Japanese expat group cleans up Hanoi's Sword Lake

By Duc Trung   June 7, 2023 | 04:30 pm PT
Japanese expat group cleans up Hanoi's Sword Lake
For a decade now, a group of elderly Japanese has gathered every Sunday morning to pick up garbage scattered around Hanoi's iconic Sword Lake.

Last Sunday morning, Tohru Ninomiya gathered a group of around 20 people, mostly Japanese and Vietnamese, at Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc Square beside Sword Lake.

After a few minutes of greetings, everybody put on their gloves to walk around the lake and pick up garbage.

Ninomiya came to Vietnam 14 years ago and quickly fell in love with Hanoi and Sword Lake, also known as Hoan Kiem Lake.

But he was a bit upset by the garbage he saw strewn around the iconic landmark.

"The lake would be even more beautiful without all the trash around it," the 74-year-old Japanese man recalled thinking upon his first visit to the lake in the early 2000s.

After living and working in Hanoi through 2011, Ninomiya finally decided it was time for him to "do something to thank Vietnam."

He thought about his favorite place in town, Sword Lake, and asked five other Japanese if they would volunteer with him to collect garbage.

Photo by VnExpress/Duc Trung

Tohru Ninomiya stands by Sword Lake in Hanoi, June 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Trung

The first day, all six were worn out under the scorching Hanoi sun, but when they finished the job, they all felt the experience had been "enjoyable."

"Over time, picking up trash every Sunday morning around the lake become our weekend habit, and we're still doing it," said Ninomiya, who has long-since retired as CEO of a Japanese firm based in Hanoi's Long Bien District.

The number of members of the group is always in flux because anyone can join at anytime. At its peak, the group had 60 members.

So far, most of the members are Japanese people living and working in Vietnam's capital city.

One of the earliest-to-join members of the group is Nguyen Thi Minh Phuong, a Senior Researcher at the National Center for Hydro Meteorological Forecasting, who began volunteering with Ninomiya in August 2012.

"As foreigners, if they can do such things to keep the city clean, we [local people] should do much more," said Phuong.

She is now the founder and administrator of a Facebook group called "Lam sach dep Ho Guom voi Ninomiya" (Keeping Sword Lake clean with Ninomiya). She often uses the platform to post videos and photos of the group's activities to raise public awareness.

For the past 11 years, come rain or shine, members of the group have showed up at the lake every Sunday morning to pick up trash. Only the pandemic was able to stop them for a while.

"Sometimes, people see us picking up trash, and they decide to just give us a hand without being asked," Ninomiya said.

He added that anyone can take part in the activity. As long as they show up at the lake around 8 a.m. on Sunday morning, they will be given tools to pick up trash.

"I've been participating for two months now," said Sahashi Takuya, a senior manager at Mitsubishi in Hanoi.

Photo by VnExpress/Phuong Nguyen

A Japanese volunteer picks up trash at the Sword Lake, June 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Phuong Nguyen

"Vietnam has been changing rapidly but public awareness on keeping the environment clean has not caught up with the country's speed of development. Vietnam and Japan are like brothers, so we want to make some contributions," Takuya said.

After the garbage is collected, members of the group then sort if before taking it to the proper disposal areas.

Phuong tasks herself with taking care of all the recyclables.

She cleans the trash, and then brings it to the Green Life project, which is run by its young founders and volunteers in Hanoi. They collect all solid waste that can be recycled or reused.

"Though the scale of the group is not large, we do hope what we've done could more or less help reduce the trash discarded into the environment, and even create jobs for some people," said Phuong.

"It's a pity that the volume of trash we've been collecting over the past decade has not decreased. So what matters is not picking up the trash, but not littering. When you pick up the trash yourself, you understand why you should not throw trash around," Ninomiya said.

These days, he has Vietnamese volunteers, especially young people, cover most tasks of the group because he believes that keeping the environment clean cannot be done in one or two days but must be passed down through the generations.

"Japan is clean because the children are taught at an early stage of their life, both at home and at school. They are asked to keep their personal space and their public space neat and clean," he said.

"I really hope what I did will have positive impact on the young generation in Vietnam."

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