In a country 10,000 kilometres away from his home, Takeo Tainaka, 35, radically changed his life.
In early 2022, he was working as a management consultant in Japan. But the reverberations of the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine cut his career short. After learning from the war in local news, Takao decided to help Ukrainian civilians.
As a volunteer, he has been in different cities – from Kyiv, Kharkiv and Kramatorsk to the extremely dangerous Orikhiv and Bakhmut, a culmination in the Battle of the Donbas.
During his three weeks in Bakhmut in late January, Takao delivered food, evacuated civilians and built underground shelters for them – all under constant bombardment.
Having found his way in Ukraine and suffered tragic losses, Takao decided to join the International Legion of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Instead of boxes and shovels, he has been holding an assault rifle for two months now.
A LIGA.Life author met Takao by chance in a fast-food restaurant in Kyiv. His appearance, uniform, and a patch with the image of a samurai on his shoulder were eye-catching.
Takao speaks little English or Ukrainian. However, he knows some basic words and confidently says ‘Ya liubliu Ukrainu’ [‘I love Ukraine’].
Speaking mostly through Google Translate, the Japanese soldier told us his story.
"He is our samurai"
Takao learned about the war in Ukraine from the news in Japan. In May 2022, he packed his backpack and came to Kyiv from Hokkaido.
At home, Takao says, no one even tried to dissuade him from facing such a danger. He grew up without a father and, he adds, did not receive love from his mother and so left home at a young age to live alone.
"I have no family. I have only one good friend in Japan who supports me," Takao says.
Having travelled 10,000 kilometres, the Japanese decided to help civilians in any way he could – from supplying food to evacuating people under fire.
A few minutes later, as we left the fast-food restaurant, we met Andrii, a senior lieutenant in the International Legion.
"I met him in January in Bakhmut when he was a volunteer. He is our samurai," says Andrii with a smile, shaking Takao's hand.
"I was really touched by the kindness and warmth of many people. Ukrainians accepted me even though I didn't understand their language," the Japanese adds.
"The fighting was 200 metres away"
Arriving in Ukraine on his own, Takao had no one to rely on. He found several volunteer centres here by himself and worked with them.
This led Takao to one of the most dangerous places in Ukraine, the city of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region.
"Many interesting stories happened to me here. I was under fire and saw the battles between Ukrainians and Russians up close," he recalls.
"Many times I thought I was going to die. I went through a lot of things, and it's a miracle that I'm alive today."
In Bakhmut, Takao and other volunteers built underground shelters for civilians during heavy bombardment.
Wearing bulletproof vests and helmets, they pumped water from the ground, dug, and carried many things, leaving their hands covered with bloody wounds for a long time.
"I remember one moment from Bakhmut. We were digging for shelter all night long. Under constant shelling and fighting. The fighting was going on 500, 300, 200 metres away."
"We were absolutely happy when we finished the job."
"I have samurai blood"
Takao may have only one friend in Japan, but he has made many in Ukraine.
His Instagram is filled with videos from his volunteer trips, showing the joy of meetings, unity in work, and respect.
Some of Takao's Ukrainian friends were killed by the Russians. In many ways, it was this pain that made him join the International Legion.
"I did it not because I really wanted to be a soldier, and not because I wanted to kill. I just want to protect Ukrainians," he admits.
Now Takao serves as a rifleman in the International Legion, where thousands of foreigners are defending Ukraine, training all day long. He is yet to be on the battlefield, but is preparing for it.
Officially, Takao’s training in the Legion lasts six hours a day. That he does not know English or Ukrainian well does not hinder him, as the soldiers mostly communicate with gestures.
However, six hours of work is not enough for Takao. So he gets up at 6 am, puts on his bulletproof vest, runs 10 km, and exercises.
"After six hours of combat training, I take notes of what I have learnt. Then I study the language, the basics of soldier movement, and bullets. In the evening I run another five kilometres and train again.
"I never feel tired. I am Japanese and I have samurai blood in my veins," says Takao.
He spends the whole day wearing a bulletproof vest, and takes it off only when he goes to bed.
"I won’t regret it, even if I die"
Takao knows four other Japanese men who are fighting in Ukraine. While heroes in Ukraine, they are usually criticised at home.
"The decision to fight for Ukraine is perceived controversially among the Japanese," Takao says.
"There are those who support the defence of their country. But there are also those who believe that war does not lead to peace – this is the Japanese way of thinking," he explains, adding that the position is also influenced by the risk of nuclear war and Japan's tragic experience during World War II.
Due to the significant language barrier, some questions about Takao’s fate remain unanswered. One thing is certain, though: Takao has never regretted being here.
The Japanese soldier plans to stay in Ukraine after the war ends and start a trade business, selling Ukrainian craft goods in Japan.
When we finish talking, Takao man immediately goes for an evening jog.
"Every day, every moment, I have to train. I have to train physically and mentally all the time – just to be a good soldier."