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Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011

Latvian diplomat runs for closer ties

Baltic ambassador uses Riga, Tokyo marathons as springboard to bring countries together


Staff writer

Latvian Ambassador Peteris Vaivars, 48, has been an avid marathon runner since he was posted to Japan five years ago. He has participated in the Tokyo Marathon for four consecutive years since the inaugural event in 2007 and is preparing for the fifth marathon to be held Sunday.

News photo
Choice words: Latvian Ambassador Peteris Vaivars is interviewed at his embassy in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

Vaivars is also helping promote Japanese participation in the 21st Riga Marathon, which takes place in the capital of his home country in May.

Members of International Artists Center, a nonprofit organization that sets up international exchange programs, heard about the Vaivars' entries in the Tokyo Marathon and came to know through the envoy about the Riga Marathon, in which about 10,000 people from 45 countries participate each year.

This year, the group is working with the Latvian Embassy in Tokyo to arrange a tour for Japanese taking part in the Riga Marathon. The tour will include running the marathon and sightseeing in the old city center, which was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its abundant mixture of medieval, Art Nouveau and wooden architecture.

The ambassador plans to give prospective participants a virtual tour of the country through a lecture that will include highlights of the marathon and take them through the medieval city center.

Vaivars says the embassy would like to promote a sports connection between Japan and Latvia by having Japanese runners take part. "Sports connections are very good, as they can bring people together," he said.

Although the history and traditions of the small Baltic country are not well known in Japan, the ambassador says there are a lot of connections between the two that Japanese may not be aware of.

"The most famous example is the 'A million roses,' sung by Japanese singer Tokiko Kato, which is a song originally composed by Latvian composer Raimonds Pauls," he said.

Also, native Latvian musicians, such as violinist Gidon Kremer, cellist Mischa Maisky and conductor Mariss Jansons, have come to Japan many times to perform with Japanese musicians, he added.

"Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union after World War II, but gained independence in 1991. Since then, we feel that more and more Japanese people are gaining knowledge of our country because of our arts and music," Vaivars said.

Japan and Latvia also have two pairs of sister cities: Riga and Kobe, whose ties have continued for 36 years, and Rujiena — Vaivars' hometown — and Higashikawa in Hokkaido, which became sister cities three years ago. The cities have helped to promote cultural exchanges between the two countries.

Vaivars says that since early childhood, he has always loved playing sports, including basketball, cycling and track and field.

"My favorite was always basketball, and I've played it for 30 years," he said.

However, after being posted to Tokyo as the first ambassador of Latvia in 2006, he says he found it difficult to continue playing basketball, as he could not find a good group of people to play with. He also said that when he became 40 years old, he thought of switching to playing a simpler sport than the more physically demanding basketball.

Around the same time, he received a pamphlet from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government that invited diplomats to join the first Tokyo Marathon.

"I felt genki (energetic), so I thought 'why not try the marathon,' " he said.

After completing the full marathon of 42.195 km in 2007, he felt very good, and decided to sign up for the following year, and continued to do so for three years after that.

"I enjoyed the preparation, and I enjoyed running (the marathon)," he said.

For practice, he usually runs from his residence in Yoyogi-Uehara in Shibuya Ward, through Yoyogi Park, to the Yoyogi National Stadium and the Akasaka Palace, and then back to his residence.

Although he managed to finish one of the marathons in a little over 4 1/2 hours, he says that the finishing time is not so important for him.

"The best achievement (of the marathon) is to complete it!" he said.

Having lived in Japan for over four years, he says that he is really fond of the country. Vaivars loves Japanese literature, reading the works of Natsume Soseki, Junichiro Tanizaki and Haruki Murakami in Latvian and Russian translations.

The ambassador is scheduled to serve in Japan through the end of 2013.

"I can participate in three more Tokyo Marathons," he said, which would bring his participation in Tokyo Marathons to a total of seven times.

"It's a nice number, so why not try seven?" he said with a smile.



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