Sri Lankan miner of school textbook fame dies of COVID-19, mourned across Japan

Courtesy of Mitsumura Tosho Publishing Co.
Pages of a 1996 school year edition of a Japanese language textbook for fourth graders in elementary school that introduced miner W.A. Podi Mahaththaya and his family members.

NEW DELHI — A man dubbed “the best-known Sri Lankan in Japan” has died from COVID-19 in his native country.

Welikala Appuhamilage Podi Mahaththaya, 74, was a worker in a Sri Lankan mine who was featured in a Japanese language textbook for elementary schools in Japan.

The text for fourth graders was published by Mitsumura Tosho Publishing Co. over a 10-year span starting in 1992.

The episode used in the textbook was originally part of the children’s book “Ippon no Enpitsu no muko ni” (Beyond a pencil), which was written by Shuntaro Tanikawa and published by Fukuinkan Shoten Publishers, Inc.

The book describes the daily life of people who are involved in the many aspects of making a pencil, from the materials to the manufacturing process.

Courtesy of Podi Mahaththaya’s family
W.A. Podi Mahaththaya

In the textbook, Podi Mahaththaya is introduced with a shirtless photo of him mining graphite, which is used for pencil leads.

The impact on elementary school students in those years was significant.

Soon after the textbook appeared with the episode, five to six letters were sent to Podi Mahaththaya day after day.

Over the years, more than 100 students, schoolteachers and travelers visited Sri Lanka to meet Podi Mahaththaya, who welcomed the visitors, guiding them to a mine and serving them meals.

This year on Aug. 30, he was hospitalized. He passed away on Sept. 3.

A Japanese man who had visited Podi Mahaththaya three years ago received a notice about his death from the family. He then wrote a condolence message on his blog. The information was widely shared on social media, with the news trending on Twitter.

Messages of condolence and mourning for Podi Mahaththaya continue to be posted on social media sites in Japan, even more than 100 days after his death.

Many of the people who posted messages seem to be in their 30s and probably learned about him in that school textbook.

Podi Mahaththaya’s eldest son, Samantha, who was also featured in the textbook, recalled that his father often told him that he loved Japanese people and he was also loved by them.

Samantha said that if he has an opportunity to visit Japan, he wants to talk with Japanese people who learned about his father through the textbook and share memories of his father.