Internet for people to follow his lead, and when the day came round, 444 people nationwide picked up trash in their local communities.
On May 3 the following year, 1,500 people took part.
Arakawa got a job in March last year, and since then it has been impossible for him to pick up trash every morning.
However, the May 3 cleanup day concept continues. Last year, 15,534 people picked up trash on the day and this year, the number of participants increased to 103,036.
"I was just useless. But making a little effort continuously meant my life became fun," Arakawa told the students in concluding his speech.
"The important thing is to have the courage to take a step forward," he said. Arakawa has delivered his message in more than 300 schools.
A 14-year-old student stood up in front of the class to thank Arakawa on behalf of her schoolmates. She said later: "I'm not good at coming forward, so my hands were shaking. But after listening to his speech, I want to take on a challenge."
"Students have many concerns. They have to choose the direction they will take after graduation," said the teacher who invited Arakawa to visit the school. "So I wanted them to know that anyone can change if he or she works on something harder than anyone else."
Arakawa plans to publish a picture book about his experiences in September, to be titled "Hanbun Oshiri no Ojiisan" (Elderly man with half his bottom on show).
The title refers to the homeless man who was the first to give a hand picking up trash, and is Arakawa's way of expressing his thanks to the saggy-trousered gent.
-The Yomiuri Shimbun/Asia News Network