Ukraine crisis: Japanese man, aged 75, opens free café in Kharkiv to feed hungry civilians

In a silver lining that has appeared in the dark cloud of the Russia-Ukraine war, a 75-year-old Japanese man from Tokyo has brought a community together in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv to open a free café for the battered and hungry residents.

Fuminori Tsuchiko returned to Ukraine as a humanitarian volunteer after the war began. Screenshot courtesy: Reuters video on YouTube

A video report from the news agency Reuters, posted on YouTube this morning, told the story of Fuminori Tsuchiko from Tokyo, whose café has people queuing up at the door to get their free food. The eatery, named “Fumi Caffe”, has been opened with online donations from Japan and with the help of a Ukrainian friend of Tsuchiko.

Fuminori Tsuchiko was moved by the plight of the starving people. Screenshot courtesy: Reuters video on YouTube

In the video interview with Reuters, Tsuchiko explained in English that he came to an underground station in Kharkiv in May 2022 — that was a little over two months after Russia invaded Ukraine — and saw many hungry people huddled there. The people he saw were “refugees, children, and babushka”, he said, and all of them “very, very hungry”. He began to live at the underground station and somehow, in the middle of the war, found a way to distribute food to the starving civilians.

Kharkiv, the second largest city of Ukraine, saw heavy Russian bombing within a few days of the start of the conflict on February 24, 2022, forcing the Ukrainian civilians to take shelter in the underground, where they might find some safety.

A BBC report dated March 1, 2022, said quoting local Ukrainian officials that Kharkiv had suffered a deadly and cruel attack, in which several non-military targets — the Kharkiv opera house, concert hall, and government offices in the Freedom Square — were hit by Russian bombs.

Kharkiv residents queue up at Fumi Caffe. Screenshot courtesy: Reuters video on YouTube

As he joined the displaced civilians at the underground station, Tsuchiko was deeply moved by their plight. He slept on the station floor, near the entrance turnstiles, for about seven months, and carried on trying to feed people as much as he could.

Fuminori Tsuchiko shows the area of the Kharkiv metro station where he slept for months. Screenshot courtesy: Reuters video on YouTube

The absolutely remarkable thing about Tsuchiko was that he had no reason whatsoever to be in Kharkiv during the Russia-Ukraine war, but he stayed because he wanted to help. Tsuchiko had come to Ukraine as a tourist in February 2022, according to a report by CNA, and then he was urged by the Japanese embassy to leave Ukraine as Russia threatened to invade. So he left Ukraine and went to Warsaw, Poland, but then he returned two months later when the war was well under way. This time, he came as a humanitarian volunteer.

Fuminori Tsuchiko serves at Fumi Caffe. Screenshot courtesy: Reuters video on YouTube
Kharkiv residents get their free food at Fumi Caffe. Screenshot courtesy: Reuters video on YouTube

For all those months, Tsuchiko lived there at the metro station, sleeping, eating, and sitting together with the Ukrainian people. Eventually, with donations from the Japanese and the help of a Ukrainian friend, he set up Fumi Caffe, which now feeds an estimated 500 people daily for no charge.

A visitor at Fumi Caffe says how thankful she is. Screenshot courtesy: Reuters video on YouTube

The Reuters video showed the gratitude that local Ukrainians feel. One woman, a visitor to the café, expressed how thankful she was that “there are such sincere people with an open heart and a soul, who sacrifice their life and time to help and give hope”.

A post yesterday on the Facebook page of the ‘Embassy of Ukraine in the Republic of Uzbekistan’ showed Fuminori Tsuchiko at his café storefront, with the ‘rising sun’ national flag of Japan that had various goodwill messages scribbled on it by people. The post informed: “A 75-year-old volunteer from Japan opened a free café in Kharkiv. The man sold his house in Japan and plans to stay in Ukraine.”

Fumi Caffe storefront with the 'rising sun' flag of Japan. Photo courtesy: Facebook/Embassy of Ukraine in the Republic of Uzbekistan

The Facebook post had a mention of the kind of food served at Fumi Caffe: “The menu includes soups, borscht, porridge, pasta, meat, as well as pastries, pies, buns, donuts, with garlic, [and] tea.” The post said that people who worked in the area or were just “random passersby” dropped in often. Children were very welcome at Fumi Caffe, said the post, and were gifted candies and small toys.